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zealotReza Aslan grew up in a nominally Muslim family in Northern California, and converted to  Christianity at age thirteen.  After two decades of rigorous research into the origins of Christianity he concluded he had previously been duped, and returned to Islam (xix).  He now claims to be more devoted to Jesus than ever–a “committed disciple” (xx) of the “real Jesus”–not the “Jesus of faith.” Aslan thinks his portrait of Jesus, hidden behind layers of theology and centuries of interpretation, may in fact be more accurate than what the Gospels present (xxviii).   His book is for the general audience with the express purpose of prying the historical Jesus away from the  Christ of Christianity (120, 215-216).

Zealot recently shot to the top of the best seller list due to a notorious interview on Fox News, where Lauren Green began by asking the author why a Muslim would write about Christianity’s founder.  After that the discussion went downhill, recording the anchor’s ignorance (bias?) of Islam, and the author’s vigorous self-defense as scholar, who just happens to be a Muslim.  Throughout the tense dialog, Aslan repeated his credentials three times: he has four degrees and is an “expert” in the history of religions.  New Testament scholars would agree that he is a scholar on the history of religions, though not of early Christianity (his  PhD is in sociology).  But rather than question an author’s credentials, it is more helpful to discuss the contents of his work.

Admittedly, Aslan has spent time reflecting on the life and times of Jesus, whom he obviously respects and admires.  Many Christians, unfortunately, are unaware that Muslims think highly of Jesus, and for that matter so does the Qur’an.  For me, it is particularly interesting that this Muslim author believes Christ’s death is the most provable point in the history of Jesus.[1]

That said, I have three major concerns with Zealot: First, Aslan’s portrait of Jesus is troubling.  For example, the author thinks no one should believe a simple carpenter like Christ could read or write–in any language–because he assumes almost total illiteracy in Jesus’ society (35).  This includes the apostles (171).  Jesus is repeatedly called a magician (105-108, as well as an exorcist and a faith healer, who must have been married (37).  The greatest surprise is that for Reza Aslan Jesus is a zealot who was crucified because he fomented sedition against Rome.[2]  As a revolutionary, Jesus handpicks an army of disciples to establish God’s physical kingdom on earth.  His goal was to restore Israel and reign as a real king now118, 123, 214).  Any thought of a peaceful Messiah loving enemies or turning the other cheek was fabricated by followers who distanced themselves from “revolutionary idealism” (69, 120).  Storming the temple (49), overturning tables and casting out merchants depicts the “real Jesus.”  This Jesus is smart enough to know “God’s sovereignty” can only be established by force (122).  Like the Maccabees who sought to throw off the Seleucid yoke in B.C 164 (118), Jesus’ goal was to free Israel from the rule of Rome (144).

Second, there is nothing new or fresh in how Aslan approaches the New Testament.  He repeats well-worn arguments that “historical Jesus” experts and proponents of higher criticism previously relied on, but today have mostly fallen out of favor.  For example, the author thinks nearly every book in the New Testament was written by someone other than the person after whom it was named (103-104).[3] And he makes the astounding claim that there were “no eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds recorded by people who knew him” (xxvii).  Also, since many gospels existed (xxvii) in that era, Aslan asks how anyone can take Matthew, Mark, Luke and John at face value?  Hence, Mark fabricates a story about Pontius Pilate (149) and Luke’s description of John the Baptist’s death is a “fanciful folktale” (82), as is Mark’s account of John’s background and birth (83).  As for the remaining Gospel writers, Luke knew his description of Jesus’ birth was “technically false” (30) and John is “obviously exaggerating” when describing Jesus’ arrest in the garden (78).

