Love and thanks,
“Islam is Not the Answer, and JIHAD is Not the Way; Jesus is the Way”
Who are the Revivalists, and what do they want?
Tass Saada was a killer.
Born in Gaza and raised in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in a world of radical Islam and violent Palestinian nationalism, by his teenage years Saada was a cauldron of seething, roiling hatred. His family was close to the Saudi royal family. He once met Osama bin Laden. He became personal friends with Yasser Arafat, a man he long regarded as a hero and in whose name he happily killed. He served as a sniper in the Palestine Liberation Organization and for a time was Arafat’s driver and one of his bodyguards.
But in 1993, God gave Tass Saada’s life drama a second act.
After marrying an American and moving to the United States—a country he had long hated—this jihadist found Jesus. This violent Radical was one day radically transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. This killer became a man of peace and compassion.
Jesus, Come Into My Life
Saada was not expecting to become a follower of Jesus Christ.
To the contrary, when an evangelical friend tried to share the gospel with him, he became enraged. When his friend encouraged him to read the New Testament for himself, every fiber of his being resisted.
“I must not touch that book!” he said.’
“Why not?” his friend said. “It’s just paper.”
“No!” Saada replied. “It’s God’s Word!”
The two men just stood there for a moment. “Do you really believe that?” his friend asked in shock.
“Yes, I do,” Saada replied, hardly understanding the words that were coming out of his mouth. As a Muslim, he had not been raised to believe the Bible was God’s Word. He certainly had not been trained to believe that as a Radical. But he soon heard his friend saying, “Well, if you believe that, then let me read you what the Bible says about Jesus Christ. Fair enough?”
His friend began reading from the book of John, chapter one, verse one: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The moment his friend said, “Word,” Saada began to shake. He suddenly flashed back to a line in the Qur’an that said, “The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was . . . the Messenger of God, and His Word that He committed to Mary, and a Spirit from Him.”
“Hearing the Bible say essentially the same thing, that Jesus was the Word of God, struck deep to the core of my being,” Saada would later recall. “Before I knew it, I was on my knees. I didn’t consciously decide to kneel. It just happened.
I lost all awareness that my friend was in the room. A light came into my field of vision—a talking light. Now I know this sounds really odd, but this is what happened that Sunday afternoon, March 14, 1993. The light said to me, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. I didn’t know at that moment that those words were what Jesus said during the Last Supper [in John 14:6]. As far as I was concerned, they were a message from Jesus solely for me.”
Suddenly, Saada said, he just knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that the triune God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—existed. He knew with certainty that this triune God loved him. And sobbing with shame at his sin and with thankfulness for God’s mercy, he cried out, “Oh, Jesus, come into my life! Forgive me and be my Lord and Savior!”
“I felt as if a heavy load went flying off my shoulders,” he said. “A sense of peace and joy rushed into my heart. The presence of God was so real it seemed I could almost reach out and touch it.”
His friend was in shock. He too was in tears. To be sure Saada really understood what he was doing, he explained the gospel in some detail. And then, to be sure Saada was really committing his life fully and completely to Jesus Christ, he led Saada in the following prayer:
Lord Jesus, I am a sinner, and I am sorry for my sins. I ask you to forgive me and wash away my sins by your precious blood. Lord, I can’t save myself. I can’t take away my sins, but you can. You are the Savior of the world—the only Savior—and I want you to be my Savior. I ask you to forgive me and come into my life. Change me and give me a new heart. I will forever love you and follow you. Now I thank you for hearing my prayer and saving my soul. I know you have, because you promised you would. Now I am yours, and you are mine. I will serve you the rest of my life.
Saada not only willingly and eagerly prayed that prayer, he become a dedicated follower of Jesus Christ from that moment forward.
A Minister of the Gospel
“I was a Palestinian sniper,” Saada would later tell me. “But then I fell in love with a Savior who loves Arabs as well as Jews.”
In his remarkable book, Once An Arafat Man, Saada explained his realization that the God of the Bible loves us all with an unfathomable, everlasting, unquenchable love. He explained that God’s love is so amazing, so divine, that He actually offers all of us—Jew and Gentile alike—the free gift of salvation through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. And he explained that God wants to adopt each one of us into His own family. He wants to bless us. He wants to take care of us. He wants to heal us and change us and make us more like Him. And He wants to empower us to be a blessing to others.
Given Saada’s upbringing and life experiences, it is remarkable that he said yes to that divine love. Indeed, it is miraculous, but that is exactly what happened, and in the process, Saada was changed forever. Before long, his whole immediate family had come to faith in Christ. Eventually, God called him to be a minister of the gospel and even gave him the opportunity to share the message of salvation with his old boss, Yasser Arafat, before the PLO chairman’s death in 2004.
Saada also humbly shared the message of Christ’s love and forgiveness with his parents and brothers, still living in the Gulf area, many of whom wanted to kill him for converting away from Islam. And eventually, he and his wife, Karen, began a ministry to reach out to the poor and needy in Gaza and the West Bank—especially children—with God’s love through the distribution of humanitarian relief supplies in the name of Jesus.
That is how Saada and I met.
It was a Saturday night in January 2008, and I had been invited to preach at a church in Jerusalem. My sermon title was “What God Is Doing among the Muslims.” This was not a typical message for an audience of Jewish and Gentile Christ-followers in Israel. But after much prayer, I felt the Lord wanted me to share with my Israeli friends what He had told me to share with my Jordanian friends when I preached in Amman several years earlier:
We need to get serious about obeying Jesus’ command to love our neighbors and our enemies. We can only do this when we have the power of the Holy Spirit flowing through our lives. But when we do—when we truly obey Jesus’ teachings and the model He set for us—heads will turn. People will be shocked when they see us love those who hate us. Then they will ask questions. Their hearts will be softened. They will be curious to know more about the God we serve. And then, hopefully, they will want to know this God personally for themselves.
I had told the Jordanian followers of Jesus that this meant it was time to start loving their Jewish neighbors and enemies. That night in Jerusalem, I told the Israeli believers that this meant loving their Muslim neighbors and enemies and believing that the God of the Bible truly loves all people everywhere, including those who hate Him and His children.
I explained that behind the headlines of all the Middle Eastern wars and rumors of wars and revolutions and acts of terror, God is actually moving in an incredibly powerful way. People in the epicenter are coming to Christ in record numbers. Millions in Iran. Millions in Sudan. Millions in Pakistan. Millions in Egypt. And many more throughout the rest of the region. It is truly stunning to behold. The question I posed for Israeli believers is the question I pose for all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus: what role does the Lord have for us in strengthening our brothers and sisters who come to Christ from a Muslim background, and how can we actively love our neighbors and our enemies when, humanly speaking, this is impossible?
That was the message I had come to Jerusalem to share, and who was the first couple I was introduced to that night as I came through the front door of the church? Tass and Karen Saada.
I had never met them before. When they told me their story, I was deeply moved. Here we were, a former aide to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and a former aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, hugging each other—not trying to kill each other—in the heart of Jerusalem. MI because of the work Jesus had done to give us hearts of love rather than hatred.
I had a sense that this was the beginning of a story, not the end. And sure enough, the very next day, the Saadas and my team and I decided to travel together with several Israeli colleagues to the Israeli city of Ashkelon. There we visited the Barzilai Medical Center, a hospital that treats Jews and Arabs wounded in the ongoing border skirmishes that have plagued that region for so long.
As we met with the hospital administrators, Tass and I both presented checks from our respective ministries to help finance the purchase of much-needed medical equipment. When the doctors and staff asked why we had come to bless them, we both told them our stories. Tass explained that he had been born just a few miles south of where we were gathered and had been raised with a desire to kill everyone in the room where we were sitting.
“You really worked for the PLO?” asked one doctor.
“Then what happened? What changed you?” another asked.
Tass gave all the credit to Jesus Christ. He briefly explained how God had changed his heart and given him a love for the Jewish people.
And then he stunned us all. He asked the hospital staff to forgive him for what he and the Palestinian people had done over the years to harm them. It was a powerful moment. Everyone was in tears. These Israelis had never seen anything like it.
Honestly, few people have.
The Rise of the Revivalists
Tass Saada is no longer a Radical—he is a Revivalist.
He no longer believes that Islam is the answer. He no longer believes jihad is the way. He believes that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and that no one—Jew or Gentile, Radical or Reformer—can have a personal relationship with God without accepting that Jesus is the Messiah, just as the Bible teaches in John 14:6.
Though Saada would certainly prefer to see Reformers in power in the Middle East rather than Radicals, I have not found him to be a particularly political person by nature. He believes he is part of a much greater and more important revolution—a spiritual revolution to save souls and change lives. He believes passionately that the only way for the people of the Middle East to move forward and make real and lasting social, economic, and spiritual progress is to make a choice to skip back in their history and revive what once was so prevalent in the region before Islam—first-century, New Testament, biblical Christianity.
Saada has completely dedicated his life to making sure that all the people in the Middle East—especially all Muslims—have the opportunity before they die to hear and understand the claims of Jesus Christ in their own language and make their own decision to follow Him or reject Him.
Revivalists like Saada argue with great conviction that biblical Christianity is not a Western, colonialist, or imperialist religion. Nor is it some foreign ideology imposed on the Muslim world to enslave or hinder it. Rather, Revivalists assert that biblical Christianity is a movement that was born in the Middle East, one that spread rapidly to all corners of the Middle East, one that then spread all over the globe, and one that is destined by biblical prophecy to be dramatically revived in the Middle East just before Jesus Christ returns to set up His Kingdom on earth, based in the Holy City of Jerusalem.
They believe that Christianity is a spiritually and personally liberating force, the most powerful liberating force in human history. They believe that a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ changes hearts so that the violent become men and women of peace and reconciliation. And they believe this not because someone told them about it but because they have experienced it for themselves.
As you will see in this final section—as you will hear in their own words—the Revivalists know firsthand that the gospel changes the hearts of the fearful into hearts filled with courage and hope, that it changes those who were wracked with sin and guilt into those who experience the joy of forgiveness and a new life.
And again, they know it because they have experienced it themselves.
If you travel through the Middle East, you will meet many ex-Muslims who will tell you, as they have told me, that they have seen dreams and visions of Jesus, who personally told them to follow Him. They readily identify with the apostle Paul, who described his own conversion in his letter to the Galatians saying, “I neither received [the gospel] from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12). These former Muslims are stunned by the way God has changed their lives, especially given the fact that many of them, like Paul, used to “persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it.” Like Paul, they were “extremely zealous” for their “ancestral traditions” (Galatians 1:13-14) .
Like Paul—the greatest apostle in the history of Christendom, a man who wrote much of the New Testament—they, too, were once religious extremists who hated Jesus and all of His followers.
Yet they also personally and deeply identify with Paul’s words in Galatians 1:15-24: “But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem … but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus…. Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia [Turkey and Armenia] . . . [and the people] kept hearing, `He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith which he once tried to destroy.’ And they were glorifying God because of me.”
The Revivalists say that what happened in the early Church two thousand years ago is happening again today.
