Archive for August, 2012

There is haunting familiarity to current news coming out of Pakistan.  Rimsha Masih has been accused of burning the Qur’an, and along with her parents, being held in protective custody.  That she is from a poor Christian family is not surprising, but that apparently she is mentally challenged with Down’s syndrome, and may be as young as eleven years old, makes this case all the more troubling.

As in the past, response to blasphemy has been mixed.  Condemnations have poured in from around the world, but there have been outcries within Pakistan itself.  WAF (Women’s Action Forum) is “outraged at the total inhumanity” of the men who instigated action against a disabled little girl, and President Asif Zardari has demanded an investigation.  Under the circumstances, it is doubtful she will be charged, but even if the case never comes to trial, the family cannot return home and Christians will continue to live in fear.

This particular incident was sparked in mid-August while Rimsha was cleaning up in a village outside Islamabad.  It is alleged that she burned pages of a children’s religious instruction book inscribed with verses from the Qur’an.  On Friday of that same week, near the end of Ramadan’s holy month, people were inflamed by a local imam who shamed them into action.  He said their prayers were useless unless they avenged this vile crime.  In the rampage that followed, several homes were set on fire, and hundreds of Christians fled for their lives.

Blasphemy Laws date back to the colonial days of the mid-19th century in the Indian subcontinent.  They were put in place by the British Raj to contain religious hatred between Hindus and Muslims.  Three decades ago they were revived and amended by the military regime of Zia ul-Haq as part of the Shari’ah (Islamic Law).  Today, in Pakistan’s penal code, 295-A forbids stirring up religious feelings, 295-B forbids defaming the Qur’an, and 295-C forbids denigrating Muhammad.  To offend in these areas is far more serious than blaspheming God or even murder.[1]

Though ostensibly instituted to assuage the “faithful,” these laws have often been used as a vicious vendetta against minority groups.  My research shows that between 1986 and mid-1994 over one hundred Ahmadis were accused of violations, four Christians were charged and murdered, and others have died in mysterious circumstances. Even Muslims have suffered under their jurisdiction.[2]

So far, Blasphemy Laws have been untouchable and no leader is allowed to critique them.  Those who tried were either killed, or for the sake of their career, remain silent.  No less than the Governor of the Punjab province, Salman Taseer was gunned down in January, 2011, for opposing them.

On the one hand, the cruelty and injustice against Rimsha Masih could move Muslims to action.  They might even argue from their holy book that something needs to be done: “… Verily never will Allah change the condition of a people unless they change it themselves” (Qur’an 13:11).  On the other hand, Dr. Paul Bhatti, brother of the late Shahbaz Bhatti, murdered last year because he opposed the laws,[3] asks a penetrating question: “Even if the law changes, who will change the mindset of the people?”

The problem is these laws simply allow people to carry out their evil desires and justify their violence.  If not blasphemy, it might be for the sake of honor, reclaiming lost property, or through fear that Muslims are leaving Islam for another religion.  The biblical analysis of such behavior is unflattering and blunt: “… the heart is “desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9) and “… feet are swift to shed blood” (Romans 3:15).

It is true that mad mullahs are inciting hatred during Friday prayers and the Pakistani government is not protecting minorities.  We are obligated to speak out against such cruel injustice in support of the powerless.  Our response as Christians, however, must demonstrate compassion and evangelistic zeal.  The mission of God is compelling: “If our gospel is hid it is hid to them who are lost (II Cor. 4:3).  Like everyone else, Muslims must be changed from the inside out.  We pray that God will use this incident to help Muslims see their need of a Savior.  Only the gospel has the power to change the Muslim mind set.

[1] Interestingly, in neighboring Afghanistan, people were far more upset when American troops burned the Qur’an than they were when Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales went on a rampage and killed innocent villagers.

[2] Islamic Ideology and Fundamentalism in Pakistan: Climate for Conversion to Christianity?  (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1998) finds evidence that the harshness and rigidity of Islamism is driving some Muslims to Christ.

[3] Those who killed this Christian have never been brought to justice.

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Barriers and Bridges

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.

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The third bridge is prayer and faith: After 9-11, we should have taken seriously what Jesus said about prayer.  There are roughly four times when he turned to his disciples and commanded them to pray for something and the first time (Mt. 5:44; Lk. 6:88) was “Pray for those who persecute you.”  Perhaps even greater things would be happening among Muslims if over the past eleven years, evangelicals had prayed harder for those who persecuted them on 9-11?  We do regularly pray for the troops who work in Islamic settings, and so we should, but we need to pray for Muslims and those who work with them.