Third, Paul comes under harsh criticism in Zealot because it is said he has absolutely no interest in the historical Jesus (xxvi).  Since his focus was exclusively Christological Aslan charges the apostle with inventing  Christianity as it is known today (187).  “Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history” (215). Aslan would have us believe Paul’s views of Jesus were so extreme he could only preach them by claiming they had come directly from Christ himself (188).  The apostle’s conversion on the road to Damascus is rejected out of hand as “propagandistic legend created by the evangelist Luke” (184).  Why?  Because Luke “attempts to elevate his mentor’s [Paul] status in the founding of the church (185).[4]  Aslan also claims Paul never reconciled with the Jerusalem church over circumcision (192), neither was his “fateful dispute” with James ever settled.  He argues that this breach is proven by the fact that James forced Paul to take a Nazarite vow and participate in a controversial Temple rite (201).  Angry and bitter with other apostles, Paul is ultimately arrested and extradited to Rome (207).

Having previously read the author’s No god but God, I was eager to purchase this book, but found it disturbing and unconvincing.  It is poor scholarship in that the author confidently relies on outdated and untrustworthy sources.  He does not seem interested in grappling with those who believe New Testament writers, like Luke, wrote with diligence and integrity.  Finally, though some of the history is interesting , and the author engaging, there is little that resonates with how most Muslims see the prophet Jesus.  Here, he is presented more like a failed Muhammad.   A statement in the Introduction of Zealot seems to sum up the author’s own bias: “Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see.”

[1] Most Muslims reject the cross and essentially say: “Theologically it need not happen, morally it should not happen and historically it did not happen.”  Yet, in all fairness, some do think he suffered and died.  In City of Wrong; A Friday in Jerusalem, Muslim writer Kamel M. Hussein believes Christ was crucified.  The Qur’an also seems to say he died (Surahs 3:55; 5:117; 19:33; 4:157-158) and early commentaries (Tabari, d.923; Ibn Khatir, d. 1373; Fakhr al-Din at Razi, d. 1209; and Zamashkari, d. 1143) were more open to the idea than modern Islamic scholars.

[2]Scripture says Jesus went to his death “as it has been decreed” (Luke 22:22) but Aslan cherry picks passages  to prove the  mission was militant.  One verse is printed out at the beginning of his book: “Do not think I have come to bring peace on earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but the sword” (Matthew 10:34).  Another is taken out of context without consideration of all Jesus said about the topic: “Sell your cloak and buy a sword” (Luke 22:36).

[3] This is true of Paul’s letters but not of all New Testament books.  Without grappling with conservative scholars, Aslan assumes the latest possible dates for the Gospels and Acts.

[4] Would that Alan had interacted with Wm. M. Ramsay’s, St. Paul the traveller and the Roman Citizen, or with F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free.  Both writers describe Luke as a careful chronicler in the book of Acts.

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Many Catholics (and some non-Catholics) have rightly linked the humility and simple lifestyle of Pope Francis with that of St. Francis of Assisi.  But the story below reminds us that  St. Francis was not just interested in serving the poor.  He determined to boldly and unashamedly preach the Gospel even if it meant losing his life in the process.  

SaintFrancisAssisiWithAlKamil15thCenturyThe date was 1219, and as the purposeless 5th Crusade was dragging on and on, St. Francis[1] and a few chosen friends prayed about what most Christians in that day thought was a senseless and foolhardy mission: convert the most powerful Muslim personage in the world.  Attempting to win no less than the Kamil Sultan of Egypt was incredible to say the least; such faith and holy audacity. 

Francis took a dozen brothers through Syria and then on to Egypt.  The Pope had said no but he appealed to Cardinal Pelagius for permission to travel to the Sultan.  So radical was the Sultan he had promised a Byzantine gold piece for anyone who brought the head of a Christian.  The Cardinal had described the Sultan as “treacherous, brainless and false hearted,” but after some delay granted permission because of the unusual zeal.  Where other Christians saw the face of evil, Francis saw a man without the Savior, and compassion welled up inside of him. 