What Revivalists Want
When asked what they want, Revivalists like Saada and others point to Matthew 28:18-20, where Jesus told His disciples, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
They say that because Jesus is God, He has all power. He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Thus, when He gives His disciples an order, it must be followed. And that order, they note, is to preach the gospel to the whole world and make disciples—not just “Christians” but truly dedicated and devoted Christ-followers—of “all the nations.”
Not just the safe nations.
Not just the democratic nations.
Not just the free market nations.
Jesus told His disciples to go make more disciples in all the nations.
Even the difficult nations.
Even the dangerous nations.
Even the Radical nations.
Indeed, the Revivalists say the Bible provides a specific geographic game plan. In Acts 1:8, Jesus told His disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
The directive is clear, the Revivalists say. Jesus told them to start the Church in the epicenter, in Jerusalem, where He died and rose again. Then He commanded His disciples to take the gospel to the West Bank and Gaza and beyond in a series of concentric circles radiating out from Jerusalem and extending even to the remotest and most desolate parts of the world. By definition, this includes the entire Islamic world.
Reaching the entire world—and particularly the world of Islam—with the gospel is an enormously challenging mission. Many Revivalists readily concede that humanly speaking they feel overwhelmed by the task. Often they feel physically weak, or emotionally frail, or intimidated by the Radicals, or not nearly educated enough to make the most intellectual case for why a Muslim should become a follower of Christ.
Yet they say their encouragement and strength come from biblical promises like Matthew 28 and Acts 1, in which Jesus promises to be with them always. He also promises to give them access to God’s supernatural power, the power of the Holy Spirit, as they obey Him in reaching the people of all nations—including Muslims—with the gospel. He promises to guide them. He promises to strengthen them. He promises to give them the right words to say and sufficient courage in the face of danger. And they say they have seen God keep His promises time and time again.
So these Christ-followers say they intend to fulfill the “Great Commission” that Jesus has given them, whatever may befall them, even persecution, torture, and death. They ask, “If Jesus loved us so much that He gave up His life for us at the hands of His enemies, shouldn’t we be willing to die in His service if that is necessary?”
Unlike the Radicals, the Revivalists are not seeking death or trying to become martyrs. They want to live as long as possible to reach as many Muslims with the gospel as possible. They point to Deuteronomy 30:19, where God instructs His followers to “choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants.” They point to Romans 12:1, where the apostle Paul says, “I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.”
They have no intention, therefore, of blowing themselves up as suicide bombers or doing other kinds of violence to kill “infidels.” They are commanded to be living sacrifices—people devoting their very lives to serve and to save the lives of others.
Nevertheless, they know full well that Jesus also taught His disciples there will be fierce opposition. They know they need to be ready to die at any moment. “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me,” Jesus said in Luke 9:23-24. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.”
Two Different Approaches
It should be noted at the outset that not all Revivalists operate alike.
There are hundreds of different creative strategies being used to win Muslims to Christ and help them grow in their faith, but, in terms of philosophy of ministry, there are two basic approaches, and they are distinctly different. This was a point driven home to me as I interviewed Salim, the director of one of the largest ministries in the Middle East, a man with several thousand Arab, Iranian, and other national believers working with him as paid staff and volunteers in every Islamic country in North Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia.
“Joel, I see two groups among the Revivalists,” Salim told me. “First, there are those who say, ‘Islam is wrong and is not the answer,’ and they are preaching that Jesus is the way. And there is a second group that says, `We’re preaching Jesus alone, not criticizing Islam.’ For example, our ministry preaches simply that Jesus is the Son of God and the only way of salvation. We explain His teachings. We explain His miracles. We explain His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. We teach His love for the poor and the needy and women and the outcasts. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2, ‘When I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.”
We never mention Islam. We never mention Muhammad. We just preach Christ. Period. There are other ministries that specifically teach that Muhammad is not a prophet and that Islam is wrong to say that Jesus is not the Son of God. And then they explain why Jesus really is the Son of God…. I wouldn’t say that one is more effective than the other, but we find there is a huge benefit to simply preaching Christ’s love as the positive, hopeful message it is to those Muslims who are hungering for truth and have become disillusioned and disenchanted with Islam.*
Salim noted that the ministries that are confronting Islam directly are, for the most part, waging an “air war” through radio and satellite television (as well as the Internet) for Muslim hearts and minds that have typically been dosed to—and sometimes violently opposed to—the gospel message. For security reasons, the leaders of these ministries typically operate from outside the region or from its perimeters, so they are not in immediate danger of being killed by Muslims enraged by their criticisms of Muhammad and the Qur’an.
By contrast, those ministries that are preaching the gospel without ever mentioning Islam are typically waging a “ground war” inside hostile Muslim territory. Their leaders—and, more important, their disciples and volunteers—are talking to Muslims face-to-face, one-on-one and in small groups. They are distributing copies of the Injil (the Arabic word for New Testament). They are distributing gospel literature. They are distributing CDs and DVDs with the gospel message and information about how to become a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ. They are holding Bible studies and house churches in the privacy of people’s homes. In short, they are operating inside the fire and focusing their efforts on Muslims who are already close to leaving Islam and open to hearing and receiving the gospel message.
I asked Salim if there was room for both approaches.
“Absolutely,” he said. “There is room for both. The benefit of those ministries that confront Islam directly is that they create controversy. They generate conversation among Muslims about what is wrong with Islam, the hypocrisy of its leaders, and the contradictions in its texts, as well as who Jesus is and what he taught. Jesus attacked the Pharisees, the religious leaders of His day. He didn’t attack the common Jews, but He faced the Jewish leaders directly with their hypocrisy. So those ministries that are confronting the Islamic leaders today have an important place. They are definitely rocking the boat. We are too. It just needs to be remembered that we are paying a price on the inside by the anger being generated from the outside.”
Two Different Kinds
Just as not all Revivalist strategies are identical, it should also be noted that not all Revivalists themselves are alike.
I have had the wonderful privilege of meeting with and befriending Revivalists all over the world during the past two decades. In the course of researching and writing this book over the past several years, I have spoken with and interviewed at length more than 150 Christian leaders operating in and ministering to the Muslim world. Whether they were ethnically Arab, Iranian, Turkish, Kurdish, Afghan, Berber, or from some other background, I found their stories absolutely amazing and profoundly inspiring, in part because they are leading a spiritual Revolution as significant and consequential as those led by the Radicals and the Reformers. I would even say more so.
In the next chapter, I will share with you the trend lines indicating how rapidly Christianity is growing in the Muslim world. But first, let me briefly define two different kinds of Revivalists so you will better understand who they are and where they are coming from.
Some Revivalists are known as “MBBs,” which stands for Muslim Background Believers. These are true, born-again, fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ, commonly known in the West simply as “Christians.” Their distinction is that they were born into Muslim families and were raised as Muslims. But at some point in their lives, they converted to Christianity and away from Islam. Because of that decision, MBBs face persecution, torture, and death from their families, their neighbors, and sometimes their governments for leaving Islam in general and for becoming Christ-followers in particular. MBBs face tremendous social and legal pressure to keep quiet about their faith and not seek out fellowship with other believers and certainly not try to share their faith with other Muslims. They need a tremendous amount of prayer, therefore, for wisdom and courage and for Christian friends who can help them grow and mature in their faith and know how best to handle themselves in a godly way. This is true wherever an MBB lives, but it is particularly true for MBBs who still live in a Muslim country.
The other kind of Revivalist is someone known as an “NCBB,” which stands for Nominal Christian Background Believer. These, too, are true, born-again, fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Their distinction is that while they are true believers today, they were born into families with parents who called themselves Christians but did not actually have real, active, life-changing, personal relationships with Jesus Christ. Their families may have identified themselves culturally or religiously as Christians as opposed to Muslims or Jews or Hindus or atheists. Perhaps they went to church often. Perhaps they went rarely, only on Christmas and Easter, for example. But the key is that while a nominal Christian may describe himself as a Christian by name, he has not actually been transformed—born again—on the inside.
Once they make a decision to follow Christ and become NCBBs, such believers face the threat of persecution, torture, and death from neighbors and sometimes their governments if they want to share their faith with Muslims and become engaged in ministries to help MBBs grow in their faith. They also face ostracism from family members and friends who remain nominal Christians and don’t understand the life change they are undergoing. Sadly, many NCBBs face persecution even from the churches they grew up in because their passion for Jesus and for fulfilling the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 now threatens their childhood pastors or priests who oppose rocking the boat in any way, shape, or form in a Muslim community. Therefore, like MBBs, these believers need a tremendous amount of prayer for wisdom and courage and fellow Christ-following friends who can help them grow and mature in their faith and know how best to handle themselves in a godly way wherever they live, but particularly if they still live in a Muslim country.
The very notion of an NCBB can be confusing for many people, particularly Muslims, to whom a person is a Muslim simply if he is born to Muslim parents, not just if he converts to Islam. But the Bible teaches that just being physically born into a so-called Christian family does not bring about salvation. Indeed, even if a person’s parents or siblings really are true followers of Jesus, being born into such a family still does not save that person. The only way a person can be forgiven of his sins and saved from eternal damnation, according to the Bible, is to personally repent and receive Jesus Christ as Savior by faith and in the process be spiritually reborn.
In John 3:3, Jesus told a religious leader from Jerusalem, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” One’s physical birth into a religious family, Jesus was saying, is not enough. Nor is being a very “religious” person. Or even a religious leader. Something else has to happen on the inside. Thus, as you read the New Testament, it becomes clear that the term “born again” is a biblical term referring to a person who (1) is fully convinced that faith in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the dead is the only way to be forgiven of his sins and adopted into God’s family; and (2) has consciously, willfully, and purposefully asked God through prayer to wash his sins away and save him through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
John 1:12 tells us that “as many as received Him [Jesus Christ], to them He gave the right to become children of God.”
Jesus said in John 3:16 that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
In Romans 10:9-10, the apostle Paul explains how to be born again: “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”
Then in 2 Corinthians 5:17-18, Paul tells us the result of being born again: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
My own family’s spiritual journey has helped me understand how this process works. Though my mother is not from the Middle East, she is actually an NCBB. She was born into a Protestant family. She attended church when she was growing up in Rome, New York. As such, she thought she was a Christian. But the truth is she was a nominal Christian. Her heart had not been transformed, for until 1973, no one had ever explained to her that going to church was not enough. She did not know she needed to individually receive Jesus Christ to be her Savior and Lord. All she knew was that despite calling herself a Christian, she was filled with enormous loneliness and anxiety, and she had no idea how to change or how to find relief and hope for her life.
Then she visited a different church in Rochester, New York, where several couples simply and patiently answered her questions. They read to her the key verses in the Bible that explain how to know God in a real and personal way, and once they had, she knew immediately that what they were saying was true. She knew that was what she wanted. That very Sunday morning, she chose to follow Jesus and prayed a prayer very similar to the one Tass Saada prayed.
In that moment, she was born again. Her troubles didn’t all immediately melt away. But from that day forward, she began seeing God change her life as He gave her peace and joy and a sense of calm that she had never had before.
