Photo by Sarah Mercier.

The muezzin admitted to Kazeem that he had indeed converted to Christianity. Then, the muezzin began to tell Kazeem about Christianity and asked Kazeem to pray with him.

"I heeded the call of the muezzin to prayer," Kazeem said. “Only this time the muezzin called me to pray to Jesus Christ.” Kazeem decided, then and there, to convert to Christianity as well.

"I became a Christian because the Christian message is simpler than the Islamic message. Christianity asks you to believe in Jesus and be saved. Islam expected me to do many things: pray several times a day; fast during Ramadan; take a trip to Mecca; and so on in order to be saved. Yet only Christianity offered me the assurance of salvation and heaven," explains Kazeem.

As easy as it was for Kazeem to convert, it was that much harder to face his family. Like many Nigerians, Kazeem comes from a traditional Muslim family. "I was born into Islam" he says. He reports the majority of his family consider themselves to be Sunnis, but his uncle was a member of the Ahmadiyyas, a Pakistani Shiite order.

Kazeem states that his aunt, a devout Muslim, instigated his mother to persecute him after his conversion. He reports the two became extremely argumentative and tried to persuade him to reconsider his decision — perhaps to protect Kazeem from the same punishment experienced by the muezzin. But Kazeem’s father was more understanding. Kazeem relates that his father suggested that both Christians and Muslims serve the same God. And that seemed to end the family dispute.

Since his conversion, Kazeem reports that things have changed dramatically in some areas of Lagos. In his neighborhood, which is comprised of Muslims, Christians and Animists, many people have converted to Christianity. He says 50 percent of his family and extended family have converted to Christianity. He says that even his mother, who was hysterical over his conversion, has become a "white-garment Christian,” mixing Biblical teachings, sacrifices, and rituals with African ceremonies in a Pentecostal format.

While many Christian converts change their names to reflect their new-found faith, Kazeem decided to keep his Arabic-Muslim name. “My name reminds me of the journey I took several years ago to Jesus Christ,” he says. “It reminds me where I came from.”

Oladipo “Ladi” Kukoyi, assistant professor and physician of psychiatry and family medicine at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, believes that the reason many Muslims convert to Christianity is simple: they are looking for hope in an economically deprived area. He admits that although there are no good numbers that exist to substantiate this theory, it was his experience, and the experience of many of his Nigerian friends.

Ladi relocated to the United States after spending much of his life in Yoruba-land, Nigeria. Like much of the West African population, the people of Yoruba often practice several religions, and no single one can be declared their universal belief. In recent history, many Yoruba people have converted to Islam or Christianity. Ladi, who comes from a prominent Muslim family, explains that it is not uncommon to find Nigerian families comprised of both Muslims and Christians who live together and get along quite peacefully.

But Ladi, a Christian, admits there are those Muslims who consider all non-Muslims “infidels.” “The predominantly northern, hard-core militant Muslims consider the rest of us infidels and promise to carry on till all of Nigeria is Muslim and ruled by Shariah law. They quote their ancestor, Othman Dan Fodio, a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, who promised not to rest till the Quran touched the Atlantic — in Lagos. This tension exists clearly in northern Nigeria, where there are frequent outbreaks of riots,” he said.

Ladi remembers the Miss World tragedy of 2002, when dozens were killed in northern Nigeria during rioting that erupted after a newspaper suggested the Prophet Mohammed would have approved of the Miss World beauty contest. Violent protesters in the mainly Muslim city of Kaduna, which is 375 miles northwest of Lagos, burned Christian churches and ran amok through the streets stabbing, bludgeoning and even burning innocent bystanders to death. By the time the killing spree ended, the death toll in the host town was estimated at 105 with a further 521 injured taken to hospital. “Fortunately,” says Ladi, “in western Nigeria where we come from, [Muslims and Christians] coexist peacefully 99 percent of the time.”

For Sudan-born former Muslim, Yaz Ahmed, religion was more about following rules than about spirituality. The 25-year-old graduate student in biological sciences at the University of Iowa says, “You either did it — their way — or you went to hell.” By the time Ahmed reached his early 20s, he felt like he had heard enough.

Ahmed started reading a lot of philosophy and books on shamanism. The humanistic tenets and universal acceptance struck a deep chord, and he turned away from the religion of his youth and homeland. Ahmed now describes himself as a “logical humanist” that does not ascribe to any particular faith.

“The world doesn’t make sense — at least not from a religious viewpoint. All I see is religion separating people, instead of uniting them,” he says. “I see it all as so ridiculous and so absurd.”