For the last lap of the journey Francis and his trusted friend Illumimato left the Crusader’s camp without looking back.  As the friars walked straight into the battlefield, they were caught, beaten and brought to the Sultan who was happy because he thought they wanted to become Muslims.  “On the contrary,” said Francis, “We have a message that you should surrender your soul to God.”  With this introduction, he proclaimed the Triune God and Jesus Christ the Savior of all. When the Sultan was advised to behead them, he said no, and invited them to stay on as guests.  Francis said, “If you are willing to become converts of Christ, you and your people, I shall only be too glad to stay with you.”

Such a response to Arab hospitality was unheard of.  Francis then offered to walk through fire if it would help convince the Muslim leader.  If he would come out unharmed the Sultan should be prepared to embrace Christ.  The Sultan demurred, but was impressed, and offered presents, which Francis declined to accept.  Kamil became even more amazed and permitted him to preach the gospel in his house, compound, and upon his departure asked the friar to pray that God would show him the right way. 

Evidently, the Sultan did not convert for it was he who retook Jerusalem, but had it not been for the dismal failure and frustration of such a misguided response to Muslims, Francis would never have set out on his mission.  More importantly, Stephen Neil[2] says it was the manifestation of a new era: now by love and good deeds, conversion was to take place, not by force of arms.  Soon thereafter, several Franciscan missionaries were sent to the Kingdom of Morocco, where five were martyred for Christ.

christian homes burnedIn our day, the threat of Islamist groups can make us want to shun Muslims and even hate them.  This past week, one hundred and fifty homes were burned in Badam Bagh, a Christian neighborhood of Lahore, Pakistan.  We must remember that attitudes toward Muslims during the crusades were hostile beyond what we can imagine, yet St. Francis was motivated to share Christ, and so should we.  Muslims wake up with no church, no Bible, and no one to tell them about the Way, the Truth and the Life.  Five times a day from countless minarets in their midst they hear God is great but who will tell them God is love?

[1] Elizabeth Goudge, Saint Francis of Assisi, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1961.

[2] A History of Christian Mission, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965.

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This article was written by my niece who grew up in Pakistan, where we also served for many years.  It beautifully expresses how some missionary families celebrate Christmas.  Enjoy.

Every year at this time of year I battle a sense of grief and a sense of loss….an uncertainty. There’s this accumulation of memories and conventions that no longer communicate.

Round pegs. Square holes.

Although when I was growing up we had a whole collection of traditions none of them now seem to translate. And the fact is even then each year was a little different. Growing up in a small town in the heart of the Punjab province of Pakistan Christmas was as we made it. Mom sifted and stirred. She dipped and dotted, baked and iced cookies, cakes, and squares. She found substitutes for key ingredients and hoarded others that she had saved from trips to the nut and dried fruit market in Murree. She made fruit cake and carrot pudding, steamed pudding and lemon sponge cake. Dad made fudge and special sweet sauces for the puddings. We had to balance and juggle various visits to various villages. Dad preached countless “Burra Din” sermons. We did the village circuit, spending the nights in many of them: village number 443 or village number 5 or Mirpur Chuk were three of our favourites. Mom organized the pageant in each village. She wrapped turbans on wise men, handing fancy wrapped empty boxes of “frankincense, Gold and Myrrh” to the three. She entrusted the doll-baby-Jesus to a chosen Mary in each village. My brother Neil was often one of the shepherds, a thick wool shawl blanket draped around his shoulders. Usually I was the Angel of the Lord. I still have “Durro Muth….” — the Urdu-speaking Angel’s declaration in my head. “Do Not Be Afraid for I bring you good tidings of great joy…”! We handed out white popcorn shaped hard sweets and oranges. The Christmas feast always included sweet rice and chicken curry!

The mission had their Christmas party and that was always a precious gathering. All the “aunts” and “uncles”(all the missionaries from our mission), scattered across the Thal Desert would come together for a celebration of Christ’s birth. More often than not, we would travel in our slightly dilapidated Land Rover jeep, through the desert, across the canals to Auntie Carol’s house in DGK [Dera Ghazi Khan]. There the aunties would compile their baked goodies and savory treats for an enormous spread. I remember as a child being enthralled by the number of yummy options. We would sing carols and exchange presents. The aunts would all exclaim at how we’d grown since they’d last seen us. The uncles would tell stories.