My father, on the other hand, is not an MBB, but you might say that he is a “JBB”—a Jewish Background Believer. With a name like Rosenberg, you can guess that he was not raised in a Christian home. Rather, he was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, though he would have described himself more as an agnostic during his twenties. In 1973, about six months after my mother became a follower of Jesus Christ, my father prayed to receive Jesus as the Messiah, and he too was born again. His troubles did not disappear either. Some of them increased, even. But over the next few years, though I was young, I could see my father changing in very positive ways. He was no longer the bitter man with a quick temper that I had feared. He was becoming gentle and kind, a man who loved to study the Bible and to teach it—especially to kids.
My point is simply this: in my own home, I have personally witnessed—and been blessed by—God’s love for Jews and Gentiles, and I am grateful that He does not show favoritism and restrict His loving-kindness to one group or another.
Likewise, in my travels through the epicenter I have personally witnessed—and been blessed by—God’s love for Muslims and for nominal Christians. He is reviving them both. He is awaking Muslims to the truth of the Scriptures, and He is breathing new spiritual life into people who were raised in churches but were long unaware of the life-changing power of Jesus Christ.
And He is doing so in numbers few could ever have imagined.
THE BIG, UNTOLD STORY ‑ PART ONE
The greatest spiritual awakening in the history of the Middle Fact is under way
YOU RARELY HEAR ABOUT IT on the news.
You rarely even hear about it in churches in the West, in the East, or even in the Middle East. But the big, untold story is that more Muslims are coming to faith in Jesus Christ today than at any other time in history.
For many Muslims, despair and despondency at what they see as the utter failure of Islamic governments and societies to improve their lives and give them peace, security, and a sense of purpose and meaning in life are causing them to leave Islam in search of truth. Some have lost their way entirely and become agnostics and atheists. Others, as we have seen, have sadly turned to alcohol and drug abuse. But millions are finding that only Jesus Christ heals the ache in their hearts and the deep wounds in their souls.
For other Muslims, it is not depression but rage that is driving them away from the Qur’an and the mosque. They are seeing far too many Muslim leaders and governments and preachers both advocating and acting out cruelty toward women and children and violence even against fellow Muslims. Not all of these find Jesus in their journey away from Islam, but millions do, especially since the 9/11 attacks against the United States. In fact, while this backlash against the theology and practice of Radicalism has been building since 1979, I first began to detect it during my travels in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East soon after 9/11. Again and again, I would meet people who had long been devout and traditional Muslims who told me that they had watched with horror as Arabic television networks constantly replayed the images of commercial airliners hijacked by radical Islamic jihadists flying into the World Trade Center.
First they found themselves weeping. But then they saw other Muslims cheering, and their sadness turned to anger as they asked themselves, “Is this who we really are? Is this what it really means to be a Muslim? To fly planes into buildings and kill thousands of innocent civilians? Because if it is, then count me out. How could I possibly be part of a religion or a political movement that glorifies and celebrates death?”
Many of these former Muslims hear the message of the Reformers but believe that it is actually the Radicals who are reading the Qur’an correctly. They say that if a person truly studies the Qur’an carefully, he will become a Radical and will engage in violent jihad, because that is what the preponderance of verses tell Muslims to do. They say that the verses that speak about Muslims being peaceful to the “People of the Book” were written mostly when Muhammad was trying to win Jews and Christians to his side but that once Muhammad realized he could not convert these “infidels,” he turned against them and wrote verses that the Radicals now embrace in pursuit of jihad.
Whether such claims are correct theologically or historically is, of course, a matter of debate. The point, however, is not whether these people are accurate in their interpretation of the Qur’an. The point is that they have had enough. They are furious about the atrocities being done in the name of Islam. And their outrage has only intensified as month after month, year after year, they have watched the Radicals blow up mosques, blow up women, blow up children, blow up the disabled and the mentally handicapped, and in the process, blow up their dreams.
And as their anger has risen, so too has their determination to disassociate themselves with Islam and find the truth someplace else.
THE CHRISTIAN SURGE
That said, what intrigues me is not simply that the Revivalists say the greatest spiritual awakening in the history of the Middle Fast is under way. What intrigues me is that Islamic leaders are worrying in public that a Christian surge is taking place in the region.
In 1993, a Saudi sheikh by the name of Salman Al-Odeh delivered a sermon entitled “Christian Missionaries Sweeping the Islamic World.” He argued that “in Spain [Christians] have the biggest center of missionaries to Africa. They are trained really well, and their efforts lead many Moroccans to convert.” He then cited the World Christian Encyclopedia—which he described as a “dangerous survey”—and warned his fellow Muslims that “the number of Christians in Africa was 9 million only in 1900 AD, or … 9 percent of the whole population. In the year 1980 they became 200 million! . . . They jumped from 9 to 200 million in 80 years [and the survey’s authors] expected them to reach 390 million in the year 2000, or 48 percent of the whole population of Africa.”‘
Eight years later, in December 2001, Sheikh Ahmad Al Qataani, another significant Saudi cleric, appeared in a live interview on Aljazeera satellite television to confirm that, sure enough, Muslims were turning to Jesus in alarming numbers. “In every hour, 667 Muslims convert to Christianity,” Al Qataani warned. “Every day, 16,000 Muslims convert to Christianity. Every year, 6 million Muslims convert to Christianity.”
Stunned, the interviewer interrupted the cleric. “Hold on! Let me clarify. Do we have 6 million converting from Islam to Christianity or converting from Islam and other religions?”
Al Qataani repeated his assertion.
“So 6 million Muslims a year convert?” said the interviewer. “Every year,” the cleric confirmed, adding, “a tragedy has happened.’
I cannot confirm these precise numbers. I can, however, confirm the trend lines. During the course of interviewing more than 150 Christian leaders in the epicenter over the past several years, I have been able to assemble enough data and anecdotal evidence to paint a picture—albeit an imperfect and incomplete one—that provides a sense of how powerfully the God of the Bible is moving to draw Muslims into His family. Given the threat of jail or death facing all believers in the region, it is simply not possible to take a complete Christian census or conduct accurate polling to know for certain how many Muslims and nominal Christians have come to faith in Jesus Christ in a given year or even over the last few decades. But again, there is now no question that so many people are becoming Christians in the region that Muslim leaders are becoming nervous and angry.
REVIVAL IN IRAN
“It’s ironic that when the Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran with his style of Islamic Shiite extremism that the true face of Islam was finally exposed not just to the Christian populace, but to the Muslims themselves,” one of the region’s leading evangelists—a man named Taheer—once told me. “Before 1979, the demand for Bibles in Iran was never that great. Today, Iranians can’t get enough of the Bible or biblical teaching. It is counterintuitive, I know, but it’s as if God used that man, the Ayatollah … to expose Islam for what it is and for Muslims to say to themselves, ‘That’s not what we want; we want something else. We want something better.'”
One Iranian Muslim woman was barren for many years. Praying to Allah in the mosque was not working. Knowing several MBBs, she asked them to pray for her to be healed. They agreed and began reading her passages from the Bible. They specifically taught her James 5:1416, which says, “Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” Then the believers prayed for the Muslim woman and anointed her with oil. Soon she was pregnant, and she secretly prayed with her friends to become a follower of Christ. She had a baby boy and named him Shah—the Persian word for “king”—saying, “Jesus is the King. He healed me and gave me a son as a miracle!”
“If you are working in Iran, you feel like you are working with God,” a top Iranian ministry leader told me. “He is with us in Iran. Jesus Christ is revealing Himself to people in Iran. A big revival is under way and more is coming. Friends keep telling me to leave the country for my own safety. The government will arrest you,’ they say. ‘They will kill you.’ But if you leave, you are losing a big, historical chance. If you stay and serve, you will see a big revival and see prophecy fulfilled. You feel so small. But God is so big!’
“In Iran,” another Iranian Christian told me, “you don’t go after people with the gospel. They are coming to you to ask you about the Lord. Let me give you an example. I went to the doctor’s office because I was feeling very ill. I asked the receptionist if I could see the doctor right away, but she was a veiled woman and a fanatical Muslim. She had no intention of making life easier for an ‘infidel,’ and she told me I would have to wait for two hours. ‘You will regret that,’ I said with a smile, and then sat down in the crowded waiting room. A few moments later, the doctor walked by to pick up a file. ‘Hello, Reverend,’ he said to me. I greeted him back. Then everyone in the waiting room asked me, Are you really a reverend?’ I said I was. ‘How can I know Jesus?’ they asked. I told them and five Muslims prayed with me in the waiting room to receive Christ as their Savior. ‘See how you will regret making me wait?’ I told the receptionist, again with a smile. She has never made me wait again.”
THE AVALANCHE IS STILL COMING
“Let me give you another example,” the same Iranian Christian told me. “There was an abused Muslim woman who tried to commit suicide by swallowing a bunch of sleeping pills. But as she was fading into unconsciousness, she had a vision of something called the ‘Living Water.’ She had never heard of ‘Living Water.’ But something made her want to know more. She woke herself up, vomited out the pills, found a Bible, and read the entire Gospel according to John.
“When she got to chapter 4, she read the story where Jesus asked a sad and troubled woman for a drink of water from a well in Samaria. The woman is surprised that this Jewish man is talking to her. Then Jesus says to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, “Give Me a drink,” you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.’ And the woman said to Jesus, ‘Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water?’ And Jesus replied, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.’
“The Muslim woman was astonished by Jesus’ love and compassion for this troubled Samaritan woman. She wanted that Living Water. By the time she finished reading the book of John, she had prayed to accept Christ as her Savior. Then she came to our church asking for help to grow in her faith. We did not lead her to Christ. She came already convinced. We simply encouraged her, taught her God’s Word, and taught her how to share her faith with others. And she listened. She has led her four sisters and her parents to Christ. And a house church of twenty secret Iranian believers now meets in her home?
“Before the [Islamic] Revolution, there was a very small response to the gospel,” one Iranian pastor told me. “In the summer of 1975, our ministry shared Christ with nearly five thousand people. Only two people showed any interest. But in 2005, ninety-eight out of every one hundred people we shared with showed interest, and we saw many decisions for Christ.”6
“In the last 20 years, more Iranians have come to Christ [than in] the last 14 centuries,” said I wants Yeghnazar, an Iranian-born evangelist now based in Great Britain. “We’ve never seen such phenomenal thirst. . I believe this phenomenon [will] snowball into a major avalanche. This is still a rain. This is not the avalanche coming. . .. But it will be happening very, very soon.”‘
At the time of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, there were only about five hundred known Muslim converts to Jesus inside the country. By 2000, a survey of Christian demographic trends reported that there were 220,000 Christians inside Iran, of which between 4,000 and 20,000 were Muslim converts” And according to Iranian Christian leaders I interviewed for this book, the number of Christ-followers inside their country shot dramatically higher between 2000 and 2008.
The head of one leading Iranian ministry, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, told me: “Based on all the things we are seeing inside Iran today, I personally believe that if every Iranian who secretly believes in Jesus could come forward right now and declare his or her faith publicly, the number would top a million.”‘
A leading Iranian political dissident in the West who also happens to be a Muslim convert to Christianity told me he believes there are as many as 4.5 million Iranian converts.