Faith means a belief that Muslims need the gospel more than anything else; it is faith in the power of the gospel.  Zwemer’s association with the SVM (Student Volunteer Movement) and zeal to reach Muslims one hundred years ago is noteworthy.  A professor of mine, Paul Pierson said the SVM, organized in 1888, had a great motto: “The evangelization of the world in our generation,” but he said it began stumbling for two reasons: “a desire to tackle the problems of Western society coupled with doubts about the validity of world evangelization.”  By 1940 “it had ceased to be a factor in student’s religious life and in the promotion of mission in the churches.”  It was finally disbanded in 1969.  Of course we need to think about race, abortion, Darfur, homosexuality and Aids, but we also need to think of how much Muslims need Christ.

We get excited when Arabs chant for democracy, but even if it comes, the same hopelessness remains because Islam cannot grant salvation from sin and cannot give genuine hope. Every morning, after reading my Bible on the tread mill and working out, I open the curtains, lie down on my bed and pray.  There are two street lamps across the street and they remind me to look to the Light and walk in the light of God’s word. Occasionally, light also shines through, but I know it has no light of its own.  Muslims make much of the moon because tradition says Muhammad touched down there on his night journey and allegedly gave the call to prayer.

Islam can be likened to the moon, beautiful in a sense, but in the end, dark, empty and lifeless.  A friend tells about leaving his old Bible behind in Afghanistan, but that later, he was able to return and find it.  When the Taliban took over they had shot at it, but since Afghans (and many other Muslims read from right to left, the bullet went through the back, all the way through the New Testament.  This is precisely what Muslims do with our Bible.  They accept quite a bit from the Old Testament, but they deny the very heart of the gospel.  In one very brief sentence the Qur’an denies the cross: “They killed him not” (Qur’an 4: 157).

Moreover, faith is needed to believe Muslims are coming to Jesus and that many more will come in days and years to come. In North Africa, Berber Muslims are already responding as never before.  A story was widely circulated of a certain village in Algeria where everyone dreamed of Jesus one night, and the next morning all believed in him.  This is home to the great Christian church fathers, like Augustine and Tertullian, so they should believe, but another reason is due to cruelty by fellow-Muslims. In the end they felt they had nothing left in Islam to hang on to.

In Bangladesh, where not too many years ago, an American medical doctor by the name of Vigo Olsen, decided to produce a Bible translation that communicates with Muslims, using Allah (Muslim name for God), and “Isa” (Muslim name for Jesus), rather than Hindu terms.  That undoubtedly helped Bengali Muslims understand, but is certainly not the only factor.  Another reason was because of Muslim-on-Muslim violence in 1971 as West Pakistani Punjabi military personnel turned on defenseless East Pakistani Bengalis in burning, looting, raping and killing.

In Pakistan, my dissertation Islamic Ideology and Fundamentalism in Pakistan: Climate for Conversion to Christianity? found evidence that Muslims are coming to faith in Pakistan because of what the Taliban and others are doing in the name of religion.  A veteran missionary, back from Pakistan not long ago, confirmed this in private correspondence.  He said: “It would take a book to tell of other experiences that happened every day … the Taliban are driving people to look beyond Islam … an elderly [man] with a long white beard said, ‘I have read the teachings of Jesus when someone hits you on the cheek, turn the other cheek!’” The worker told of an imam who preaches Jesus from the mosque where he serves.  We hope and pray this will be true more and more.  This is the hand of God in the glove of human circumstances.

In Iran, we need to look through the eyes of faith, not just see the country as the greatest danger to world peace.  I have two books on my shelf that tell the story, quantifying conversion, even as recent as forty years ago.  One is Ten Muslims Meet Christ; the other is Ten Thousand Muslims Meet Christ (it could be ten times that many).  Iranian Church leaders say the best missionary was Ayatollah Khomeini because of his harsh, rigid and cruel ways.  They say he showed us what Islam is like and drove Muslims away from it.  A recent Christianity Today article, “The Other Iranian Revolution” talks about how Iranian Muslims are embracing the Messiah.

Finally, in Syria, despite the tragedy of so many horrible deaths, workers speak of unprecedented opportunities to witness as refugees stream across the border into Turkey and Lebanon. One wrote that ten thousand have heard the Good News in the last few months.  They stated that for a long time Syrians have been complacent to the gospel but now it seems God is drawing them in the midst of tragedy and suffering.


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