We had a real Auntie and Uncle, my mom’s sister and her husband and their two boys. Every year we tried to squeeze in a Christmas with them too. Those times with true extended family shared in a foreign place felt normal and wonderful. Looking back I can see just how precious and rare that really was.

Our little family– Mom, Dad, my brother Neil and I would have our own little Christmas on yet another day tucked into the Christmas season. Usually, if we kids had anything to say about it, this happened before the rush of the villages. We’d read the Christmas story. We’d go around the circle open one gift at a time. We’d play games. On New Year’s Day, Neil and I, would open our stockings and then later in the day we would make a big dinner for mom and dad.

These were the ways we stretched out the joy, extended the celebration.

But none of that seems to work here.

Later after I grew up and married, my husband and I settled in India. There on that side of the border we created our own Christmas traditions. A week or so before Christmas day we exchanged gifts and goodies with our very close friends on what came to be known as “Feast Night”. The International church commended the Advent readings and candles for the four Sundays of Advent. Often we went together with others in the community and put on a large Christmas program for the community. On Christmas morning we’d open presents with our three children and have a special brunch. I’d bake special Christmas bread and put out bowls of nuts and fruit. Later in the afternoon we’d have our landlord’s family for tea or we’d host an open house for all of our neighbours and friends. In the late afternoon we’d go to the Leper Colony to celebrate with our friends there. We’d visit the residents, deliver food, drink chai, play with the colony’s children and then return home tired and happy.

But very little of that seems to work here either. Because now we live in Kansas.

And we’re forced again to make it up as we go along.

The kids have memories. They seem to make up traditions that I’m not sure we’ve ever really had! We do that? Really? Hmm…ok. But they’re older now and they help. The girls bake cookies. Our son helps decorate. They’ve become generous with each other in their gift giving—which is nothing short of a miracle and very sweet to see. My husband’s family all live here — we really can go “over the river and through the woods” to Grandma’s house. And we do! I’ve watched old Christmas movies, that are a part of everyone else’s Christmas repertoire, for the first time. I’ve learnt a whole new set of Christmas songs that still mystify me (Grandma got run over by a reindeer??).

My own mom and dad and Neil and his family sometimes come to Kansas or we go to where they are. When we’re together Pakistan shows up as we belt out Christmas carols in Urdu or Punjabi. We eat curry and reminisce. We indulge those memories and we laugh and sometimes we cry.

Those other traditions from yesteryear don’t often translate….but I suppose that’s ok. The nostalgia often threatens to choke my joy. I remember and there’s no relevance for many of those memories…there’s no language to begin to articulate those things of the past. Sometimes I try. Sometimes I don’t. I smile. I sip my tea. I dip my cookie.

I’m learning a whole new way of talking Christmas!


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Q Why so much rage?

I’m not sure I fully grasp why there is so much violence and rage in the Muslim world that is directed toward America, but I understand some of where it’s coming from.  The major reason is that the United States is seen as an aggressor, interested in pursuing her own interests, and pushing her own agenda.  “Case in point,” say the Muslims: “President Bush went in to Iraq under false pretence and felt God was on ‘our side.’” Most Muslims think oil and influence in the Middle East were major concerns. I don’t think this is completely fair but everything we do is not necessarily right and noble.  When some Muslims lash out at such a time as this, they are striking out in blind rage because they feel helpless, oppressed and victimized.  It is true; they have been oppressed, in many cases by self-serving dictators who have not allowed freedom of expression.  Most have absolutely no concept of the First Amendment.

Q Was this a revenge attack for the killing of Osama bin Laden?

I don’t believe it was a revenge attack for the killing of bin Laden, because many Muslims came to see through bin Laden as cruel, selfish and violent.  PEW studies show most in the Muslim world had already turned away from al-Qaeda and bin Laden knew it.   Pakistanis were upset by what the Navy Seals did because they were revealed to be weak, inefficient and incapable of maintaining law and order on their own soil.  They were dishonored and shamed by their own weaknesses.