An Iranian who directs one of the largest ministries of evangelism and discipleship to Shia Muslims in his country—and is one of the most trusted Iranian ministry leaders in the world—tells me he believes the real number is closer to 7 million believers, or roughly one out of every ten people in Iran.”
Keep in mind, such numbers are impossible to verify given the current political conditions, but again, the trend lines are clear, and the increasingly panicked reaction of Iranian authorities in recent years seems to support the notion of unprecedented growth of the Iranian church.
In April 2004, for example, an Iranian Shiite cleric by the name of Hasan Mohammadi delivered a stunning speech at a high school in Tehran. He urged the students to “safeguard your beloved Shi’ite faith” against the influence of the evangelicals and other so-called apostate religions, and warned: “Unfortunately, on average every day, fifty Iranian girls and boys convert secretly to Christian denominations in our country.”‘
Mohammadi had been hired by the Ministry of Education to teach fundamental Shiite Islam to the country’s youth, who are increasingly dissatisfied with the Islamic Revolution and are looking elsewhere for fulfillment. But as one father whose son was in the audience told a reporter, Mohammadi “unknowing admitted the defeat of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a theocratic regime in promoting its Islam.”
By September of that year, the Iranian regime had arrested eighty-six evangelical pastors and subjected them to extended interrogations and even torture. In October 2004, Compass Direct, an international Christian news agency, reported that “a top [Iranian] official within the Ministry of Security Intelligence spoke on state television’s Channel 1, warning the populace against the many ‘foreign religions’ active in the country and pledging to protect the nation’s ‘beloved Shiite Islam’ from all outside forces.” The news service went on to report that this security official had helped interrogate ten of the arrested evangelical pastors, had complained that Christian activities in Iran had gone “out of control,” and was “insisting that their church do something to stop the flood of Christian literature, television, and radio programs targeting Iran.”
The rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led to a dramatic acceleration of government-directed persecution of Iranian Christians—particularly pastors, many of whom have been arrested, interrogated, beaten, and even worse. “An Iranian convert to Christianity was kidnapped last week from his home in northeastern Iran and stabbed to death, his bleeding body thrown in front of his home a few hours later,” Compass Direct reported in November 2005. “Ghorban Tori, 50, was pastoring an independent house church of covert Christians in Gonbad-e-Kavus, a town just east of the Caspian Sea along the Turkmenistan border. Within hours of the November 22 murder, local secret police arrived at the martyred pastor’s home, searching for Bibles and other banned Christian books in the Farsi language. By the end of the following day, the secret police had also raided the houses of all other known Christian believers in the city. According to one informed Iranian source, during the past eight days representatives of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) have arrested and severely tortured ten other Christians in several cities, including Tehran?’
Just a few days before the pastor’s murder, Ahmadinejad met with thirty provincial governors and vowed to shut down the country’s growing house-church movement, reportedly saying: “I will stop Christianity in this country!”
Nevertheless, evangelical leaders inside Iran say they are seeing the words of Matthew 16:18 come true before their very eyes: “I will build my church,” Jesus said, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (KJV).
DREAMS AND VISIONS
Ultimately, I’m told that most Iranian MBBs are not coming to Christ primarily through The Passion of the Christ or the JESUS film, or through radio and satellite TV ministries, or even through the work of the mushrooming house-church movement. These resources are vitally important. They are giving many unbelievers initial exposure to the gospel, and they are certainly strengthening the faith of new believers as well as those who have been following Christ for some time. But they are not enough to bring many Iranians to a point of decision. What is bringing these Iranians to Christ are dreams and visions of Jesus.
One Iranian Muslim woman had a dream in which God told her, “Whatever the two women you are going to meet with tomorrow tell you, listen to them.” Startled, she went through the next day curious who she would meet. She had no plans to meet anyone, but sure enough, at one point two Iranian Christian women came up to her and explained the message of salvation to her. She obeyed the Lord’s directive from the dream, listened carefully, and then bowed her head and prayed to receive Christ as her Savior.
Several years ago, an Iranian pastor I know met a twenty-two-yearold Iranian Shia woman who had become a Christian after seeing a vision of Jesus Christ. She just showed up in his church one day, hungry to study the Bible for herself. The more she studied God’s Word, the more deeply she loved Jesus. Soon, she discovered that God had given her the spiritual gift of evangelism. That is, not only did she have a passion to share her faith with others; the Holy Spirit had also blessed her with a supernatural ability to lead Muslims to Jesus. Today, she leads an average of fifteen people to Christ every day—that’s right, fifteen a day. She told my pastor friend that Iranian Muslims are so desperate for the gospel that typically it takes about five minutes to share the story of her conversion and how God has changed her life before the listener is ready to also receive Christ. “Difficult” conversations, she says, with several questions or concerns, take fifteen to twenty minutes. Her prayer: to lead seven thousand Iranian Muslims to Christ over the next five years.
In my third novel, The Ezekiel Option, I tell the story of two Christians driving through the mountains of Iran with a car full of Bibles.
Suddenly, their steering wheel jammed and they had to slam on the brakes to keep from driving off the side of the road. When they looked up, they saw an old man knocking on their windows and asking if they had the books.
“What books?” they asked.
“The books about Jesus,” the old man replied. He went on to explain that an angel recently came to him in a vision and told him about Jesus. Later he found out that everyone in his mountain village had had the same vision. They were all brand-new followers of Jesus, but they did not know what do to next. Then the old man had a dream in which Jesus told him to go down the mountain and wait by the road for someone to bring books that would explain how to be a Christian. He obeyed, and suddenly two men with a car full of Bibles had come to a stop right in front of him.
This was one of my favorite passages in The Ezekiel Option, but it’s not fiction. I didn’t make it up. It’s true. I got it directly from a dear friend of mine who is the head of a ministry in the Middle East. He personally knows the men involved. I simply asked if I could change their names for use in the novel, and my friend agreed.
THE BIG, UNTOLD STORY ‑ PART TWO
More evidence of a dramatic revival in the Middle East
WHAT GOD IS DOING IN IRAN is extraordinary.
But it is just the beginning. As you travel through the rest of the Islamic world, you find miracles happening everywhere and accelerating as never before.
REVIVAL IN NORTH AFRICA
Senior pastors and ministry leaders in Egypt estimate there are more than 2.5 million followers of Jesus Christ in their country. A growing number of these are Muslim converts, and there is also an enormous revival going on among nominal Christians inside the historic Coptic church, whose members number about 10 million.
Lynn’s mom, our boys, Lynn, and I lived in Egypt for nearly three months in late 2005 and early 2006 when I was researching and writing Epicenter. During that time, we had the opportunity to see this enormous surge of Christianity firsthand. We met with Egyptian MBBs and NCBBs engaged in satellite television ministry, in radio ministry, in Internet ministry, in gospel literature distribution, and in all manner of evangelism outreaches and discipleship programs. We visited a variety of churches, including the famous “garbage church” in the caves above Cairo, located right next to the biggest “city” of trash and waste products I have ever seen in my life.
To get to the “garbage church,” you must first drive through this “city” of badly built brick and cement apartment buildings teeming with an estimated fifteen to thirty thousand “garbage people”—no one knows for sure, and the numbers are always changing—living amid literally thousands of tons of trash. Everywhere you look you see people picking through it, sorting it, rebagging it, looking for objects of value and hoping to sell plastic bottles and the like to recyclers. The stench is unbelievable.
But then you come through it to the other side, to a paved parking lot and a lovely little Christian chapel, nestled against huge cliffs. Carved into the cliffs are the most amazing scenes of Jesus walking on water, Jesus on the cross, Jesus ascending to heaven, and so forth, each with a Bible verse inscribed below it in Arabic and English, all done by a Polish artist. Inside the six caves are six chapels, the largest of which holds twenty thousand people.
Our guide that day was an MBB named Addel. He shared with us (by translation) how he was lost in drugs and alcohol and the depression of living in the garbage village. He also shared with us how he came to hear an audiocassette of one of the priests at the church and how God used that sermon to convict him of his sin and point him to what Jesus did on the cross to pay the penalty for his sins and offer him forgiveness. Now Addel greets visitors who come to see this extraordinary ministry and tells them the story of what God is doing there.
The church was planted, he said, in 1978 by a Coptic priest with a burden for reaching people many consider, as Paul called himself, “the scum of the world, the dregs of all things”* with the Good News that they could be adopted by the King of kings. So many people became Christians in the years that followed that in 1992 they had to covert the largest cave into a worship amphitheater. On an average weekend, some ten thousand new and growing believers from the garbage community come to sing and hear the message of the gospel and learn how to be true disciples of Jesus Christ. Services are held on Thursday nights (the most popular service), Friday mornings, and Sunday evenings.
In May of 2005, more than twenty thousand Arab believers gathered for a day of prayer for their unsaved Muslim friends to become followers of Christ. The event was broadcast throughout the Middle East on a Christian satellite television network, allowing millions more to see God powerfully at work.
The number of believers in Libya is not currently known. In Tunisia, I am told, there are less than a thousand MBBs. But in neighboring Algeria—the birthplace of St. Augustine, one of the early Church fathers, but for many centuries almost devoid of a Christian presence—more than eighty thousand Muslims have become followers of Christ in recent years. The vast majority of these believers are young people under the age of thirty.
The surge of Christianity has become so alarming to Islamic clerics that in March of 2006, Algerian officials passed a law banning Muslims from becoming Christians or even learning about Christianity. Christians trying to share their faith with Muslims face two to five years in jail and fines of five thousand to ten thousand euros for “trying to call on a Muslim to embrace another religion.” In a move to stamp out the rapidly growing house-church movement, the law also forbids Christians from meeting together in any building without a license from the government.
Christianity is also growing in Morocco. On a 2005 trip to Casablanca and Rabat, I found the Moroccan media up in arms about the “phenomenon of Moroccans converting to Christianity,” suggesting that between 20,000 and 40,000 Muslims have become Christ-followers. The Morocco Times, for example, ran an article on March 12, 2005, entitled, “Why Are Moroccans Converting to Christianity?” Then on January 24, 2006, the Times published a story entitled “Evangelical Missionaries Back in the Limelight.”
Local pastors and ministry leaders have told me that the kinds of numbers cited in these stories may be overstated, but they readily acknowledge that God is on the move in their country. During my visits there, I have personally had the privilege of meeting many MBB leaders who shared with me the dramatic stories of their own conversions. Some of these leaders were actually “hajjis”—meaning they were once such devout Muslims that they made the pilgrimage to Mecca known as the Haj to worship Allah—before leaving Islam and turning to Christ. Now they are evangelists, disciple makers, and church planters overflowing with exciting stories of how other Moroccans are coming to Christ. Let me share just one with you.
A young Muslim woman from Morocco—let’s call her Abidah (which means “worshiper”)—saw the JESUS film while living and working in Europe and became a follower of Jesus. After two years of being discipled in the faith by an older and wiser believer, Abidah went home on vacation to visit her Emily in Morocco. For five days she prayed about how to tell her family that she had become a Christian, but she was too scared. On the sixth day, her sister also returned home from Europe. “Hey, look what I got for free!” the sister said to her family, showing them a copy of the Injil (New Testament) and the JESUS film a Christian had given her as a gift on the ferry ride across the Mediterranean.
