This is the final installment on this topic. Thanks for your interest throughout this long series.
The fourth bridge is suffering and forgiveness: A former Muslim I knew, and refer to as “Paul,” suffered martyrdom in Afghanistan. Blinded in infancy when a local doctor prescribed the wrong medicine, he memorized the entire Qur’an (four-fifths the New Testament) in Arabic (not his mother tongue) by age fourteen and was subsequently invited to an annual, Qur’anic recitation contest in Saudi Arabia, where he won first prize. But since only Saudis had historically achieved such distinction, that year two were awarded first prize: Paul and a Saudi citizen!
In 1964 he enrolled at the Blind Institute in Kabul. A keen mind and unusual linguistic ability took him rapidly through classes at the Institute and Paul then applied to Kabul University where he completed a degree in law. While taking Braille at the Blind School he studied English and begun listening to the Lutheran Radio Station, Voice of the Gospel from Addis Ababa.
One day Paul asked Betty Wilson what Christians meant by the substitutionary death of Christ and added that he had accepted Jesus while listening to the radio programs. Mrs. Wilson asked if he was aware this could result in execution since Islamic Law called for death to apostates. He said, “I have calculated the cost and am ready to die for Christ, since he has already died for me.” He was also spiritually nurtured by Pioneer Christian missionary, the late J. Christy Wilson, Jr., pastor of the international church in Kabul before it was bulldozed to the ground in 1973. Despite warnings from various sources that if anyone destroyed the building they would answer to God, Muslims appeared at the gate. Having heard about an “underground church,” but not understanding the English idiom, Afghan police dug down twelve feet to find it.
On that day the Government of Muhammad Zahir Shah was overthrown in a coup and intense suffering followed: Kabul was virtually destroyed; millions of refugees fled; a communist government was installed; the Taliban seized power and decades of war have ensued. One Afghan refugee told Wilson: “Ever since our Government destroyed that Christian Church, God has been judging us.”
Yet in the midst of opposition, Paul helped translate the New Testament into Dari (Afghan Persian), his mother tongue. Finally, to avoid persecution he fled to Pakistan in 1985 and had a fruitful ministry among Afghan believing refugees, but others as well. When he was in exile I invited him to my city of service in Southwest Pakistan where he spoke boldly and brilliantly to Muslims about Jesus. Then, on March 23, 1988 he was “tricked” (God makes no mistakes) into returning to Afghanistan, kidnapped, tortured and killed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord.
His tongue was reportedly cut out before being shot because he refused to stop speaking for his Lord. Others too have given their lives and God uses this for his glory. Christians in Islamic contexts are often persecuted. Throughout history suffering has been part of Christian witness and vital to the growth of the church. Dietrich Bonheoffer said that “when Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” Josef Tson put it this way: “When the ambassador of Christ speaks the truth in love, and meets death with joy, a strange miracle occurs: the eyes of unbelievers are opened, they are enabled to see the truth about God” The grave speaks louder than life itself.
In 1968 my wife Carol and I went to Pakistan and spent the next twenty-three years in an ancient city with a current population of over four hundred thousand. Although there is still no church building in this city, there are some Jesus followers. We had two sons in Pakistan, one of whom was born very near to where Osama bin Laden was killed.
We were not prepared for what lay ahead: We had never met a Muslim (there weren’t any up there in northern Canada at the time that we knew of) and never taken a course on Islam. We had intended on going to India, but after our visa was denied, ended up in Pakistan. However, we were both from good farming stock and knew the value of hard work without a lot of luxury. Most important, we had learned in a small Canadian Bible College to feed ourselves on the Word. Over time we found the words of Amy Carmichael to be true: “You need a good sense of humor and a poor sense of smell.”
At first I operated a reading room for Muslims who would come in for discussion and some of them I signed up to take a Bible correspondence course run by another organization. But in order to do more careful follow up, we decided to start our own Bible correspondence school, still going under Pakistani national leadership. Through this media, hundreds of Muslims throughout the country took courses designed to progressively take students to the next level. The goal was to help them first see their need of salvation through Christ and then grow in him. Some wrote from afar, saying they had come to faith by studying the Bible. Locally, some also believed, and with those fellowshipped on a regular basis. We studied the Bible together, prayed together on our knees, and every day memorized one verse in Urdu.
On November 20th, 1979, our family experienced an attack that shows the importance of forgiving those who harm you. 1979 has been called the “Watershed of fundamentalist Islam”: Islamic militants in Iran took over the United States Embassy in Tehran and held American hostages for four hundred and forty-four days. The Soviet Union moved into Kabul with all their military might and occupied Afghanistan for years. From then on Islamism accelerated across the Muslim world.
Listening to the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) on that morning in November, we heard that the Grand Mosque in Mecca had been seized by unknown gunmen. It was during the annual pilgrimage as a million Muslims milled around the black-robed Ka’aba. Not overly concerned, I drove down town for some early-morning shopping, and was greeted by those who recognized my old, green Land Rover. But shortly after returning home, a friend came by to warn us of angry processions in the city. The announcement made by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran that this was the work of Americans and Jews spread rapidly throughout our city.
At the time, we were living in a duplex with an American family, but had a missionary couple from Canada as guests in our home. They had stayed over the night before as workers in the area had spent the previous day in prayer. Hearing the sound of a mob, we quickly closed the doors, and put the women and children in a back room. (Our own sons were at boarding school in the north of Pakistan.)
Gathered in an inside room, we listened as our Land Rovers were assaulted and the doors of our house were pounded with bricks. Soon the attackers broke in on the other side of the duplex and continued their rampage inside. We knew they would soon gain access to the entire building and concluded we might as well go out and face them. The door between the apartments was stuck, and when I forced it open, the attackers fled. We followed them out and saw there was about two hundred college students, some of whom I knew personally.
Realizing we were no match against so many, I took a different approach. Holding my arms in the air, I said in Urdu: “Hey guys; I’m Canadian.” They responded that there was no difference, set our vehicles on fire, and destroyed whatever they could. As black smoke billowed upward, a kind neighbor called the cops. Police came in with sirens blaring, and since Martial Law was in effect, so did military personnel. Some were arrested and jailed. Four hundred miles away in Islamabad, the American Embassy was burned to the ground, and two lives were lost.
Three days later, the truth came out that seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca had been carried out by over three hundred Muslim radicals, mostly from Saudi Arabia. They had been followers of a man called Juhayman who claimed to be the “Mahdi” (Messiah). With the help of French sharp shooters the rebels were eventually flushed out and those who survived the bloody battle were promptly executed.
When we forgave the attackers, as Christ taught us to do, some neighbors embraced me and said: “Mr. Larson, now we understand the difference: You have forgiven your enemies but we tend not to forgive those who unjustly harm us.” It took years for our family to get over this incident, because every time we heard a joyous wedding party, it reminded us of the attack. Yet, after that experience we had a greater burden for Muslims, and after that experience, we saw much more fruit. God used our suffering and willingness to forgive for his glory.