Q Given the fact that this movie came out last July was this a coordinated operation?

There might have been some planning by extremists in Libya (and Egypt); because no doubt extremists want to stir up trouble, but I don’t think it was coordinated.  Having lived through an attack on November 20, 1979, when a false rumor had it that the United States and Israel had taken over the Ka’aba in Mecca, my sense is this was the same.  It was spontaneous, perpetrated by the Ayatollah Khomeini, taken at face value, and we were the objects of their rage.  At that time, the United States Embassy in Islamabad was burned to the ground, and the lives of two Pakistani guards were lost.  In Benghazi, Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans were killed because insecurity was not enough to protect them.  It is very, very sad that lives were lost and I grieve for the families of these victims.

Q Isn’t freedom of expression an American value?

Yes, it is an American value, and it’s worth fighting for, but the fledgling democracies we see in much of the Muslim world have little or no concept of the freedom we cherish.  I suspect it will take decades for some Muslim societies to get to where we are today.  At the moment, religious sentiments trump freedom to say what you want, when you want, and how you want.  When things don’t happen overnight, we say the Arab Spring is dead.  Muslims see a Reverend Terry Jones burning copies of the Qur’an, and endorsing the film “Innocence of Muslims,” which he apparently did.  Unfortunately, truth is mixed with lies in what they hear.  To them, it is a conspiracy to defame Islam and denigrate Muhammad.  They don’t understand us and we don’t understand them, and I believe this divide will stay with us for years.

Q Is it pandering when the Obama Administration condemns the film?

I don’t think so.  Reluctantly, I watched the 14-minute trailer, and understand why it would inflame Muslims.  There is undoubtedly some truth in it, but also certain unproven theories and historical errors about the life of Muhammad.  He is portrayed as a homosexual and as pedophile.  He was not a homosexual, and though he did marry an underage girl, and consummated the marriage when she was nine years old, he does not fit the pedophile profile.  A pedophile is one who gets sexual fulfillment from children.  Other than A’isha, his wives were adults, and many were war widows.  The film mixes truth with fiction in order to taunt Muslims into violence.  It was created with sinister motives.

Q Aren’t Muslims inconsistent?

There is no question that Muslims are inconsistent, but I am heartened by the fact that some in Libya took out processions saying they condemned the killing in Benghazi.  From a Christian standpoint, the killing was done by those “whose feet are swift to shed blood” (Romans 3:15).  Is this excusable?  No.  It is reprehensible, cruel and wicked, but what can we expect?  These are people who do not know the Lord.  They have never experienced the new birth, and they are not filled with the love of God.  I am angered by the action in Benghazi, Cairo and recently in Islamabad, where a little Christian girl was accused of blasphemy.  But I’m also angered by those who seek political gain from this incident.  It is not true that President Obama is a Muslim and soft on terrorists.  It is not fair, nor is it accurate, to say that all this happened because of Obama.  It is simplistic to say that respect for the United States is falling in the Muslim world because of this Administration’s policies.  I would have expected a presidential candidate to think first, do his research, and then speak in measured tones.

Q How should we then respond? 

To be honest, I have struggled with this myself, and I can only speak of what I think is the Christian reaction.  We do not hate Muslims and do not even hate Islam.  The Christian response should be to love truth, but not to stir up religious hatred, animosity and violence.  We should not want Muslims to perish; rather we should want them to come to the knowledge of the truth (II Peter 3:9).  We expose falsehood, injustice and cruelty, however the impression I have from some Americans, including some Christian Americans, is that they couldn’t care less what happens to Muslims.  I’m not saying ‘Sam Bacile’ (the man behind this infamous movie), or Steve Klein who pushed it, are Christians.  I am angry at how the Muslims have reacted but also at the producers and endorsers of this film.

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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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