“Hey, look, the film is about Isar (Muslim term for Jesus) exclaimed the father, a traditional Muslim. “He’s our prophet. Let’s all watch it.”
Abidah was in shock.
The family sat down together in front of the television. About halfway through the film, the whole family was asking one question after another, trying to understand who Jesus was, why He taught the way He did, and how He could do miracles and show such love and compassion to everyone, including His enemies. Abidah saw her opening. She started answering the questions. Now it was her family who was in shock. “Why do you know all these things?” asked her father.
“Because I saw this movie two years ago and I became a Christian. But I’ve been afraid to tell you.”
A cloud covered her father’s face. He looked angry. But when he spoke, he did not yell at Abidah. Instead, he said, “What! You made us wait five days to hear about Jesus?”
REVIVAL IN SUDAN
In Sudan, meanwhile, one of the biggest stories in modern Christendom is unfolding—a spiritual awakening of almost unimaginable proportions amid civil war, radical Islam, rampant persecution, and outright genocide. Some three hundred thousand Sudanese have been killed in recent years in Darfur alone. More than 2.5 million Sudanese have been displaced by all the fighting. Yet the God of the Bible is moving powerfully there to draw these dear people into His family.
In Epicenter, I reported that one million Sudanese had turned to Christ just since the year 2000—not in spite of persecution, war, and genocide, but because of them. “People see what radical Islam is like,” one Sudanese Christian leader told me, “and they want Jesus instead.”
Since the book’s release in the fall of 2006, more than a quarter of a million additional Sudanese have given their lives to Christ, bringing the estimated total number of believers in the country to more than 5.5 million.’ The crying need now is for more trained pastors, Bible teachers, disciple makers, and humanitarian relief workers.
When Sudan received independence in 1956, there were only five or six born-again Anglican priests in the entire country. Today there are more than 3,500 Anglican priests there, along with scores of pastors and ministry leaders from other denominations.6 But this is simply not enough to keep up with the demand. Students are attending seminary classes in caves. The government is preventing Christians from building adequate ministry training facilities. And, of course, hundreds of churches have been destroyed by years of fighting.
REVIVAL IN IRAQ
In the fall of 2008, several colleagues and I had the privilege of traveling to Iraq and participating in a conference of prayer, worship, and Bible teaching attended by 640 Iraqi pastors, worship leaders, Bible study leaders, and young people. It was, we were told, the fourth such annual conference, and this one constituted by far the largest gathering of Iraqi believers in the modern history of the country.
It was an incredibly special time, and I wish every one of my readers could have a similar opportunity. The believers and their pastors came from every province in the country. They were filled with joy and excitement to worship God and to be together as brothers and sisters in Christ. They literally sang songs of praise and adoration to their Lord Jesus Christ for two—and sometimes three—hours at a time before settling down for a pastor to teach from the Bible. After each session, they would huddle together to compare notes about what God was doing in their cities, towns, and villages. They would tell stories of miracles they were seeing happen in their midst. They would pray with and for each other. They would exchange e-mail addresses and promise to stay in touch with each other. They also asked the Western pastors and ministry leaders, of which there were a few in attendance, to pray about coming back and helping to lead future conferences and retreats to train Iraqi believers how to study the Bible for themselves.
Without a doubt, the hunger for Christ inside Iraq is also at an all-time high, say the numerous Iraqi pastors and ministry leaders I interviewed. Several million Arabic New Testaments and Christian books have been shipped into Iraq since the liberation. Millions more are being printed inside the country, and pastors say they cannot keep up with the demand. What’s more, Iraqis today are turning to Christ in numbers unimaginable at any point during Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror.
Before 2003, senior Iraqi Christian leaders tell me, there were only about four to six hundred known born-again followers of Jesus Christ in the entire country, despite an estimated 750,000 nominal Christians in historic Iraqi churches. By the time Epicenter was published in 2006, the number of known believers inside Iraq had grown to more than five thousand. And God has continued moving powerfully since then. By the end of 2008, Iraqi Christian leaders estimated that there were more than seventy thousand born-again Iraqi believers—some ten thousand actively worshiping in above-ground Bible-teaching churches inside Iraq, at least another ten thousand worshiping in secret house churches inside Iraq, and another fifty thousand living as refugees outside the country, mostly in Jordan, Egypt, Europe, and the U.S.
In addition to Muslims converting to Christianity in large numbers, there is also a significant spiritual awakening under way inside the traditional Iraqi churches. “Catholic and Orthodox Christian priests are seeing their faith in Christ revitalized,” one Iraqi pastor, who asked not to be named, told me. “They want to see their churches restored to the first-century kind of activity—evangelism, discipleship, and miracles.”
Why such spiritual hunger? Every Iraqi Christian I have interviewed has given me the same two answers: war and persecution. Though the security in Iraq was deteriorating from 2003 to 2007, one of the top leaders of the Revivalist movement there told me he had never seen so many Iraqis praying to receive Christ and wanting Bible teaching.
I asked him how he accounted for such developments.
“It’s not that complicated really, Joel,” he replied. “When human beings are under threat, they look for a strong power to help them—a refuge. Iraqis look around and when they see believers in Jesus enjoying internal peace during a time of such violence and fear, they want Jesus too.”‘
But, I asked, how did he and his disciples share their faith and lead people to Christ with all the suicide bombings, car bombings, snipers, and other troubles of the past few years?
“We did what we could,” he said, “but God is not dependent upon us. This is something He is doing on His own. He is drawing Muslims to Christ. We are just His servants, helping where we can. The truth is, God is healing Muslims of sicknesses and diseases. He’s also giving Muslims visions of Jesus Christ. He is coming to them and speaking to them, and they are repenting and giving their lives to Him. I’m saying that Shiites are seeing visions of Christ and repenting. When we meet them, they already believe in Jesus. We don’t have to share the gospel with them. We want to, but it’s not necessary. They’re already convinced that Jesus is the Savior. They’re already convinced that the Bible is the Word of God. So we help them study the Bible. We help them grow in their faith and get into a good church so they can meet other believers and learn to worship the Lord as part of the Church. But you see, Joel, it is God who is at work. He is making this happen—not us.”
REVIVAL IN THE HOLY LAND
In the heart of the epicenter itself—Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and Gaza—signs of revival are finally noticeable after centuries of spiritual drought.
In 1967 there were only a few hundred NCBBs and only a handful of MBBs in the Holy Land. Today, when you include Israeli Arab believers and Palestinian believers living in the West Bank and Gaza, there are about five to six thousand born-again followers of Jesus Christ walking where He once walked. What’s really exciting is that just since 2007, nearly one thousand Muslims have come to Christ in the West Bank alone, most of them converted through dreams and visions of Jesus. What’s more, the quality of the converts is exceptional. Indeed, Jesus appears to be handpicking spiritual game-changers out of His backyard and raising them up to be enormously influential in reaching the rest of the epicenter with the gospel.
One of the most influential Revivalists I have ever met is a Palestinian Arab. Born to a nominal Christian family in Jerusalem in 1947, Taheer (whom I cited in the last chapter) was barely six months old when the first Arab-Israeli war broke out. His mother died soon thereafter. Nevertheless, God was incredibly gracious to him, bringing him to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of eighteen as he wept on his knees with repentance after finally reading the New Testament for himself.
“I will not leave you as orphans,” Jesus said in John 14:18-19. “I will come to you. After a little while the world will no longer see Me, but you will see Me; because I live, you will live also.” These verses were suddenly coming true in this man’s life, and he soon developed a passion for reaching Muslims and nominal Christians with God’s amazing grace. When I met him, he was running the Arab-language division of one of the world’s most effective radio ministries, broadcasting the gospel and hour after hour of solid Bible teaching to millions of Muslims scanning their radio dials for hope and truth.
Several years ago, Lynn and I met three young Palestinian men from Bethlehem who had become believers from nominal Christian backgrounds. Not long before we had met them, they were teenage boys throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and participating with PLO activists and Hamas Radicals in violent demonstrations against what they denounced as “Israeli occupation of Palestine.” But after coming to faith in Jesus Christ, they had changed completely. Now they were sharing their new faith with anyone and everyone who would listen, enrolling in intensive Bible and evangelism training classes, and doing everything they could to train younger Palestinian believers to become effective in ministry as well.
“The Church is really growing here—finally,” one of them told me. “I remember just a few years ago there was a church in Bethlehem where there was just the pastor and one believer. But the pastor conducted services as if the little worship hall was full, like a regular church. He would stand up at the pulpit and read announcements. He would preach his sermon. Then he would tell the congregation to stand for a closing song. The congregation was just this one guy. But the guy would stand up and sing, and then sit back down. Before I became a believer, I thought it was funny. But now that little church has more than one hundred new believers in it. I don’t think it’s funny anymore. It’s very exciting!”‘
REVIVAL IN SYRIA, LEBANON, AND JORDAN
In 1967, there were no known born-again followers of Jesus Christ from a Muslim background in the entire country of Syria. But after the humiliating loss to the Israelis and all the casualties and carnage wrought by the war, spiritual interest in the gospel began to grow. By 1997, there were about one thousand known believers in Syria. Today, there are between four and five thousand born-again believers in the country, both MBBs and NCBBs combined.
Does more need to be done? Absolutely. But as one Arab ministry leader there told me: “I am so excited because God is doing a miracle in Syria.” Women, he said, are particularly receptive to the gospel. About two hundred fifty women attended one conference his wife organized—and ninety-six prayed to receive Christ. “Some of the first churches in the world were in Syria in the first century,” he reminded me. “Then it became a spiritual desert. But now the Church is coming back here.” What’s more, he says that “because Paul received Christ on the road to Damascus, we have a vision for this to become a sending country”—that is, a country that sends trained disciples from Syria to other Muslim countries in the region to share the gospel.”
Arab Christian leaders in Jordan tell me that in 1967, there were fewer than one thousand born-again believers in this entire biblically historic country—only about ten known Muslim Background Believers and only five to eight hundred Nominal Christian Background Believers. But God has been reviving the Church in the last four decades, and particularly in the past few years. Conservative estimates say the number of believers in the country is now between five and ten thousand. The head of one major Jordanian ministry, however, believes there may be as many as fifty thousand believers in the country—about fifteen thousand NCBBs and more than thirty-five thousand MBBs. Again, the precise numbers are not as important as the trend, and the trend is that the Church is definitely bearing fruit again after centuries of spiritual barrenness.
In Lebanon, sources tell me, there are about ten thousand truly born-again followers of Jesus Christ today, though nearly four in ten of the country’s 4 million residents describe themselves as “Christian.” Most of the believers are NCBBs, but Muslims are starting to show an openness to the gospel that has been lacking for centuries.
As the Second Lebanon War erupted in July of 2006, Lebanese Revivalists huddled together to fast and pray for their country, even as rockets and bombs were falling all around them and the mood of the people was quickly darkening. “The Lebanese find themselves in a very dark tunnel, and they feel there is no light,” a local Arab ministry leader told me later. “We asked God for wisdom to know how to love our neighbors and our enemies.”
The believers soon found themselves drawn to Matthew 5:14-16, in which Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
They decided they needed to spring into action, not wait for the war to be over. They mobilized dozens of teams of twenty believers each to begin doing relief work among the Shia families from southern Lebanon who had fled to the Beirut area for safety. In just a few short weeks, with financial help from the Joshua Fund, they delivered forty thousand packages of food, cooking supplies, New Testaments, and the JESUS film on DVD to these displaced and terrified families. They also drove trucks filled with relief supplies and gospel literature to Shia families hunkered down in the south as well as those in the Bekaa Valley, near the border with Syria.
“Food they need, but Jesus they need more,” said an Arab Christian ministry worker. Through that outreach alone, more than 1,100 Lebanese Muslims prayed to receive Christ as their Savior.
REVIVAL IN SAUDI ARABIA
In Saudi Arabia—the epicenter of Islam due to its status as the home of Mecca and Medina—a dramatic spiritual awakening is taking place. In 1967, Arab Christian leaders tell me, there were only a handful of Muslim Background Believers in the entire country. By 2005, they estimated there were more than one hundred thousand Saudi MBBs. They believe the numbers are even higher today, and they say that thousands more Saudis have come to Christ in Europe and elsewhere around the world. Most are coming to Christ through dreams and visions, though often they first hear about the claims of Christ through gospel radio broadcasting, satellite television, the Internet, or through Christians befriending them and giving them a Bible or a book or film about the life of Christ.
Consider one example. A Saudi woman—let’s call her Marzuqah (which means “blessed by God”)—secretly converted to Christianity. But she had a brother who was dying of a terrible disease, and Marzuqah was deeply grieved. She loved her brother very much, and she wanted to spend eternity with him in heaven. So she prayed fervently for God to heal and to save her brother.
One day, Jesus appeared to Marzuqah in a dream. “Your prayers have been answered,” He told her. “Go tell your brother about Me.” She did.
To her astonishment, her brother prayed with her to receive Christ. Then his health improved briefly. The family—seeing his physical improvement but not knowing about his conversion—asked, “Why is this happening?”
The brother said, “It is because I accepted Jesus as my Savior. And He is my healer, not physically but spiritually. You must take Him too.” After explaining why he had given his life to Christ, he died the next day. But first, he made the family promise not to harm Marzuqah for her faith. They agreed.
Though her family has not yet followed her lead, Marzuqah has become a devoted disciple. She studies her Bible two hours a day. She has found other secret believers to meet with for prayer and Bible study. And she is sharing the gospel with her Muslim friends. “There are so many people I must tell about Jesus!” she says.13
REVIVAL IN AFGHANISTAN
Before September 11, 2001, I am told, there were fewer than one hundred MBBs in all of Afghanistan. By 2006 I reported in Epicenter that there were 10,000 MBBs, based on the reporting of several trusted sources. However, after traveling to the country in the fall of 2008 and meeting with senior pastors and ministry leaders there, I am inclined to revise that figure downward to a range of between 3,000 and 5,000.
Is God moving powerfully in Afghanistan? He most certainly is.
Has the Church grown significantly since 9/11? Absolutely. The question is simply by how much. Some sources told me the number of Afghan believers is now between 20,000 and 30,000. That could be true, but I honestly did not see enough evidence to convince me with any certainty that there are even 10,000 at present. There is not a single Afghan MBB church that can operate safely above ground. There are no prayer or worship conferences that Afghan MBBs can attend in any significant numbers. Persecution of the believers is intense. Indeed, a thirty-four-year old foreign Christian aid worker was martyred in Kabul just after we left, shot in the head by two members of the Taliban.”
“The greatest need now is leadership development,” one Afghan ministry leader told me. “We need to train pastors to care for all these new believers.”
An illiterate Afghan Muslim man came to Christ a few years ago and began to be discipled by an older and wiser man in the faith. He then enrolled in a series of training classes for secret believers to grow in their faith. After graduating from the fifth level of Bible and ministry training, he shared the gospel with his town, and almost everyone prayed to receive Christ. Together, they built the first Afghan Christian church without any outside help.
Ministry leaders in Afghanistan say the spiritual liberation of the country began as soon as the political liberation did. The Revivalists began distributing humanitarian relief supplies–food, clothing, medical supplies, and the like—to their neighbors and even to their enemies to show the love of Jesus Christ in a real and practical way. They set up medical clinics and English-language schools and job-training programs. Their goal was not to convert people but simply to love people.
At the same time, they began using radio and satellite television to beam the gospel to Afghans hungry to hear the truth after decades of oppression. They began distributing copies of the New Testament and other pieces of gospel literature by the hundreds of thousands. Perhaps more important, they began showing and distributing copies of the JESUS film translated into local languages and dialects to reach the illiterate.
And Afghans began responding.
The enormous controversy over the case of Abdul Rahman, a Muslim convert to Christianity facing execution by a court in Kabul for apostasy, became the talk of the nation in the spring of 2006, with saturation coverage by Afghan TV, radio, and newspapers. The event shone a huge spotlight on the fact that Afghans are turning to Christ in such numbers that Islamic leaders are furious. It also showed the fledgling Afghan church that fellow believers around the world are praying for them and eager to see them grow and flourish.
By God’s grace, and with pressure from American, Canadian, British, Italian, and other leaders, the case against Rahman was dropped. He was set free and left the country.
But persecution of believers in Afghanistan has hardly diminished. Just days after Rahman’s release, two more Afghan believers were arrested, and according to Compass Direct news service and Open Doors, a Christian ministry to the “closed” countries of the Middle East, one young Afghan convert to Christianity “was beaten severely outside his home by a group of six men, who finally knocked him unconscious with a hard blow to his temple. He woke up in the hospital two hours later” but was discharged before morning. Compass and Open Doors also reported that “several other Afghan Christians have been subjected to police raids on their homes and places of work in the past month, as well as to telephone threats.”
REVIVAL IN CENTRAL ASIA
During the summer of 1986, I had the privilege of traveling to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, to share Christ with Muslims. At the time, there were only a few Uzbek believers in a country of 27 million people. Today, there are some thirty thousand Uzbek followers of Christ, and hunger for the gospel is at an all-time high. “Hundreds and hundreds of churches were planted after the Soviet Union broke down,” one Uzbek Christian leader told me. “And now these churches are growing.”‘
On that same trip, I also had the opportunity to travel to Alma-Ata (now Almaty) in southern Kazakhstan, near the Chinese border, on a ministry trip to share the gospel with Muslims. At the time there were no known Kazakh believers in Christ in the entire country of 15 million people. By 1990, there were only three known believers. But today evangelical leaders in the country report that there are more than sixteen thousand Kazakh Christians, and more than one hundred thousand Christians of all ethnicities.
The stories I hear from Kazakhstan today are extraordinary. One young Kazakh Muslim man, for example, was severely persecuted after he converted to Christianity and began preaching the gospel in village after village. The leaders of his own village cursed him and said terrible things about him. But several years later, two Muslim tribal leaders came to his home with a lamb. They said they had come to apologize because their crops were failing, their livestock were dying, and they knew God was punishing them.
“Will you forgive us?” they asked.
The evangelist said yes.
Then the leaders sacrificed the lamb as a sign of their repentance. This opened a new door for the young man to bear witness for Christ in that village, explaining verses from the Bible like John 1:29, which describes Jesus Christ as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” because of His death on the cross. The tribal leaders did not immediately come to Christ. But having asked the evangelist for forgiveness and being willing to listen respectfully to the Word of God, they found that their crops suddenly began to grow and their livestock began to flourish again.
And then something really unexpected happened. The evangelist’s father would not speak to his son or visit his home for ten years because of his son’s conversion to Christianity. But after watching how calmly and patiently his son had endured the village’s persecution, and how God had withdrawn his favor from the village and now was giving it back again, the father sat up all night with his son asking him questions about his faith, about the Bible, and about the power of his son’s God to hear prayers and answer them.
In the morning, the Holy Spirit moved in the father’s heart and the son had the privilege of praying with him to receive Jesus Christ as his personal Savior and Lord.
REVIVAL IN PAKISTAN
Senior Pakistani Christian leaders whom I have great trust in tell me there is a “conversion explosion” going on in their country, comparable in many ways to what is going on in Iran, Sudan, and Egypt. Despite the fact that Pakistan is a base camp for the Radicals, God is moving powerfully, and there are now an estimated 2.5 million to 3 million born-again believers worshiping Jesus Christ amongst the jihadists. Whole towns and villages along the Afghan-Pakistani border are seeing dreams and visions of Jesus and are converting to Christianity.
One young Pakistani Muslim who converted to Christianity became a bold minister of the gospel to Taliban refugees. Over the course of two to three years, the thirty-one-year-old evangelist personally led eight hundred Taliban extremists to faith in Christ before he was captured and murdered and his car set ablaze by a bloodthirsty mob.
The spiritual climate is so ripe for harvest that even Indian evangelists are seeing record numbers of Pakistanis come to Christ. My friend Dr. T. E. Koshy, a senior elder in one of India’s largest evangelical church-planting movements, began traveling to Pakistan in 1993 to preach the gospel and strengthen the local believers. In 2006, he addressed a conference in the city of Lahore on the topic “Jesus Christ, the Healer.”
He told the gathered crowd of more than ten thousand people, “Sin is the worst sickness of all. And only Christ can heal us of this sickness.” He pointed to passages like Matthew 4:23-24, which tells us that “Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching . . . and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people. The news about Him spread throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all who were ill, those suffering with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and He healed them.” He pointed to passages like Matthew 14:14, which tells us that when Jesus “went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick.”
Koshy also pointed to passages like Matthew 9:1-8, which tells the story of Jesus healing a paralyzed man. “Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven,” Jesus told the man. The religious leaders were angry when they heard this, saying privately to each other, “This fellow blasphemes.” Jesus, however, knew exactly what they were thinking. So He said to them, “Which is easier, to say, `Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, `Get up, and walk’?” Then, in a stunning display of His authority, Jesus said to the paralytic, “Get up, pick up your bed and go home.” And the paralyzed man jumped to his feet, completely healed physically and completely healed spiritually. The text tells us that “when the crowds saw this, they were awestruck, and glorified God, who had given such authority to men.”
When Koshy was finished preaching, more than a thousand Pakistanis—all of them weeping over their sins—made decisions to receive Jesus Christ as their Savior and their Healer. For the next four nights, Koshy preached the power of Christ to heal and forgive, and when the conference was over, more than three thousand Pakistanis had become followers of Jesus Christ.”
I asked Koshy why so many Pakistanis—Muslims and nominal Christians—are giving their lives to the Lord in this post-9/11 world.” Today, with so many Christians in Pakistan, many are seeing the believers demonstrate Christ’s love in real and practical ways,” he said. “When the massive earthquake struck several years ago, it was the Christians who responded with relief supplies, love, and compassion.
One Muslim told me, ‘No one else but the Christians came to give us hope.’ Pakistanis now are able to see the difference between hard-core radical Islam and hard-core Christianity, and they are choosing Jesus. You can see the hand of God moving so powerfully. The restlessness of the masses is created by the Enemy, and Pakistanis are coming to realize that they can only find rest and healing and forgiveness through Jesus Christ.”
THE AIR WAR
How the Revivalists use Television and radio to reach Muslims with the gospel
YOU HAVE PROBABLY never heard of Father Zakaria Botros.
But you need to know his story. He is far and away the most watched and most effective Arab evangelist operating in the Muslim world, and he is by far the most controversial. I think of him as the Rush Limbaugh of the Revivalists—he is funny, feisty, brilliant, opinionated, and provocative. But rather than preaching the gospel of conservatism, he is preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. And his enemies do not simply want to silence him. They want to assassinate him.
An Arabic newspaper has named Botros “Islam’s Public Enemy #1.”‘ The week I interviewed Botros by phone from a secure, undisclosed location, he told me that he had just learned that an al Qaeda Web site had posted his photograph and named him one of the “most wanted” infidels in the world.’ The Radicals have even put a bounty on his head. The Christian Broadcasting Network reported the figure was as high as $60 million.’ Botros does not know for certain. But just to put that in context, the U.S. bounty on Osama bin Laden’s head is $25 million.
Why are the Radicals so enraged by a Coptic priest from Egypt who is in his seventies? Because Botros is waging an air war against them, and he is winning.
Using state-of-the art satellite technology to bypass the efforts of Islamic governments to keep the gospel out of their countries, Botros is directly challenging the claims of Muhammad to be a prophet and the claims of the Qur’an to be God’s word. He systematically deconstructs Muhammad’s life, story by story, pointing out character flaws and sinful behavior. He carefully deconstructs the Qur’an, verse by verse, citing contradictions and inconsistencies. And not only does he explain without apology what he believes is wrong with Islam; he goes on to teach from the Bible why Jesus loves Muslims and why He is so ready to forgive them and adopt them into His family, no matter who they are or what they have done.
If Botros were doing this in a corner, or on some cable-access channel where no one saw him or cared, that would be one thing. But his ninety-minute program—a combination of preaching, teaching, and answering questions from (often irate) callers all over the world—has become “must-see TV” throughout the Muslim world. It is replayed four times a week in Arabic, his native language, on a satellite television network called Al Hayat (“Life TV”). It can be seen in every country in North Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia. It can also been seen throughout North America, Europe, and even as far away as Australia and New Zealand. And not only can it be seen in so many places, it is seen—by an estimated 50 million Muslims a day.
At the same time, Botros is getting millions of hits on his multiple Web sites in multiple languages. There, Muslims can read his sermons and study through an archive of answers to frequently asked questions. They can also enter a live chat room called “Pal Chat,” where they are not only permitted but encouraged to ask their toughest questions to trained online counselors, many of whom are Muslim converts to Christianity who understand exactly where the questioners are coming from and the struggles they face.
As a result, “Father Zakaria”—who has been on the air only since 2003—has practically become a household name in the Muslim world. Millions hate him, to be sure, but they are watching. They are listening. They are processing what he is saying, and they are talking about him with their friends and family.
When Botros challenges Radical clerics to answer his many refutations of Islam and defend the Qur’an, millions wait to see how the fundamentalists will respond. But they rarely do. They prefer to attack Botros rather than answer him.
Yet the more the Radicals attack him, the more well-known he becomes. The more well-known he becomes, the more Muslims feel compelled to tune in. And as more Muslims tune in, more are coming to the conclusion that he is right and are in turn choosing to become followers of Jesus Christ.
Botros estimates at least a thousand Muslims a month pray to receive Christ with his telephone counselors. Some of them pray to receive Christ live on the air with Botros. And this surely is the tip of the iceberg, as it represents only those who are able to get through on the jammed phone lines. There simply are not enough trained counselors to handle all the calls.
Many leading Arab evangelists I interviewed for Inside the Revolution said they believe God is using Botros to help bring in the greatest harvest of Muslim converts to Christianity in the history of Christendom. Botros refuses to take any credit, saying he is just one voice in a movement of millions. But he is certainly excited by the trend lines. He does see more Muslims turning to Christ than ever before, and he told me he has cited Epicenter at least three times as evidence of the enormous numbers of conversions taking place.
What’s more, he vows to keep preaching the gospel so long as the Lord Jesus gives him breath. John 3:16—”For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son [Jesus], that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”—is the verse that drives Botros. He believes passionately that God loves the whole world, including each and every Muslim. He believes that “whoever” believes in the lordship of Jesus Christ—Jew, Muslim, or otherwise—will, in fact, receive eternal life. He does not believe all Muslims are Radicals, but he does believe all Muslims are spiritually lost, and he desperately wants to help them find their way to forgiveness and reconciliation with the God who made them and loves them.
“I believe this is the hand of God,” Botros told me when we spoke by phone in September 2008. “He is directing me.
He shows me what to say. He shows me what to write on the Web sites. He is showing me more and more how to use technology to reach people with his message of redemption.”
Zakaria Botros was born in Egypt in 1934 to a Christian family that raised him to love Christ with all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength and to study the Bible for himself. “Since I was a child I loved Jesus and loved to worship Him,” he said. Sadness struck at a young age, however, when his older brother, Fuad, was murdered by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. “But it did not cause me to be against Muslims,” Botros said. “I know he was a believer. I will see him again in heaven.”
What did affect Botros was a high school teacher who was “a very fanatic Muslim.” The teacher was “always asking me difficult questions about the Bible” and mocking Christianity. “I started to study Islam to answer him. I read the Qur’an and other books. And then I became a Sunday school teacher in my church, and I began teaching the youth about what was wrong about Islam and what was right about the Bible.”
In 1959, at the age of twenty-five, Botros was ordained as a priest in the Egyptian Coptic church, one of the oldest Christian Orthodox denominations in the Middle East, started in Alexandria, Egypt, by the apostle Mark. “After I became a priest, I began to print lectures and essays explaining how to refute Islam and lead people to Jesus,” Botros said. By the time he was arrested and imprisoned for his faith in 1981, he had baptized five hundred MBBs.
But it was not enough. Botros wanted to have more impact. When he was released from prison after a year, he went back to preaching the gospel and refitting Islam. By 1989, the Egyptian authorities had had enough. They not only arrested him; they sentenced him to life in prison.
After much prayer—his own and the prayers of many of his disciples and friends—Botros was surprised when the authorities made an offer he could not refuse: they would set him free, but only if he left Egypt and went into exile, never to return. He agreed and moved to Melbourne, Australia, where he practiced his faith freely until moving in 1992 to England, where he lived eleven years.
It was there, amid a British society that was rapidly becoming home to Muslim immigrants from all over the world, that Botros began praying about ways to reach more Muslims. He could not bear the thought of speaking to only a few at a time. But he also knew that for security purposes he needed to have a way to get “in the face” of a Muslim without literally being in his face.
In early 2001, the Lord answered his prayers. Someone suggested he set up an Internet chat room where he could have online conversations with Muslims without subjecting himself to physical danger. In April of that year, “Pal Talk” was born.
Soon a producer for Al Hayat heard the growing buzz about Botros and invited him to be a guest on the network. The interview went well. Botros was asked back again and again. In time, Al Hayat executives asked him to host his own weekly program, teaching the Bible and challenging the Qur’an. After much prayer, Botros agreed.
“Truth Debate” debuted on September 1, 2003. At first, the show was taped. “We used to record twenty episodes in a week and they would air them later,” Botros recalls. But in February 2008, the decision was made to go live for ninety minutes every Friday night during prime time (9 p.m.) in the Middle East. While a tape of the show was replayed multiple times throughout the week, it was the live broadcast airing on the Muslim Sabbath when families are home sitting around their televisions that changed everything. The audience grew rapidly, and so did the controversy.
“It is much more effective now,” Botros said with palpable excitement in his voice. “Now I’m in direct contact with people. They ask me questions in front of the whole Muslim world. They debate me. They challenge me. And then they accept Christ on air. Just this morning, a man named Ahmed prayed with me to become a follower of Jesus. He said, ‘I need You, God. I accept You now.’ … What a joy! That is why I do this.”
DIRECTLY CHALLENGING ISLAM
Botros pulls no punches on the air or off He tells Muslims what he believes is wrong with their religion, no matter how painful it may be to hear.
During a 2005 show, for example, he blasted Muslims for abusing children by telling them lies. “Children are brainwashed that Islam is the truth, that Mohammad is the last prophet, that the Christians are infidels, and that the Jews are infidels,” he said. “They repeat it constantly.”
In that same show, he blasted Islamic leaders for historically spreading their religion by violence rather than by persuasion. “Islam, as portrayed in The Encyclopedia of Islam, in the Qur’an and the Hadith, was spread by means of the sword,” Botros said on the show. “The sword played a major role in spreading Islam in the past, and it is the sword that preserves Islam today. Islam relies upon jihad in spreading the religion.’ This is very clear in the encyclopedia. This appears in section 11, page 3,245. It says: ‘Spreading Islam by means of the sword is a duty incumbent upon all Muslims.’ Thus, Islam is spread by means of the sword.”‘
At the same time, Botros also tells Muslims the truth about just how costly it can be in human terms to convert to Christianity, even though that is precisely what he wants them to do. ‘Another thing [you need to know] is the punishment for apostasy,” he said. “[ The Encyclopedia of Islam says that] ‘the punishment of killing any Muslim who abandons Islam is one of the most important factors terrifying all Muslim. He does not dare question the truth of Islam, so that his thoughts will not lead him to abandon Islam. In such a case, he would receive the punishment for apostasy: He would lose his life, and his property.”
Botros said this reminded him of a true story he once heard about a Muslim cleric trying to spread Islam throughout Africa. “They reached a certain place in order to spread Islam, and they asked one of the locals, `Do you prefer to worship one god and have four wives, or to worship three gods and have one wife?’ We, of course, don’t worship three gods, but that’s what they said. The African said, ‘I like four women, and I don’t care which god. I want four women.’
“So they told him to say the shahada [the prayer to become a Muslim], and he did. Then they told him he had to be circumcised in order to become a Muslim. He asked, ‘Do I really have to? I am a grown man.’ They answered, ‘Yes, you have to, in order to get the monthly stipend, and you can marry four wives.’
“The man agreed and underwent the pains of circumcision despite his advanced age. They began to pay him the monthly stipend, but after a few months they canceled the stipend. The man went and asked, `Where’s the money?’
“They told him, ‘Now [that] you are deep in Islam, you don’t need the monthly stipend anymore.’
“He threatened, ‘I will abandon Islam.’
“They said, ‘If you leave Islam, we will carry out the apostasy punishment on you.’ He asked what it was, and they said, ‘We will chop off your head and cut you into pieces.’
“This African man began to mumble, ‘What a strange religion: when you go in they cut off a little piece of you, and when you go out, they cut you into little pieces.”
Botros concluded, “This is the punishment for apostasy that keeps people afraid. Even when they reach the truth, they’re afraid to express their opinion.”
IS IT EFFECTIVE?
I asked Botros whether it was really effective to be so “in your face” with Muslims. “Some people believe the best evangelism with Muslims is to preach the love of Christ alone, not to deconstruct Islam,” I noted. “But you have said that you like to use provocative ideas and language to shock Muslims into thinking about Jesus. You once said, ‘This is my way: short, sharp, shock.’ Isn’t that right?”
“Yes,” he laughed, grateful for the question, not defensive. “Short, sharp, shock—absolutely.”
“So why do you do that?” I asked. “Is that really the best way to show the love of Christ?”
“I will tell you, Joel,” Botros said with the tone of a kindly old grandfather sitting his grandson down to explain to him how the world works. “If you are speaking to a person who is deep in thought, and you say to him so sweetly, ‘Oh, I love you, my friend. You are wonderful. I really appreciate you,’ does he hear you? No. He cannot hear you because he is so focused on his own thoughts. So how do you get his attention? Throw some water in his face? Hit him in the face? That would wake him up, right? Then maybe he gets mad. Maybe he insults you. ‘What are you doing?’ he says. ‘Why did you throw water in my face?’ But now he is paying attention.
“Now, if you go up to a Muslim and say, ‘God loves you,’ will he really hear you? No. He will say, ‘Which of your three gods loves me?’ If you say to a Muslim, ‘The Bible has all the answers for life,’ will he believe you? No. He will say, ‘Oh, you mean the Bible that was changed and can no longer be trusted?’ They do not listen. They are so focused on believing that Islam is the strongest religion in the world, that Muhammad is the best prophet, they are so focused on how wonderful their own beliefs are that they refuse to even consider the claims of Christ. They are brainwashed. Their conscience is dead. So I have to awaken them first by a shock—by an electric shock. I try to wake Muslims up by throwing some water in their face. I’m not doing it to be mean. I’m doing it because I love them.”
“Do Muslim scholars and clerics ever call in or write in to answer you?” I asked.
“No one in five years has really answered my questions,” he said. “I’m guessing that is what makes Muslims so mad at you,” I noted.
Botros laughed. “It causes people to want to kill me.”
“I WANT THEM TO READ THE BIBLE”
“How, then, do you pivot from making provocative statements to sharing the love of Christ with Muslims?” I asked.
“Once I have their attention, I say to them, ‘I read to you from your books about Muhammad and what he had done. If you are searching for the truth—if you are really searching—then compare between Muhammad and Jesus. See what Jesus said about purity and love. But you have to read the Bible to know more. And say to God, ‘If Islam is the truth, let me stand firm in it until eternity. If it is not, and if Jesus is the Truth, please let me know.”‘
“You are trying to provoke them into reading the Bible to prove you are wrong?” I clarified.
“Yes,” Botros said. “I want to them to read the Bible, which is the true Word of God. I want them to study the Bible for themselves, because I know it will open their eyes to who Jesus is and how He can change their lives forever.”
He was making a point I have heard from Revivalists all over the world, from Morocco to Afghanistan: A Christian cannot in and of himself convince a Muslim (or a Jew, or an atheist, or anyone for that matter) of the truth of the gospel and thus “convert” or change him. Only God Himself can do that, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The best that a follower of Jesus can do is to encourage a person to read the Bible and consider the life and claims of Jesus Christ and then encourage him or her to ask God for wisdom to know what the truth is and how to follow it.
This is, in fact, precisely what the Bible tells us to do. Psalm 119 tells us that God’s Word “is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” that will “make me wiser than my enemies” and give a person who studies it carefully more insight than all my teachers.”
The Gospel of John, chapter one, tells us that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John goes on to make it clear that the Word of God “became flesh” in the form of Jesus Christ “and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Paul told us in 2 Timothy 3:15-17 that the Scriptures “are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” and that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”
Hebrews 4:12 says that “the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
And James 1:5 tells us that “if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”
Given his provocative style and powerful success, I asked Botros if he was worried for his safety. He is, after all, married and has four grown children and nine grandchildren.
“I have many guards who care for me day and night,” he replied.
“They are with me without ceasing—twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. And they don’t take from me any penny.” Botros was speaking of angels. While he is careful not to take unnecessary risks, he has entrusted his fate to the Lord.
Once, during an interview in Arabic, Botros was asked, “What should the Muslims do to make you stop saying these things?”‘
Botros thought about it for a moment, and then said he had “ten demands” for Muslim clerics and authorities. If they would agree to all ten and truly implement them, then he would stop preaching the gospel and refuting the Qur’an. During our conversation, I asked Botros to recount his top-ten list in English. He graciously agreed.
Strike out all of the Qur’anic verses that deny the divinity of Jesus and the revelation of God in Him.
Acknowledge that Jesus is the Spirit and Word of God, as they truly believe, without hiding this fact.
Strike out the Qur’anic verses and hadiths that incite Muslims to kill Christians.
Strike out the Qur’anic verses and hadiths that incite Muslims to terrorism and oppression.
Delete all the Qur’anic verses that traduce the truth of Christ’s crucifixion, creating doubt about God’s plan of salvation.
Stop the attacks on Jesus and the Holy Book in mosques and in all the media.
Give Muslims the freedom to choose their religion and the freedom to express their belief.
Abolish the punishment for apostasy, which is death; stop torturing people who convert to Christianity; and stop imprisoning them.
Make formal apologies by leaders throughout the Arab world for the murder of Christians in countries invaded by Islam.
Make formal apologies by leaders throughout the Arab world for the insults directed against the Christian faith throughout Islamic history.
Needless to say, there’s no need to hold your breath waiting for Muslim authorities to comply with these demands. I suspect Father Zakaria Botros will be preaching the gospel nonstop until the Lord Jesus Himself decides to take him home, or until the Rapture.
THE BILLY GRAHAM OF IRAN
While “Father Zakaria” is by far the most watched and best known evangelist to the Muslim world at large on the air today, he is by no means the only one.
I consider my friend Hormoz Shariat to be the Billy Graham of Iran. He is without question the most recognizable and most influential Iranian evangelist in the world. Every night in prime time, Shariat broadcasts by satellite a live program in which he shares the gospel in his native Farsi, teaches in-depth Bible studies, and takes phone calls from Muslims who have sincere questions or simply want to attack him on the air. And given that he is hosting a program unlike anything on Iranian state-run television, Shariat draws an enormous audience, an estimated 7 to 9 million Iranians every night.
The pastor of a fast-growing congregation of Iranian Muslim converts, Shariat also broadcasts his weekly worship service and teaching into Iran. Many secret believers in Iran are too scared to go to a church for fear the secret police might catch them. Many are also too scared to play Christian music in their homes or sing too loudly for fear their neighbors might hear them. For some of them, Shariat’s Sunday service is the only time of worship and fellowship they have. And for Muslims who are curious about Christianity but equally fearful of anyone knowing about their interest, such services give them a safe window into a world of ideas to which they feel increasingly drawn.
Several years ago, Shariat became interested in my novels and in Epicenter and invited me to visit his congregation and TV production facility in another secure, undisclosed location. I gratefully accepted his offer and am so glad I did.
For me, a Jewish believer in Jesus, it was incredibly moving to meet such a remarkable Iranian believer in Jesus, his family, and his staff. It was amazing to see how God is using them to reach the Iranian people they love so much with the life-changing message of the gospel.
Most remarkable to me is that Shariat did not grow up hoping to be an evangelist. In 1979, he and his wife were actually part of the Iranian Revolution. Along with millions of other Iranians, they were out on the streets of Tehran shouting, “Death to America! Death to Israel!” But once the shah fell and Khomeini came to power, Shariat decided he did not want death to come to America too quickly. Why? He wanted to go to graduate school here. Indeed, the desire proved to be a turning point that would change their lives forever.
In the early 1980s, the Shariats obtained the necessary visas and came to the U.S. to study. But they quickly grew homesick, lonely, and despondent. Their marriage was fraying. They were getting into fights. They were seriously contemplating a divorce.
Then Shariat’s wife was invited by an American friend to go with her to visit an evangelical church. For some reason, she said yes, and there she began hearing Bible verses like Jeremiah 31:3, where God says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” She heard John 10:10, in which Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly”—that is, that life might be full and meaningful.
She also heard verses about God’s willingness to forgive all of her sins, verses like 1 John 1:7-9, which says, “If we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Something happened inside of her. She suddenly knew that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah and the only way of salvation, and she prayed to receive Christ into her heart. Then she encouraged her husband to attend church with her. He did, and before long, he too had become a follower of Jesus, drawn in part by God’s love and in part by the notion that God would actually forgive him and give him the assurance of salvation, something he could not get from Islam.
The Shariats’ problems did not evaporate, but they did begin a true, deep relationship with the God who had rescued them and adopted them into His family. To their surprise, they also began falling more deeply in love with each other. They began experiencing joy and peace that welled up from within them. Their circumstances had not really changed—they were still far from home and struggling through school—but their lives had changed. Soon they felt that God was calling them to devote their lives to reaching all of Iran with the gospel, and today they are part of the greatest evangelical air war in the history of Christendom.
Shariat told me, “Joel, I’m often asked, ‘What does Christianity have to offer Muslims?’ I can only report from my own experience and from personally witnessing the effects on thousands of others that have come to Christ from Islam through our ministry. By far, the most expressed benefits are peace and joy—which are direct results of salvation. As Jesus says in John 14:27, ‘Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.’
“Muslims do not enjoy the assurance of salvation. I have heard the prayers of devout Muslims begging God to deliver them from torture in the grave and the fires of hell. Unlike Muslims, Christians have the assurance of salvation. After all, the Bible tells us that salvation is a free gift of God’s grace. It is not something we can earn. It is not something we can buy. It is something God gives us for free. All we have to do is accept it. Acts 16:31 says ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.’ Romans 6:23 says, ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ 1 John 5:13 says, ‘These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life’ (emphasis added). Christians can really know beyond the shadow of a doubt that we are saved and going to heaven. Muslims cannot.
“When I accepted Christ as my Savior, Joel, my heart was filled with peace and joy. It was the most extraordinary thing. And now, one of the greatest rewards of my ministry is to hear Iranian Muslims tell me that they, too, are experiencing peace and joy because they have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Savior and have come to understand His assurance of salvation.”‘
AN EXPLOSION OF SATELLITE EVANGELISM
While other media continue to work powerfully, today it is satellite television that has become the breakthrough strategy to advance the gospel in the Muslim world. And what is amazing to me is just how many people in the epicenter have satellite dishes, even if they own almost no other material possessions.
“Satellite television dishes are sprouting like mushrooms on roof‑tops in post—Saddam Hussein Baghdad,” one news report noted shortly after the Iraqi liberation in 2003. “The trade in TV gear is flourishing, and enterprising Iraqi entrepreneurs see bright prospects for this business. . . . People are buying satellite equipment for two reasons. The first one is that satellite television was illegal in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s rule, and people now want to ‘taste a forbidden fruit.’ The other reason is that . . . people want access to news and entertainment of any kind.”
In Iran, satellite TV is still technically illegal, but no one seems to care. Millions of dishes can be seen throughout big cities like Tehran as well as in small villages and mountain hamlets.
Over the last decade or so, I have had the privilege of traveling through countries with a combined population of over a quarter of a billion Muslims, and everywhere I have gone I have seen satellite dishes sprouting up like weeds. In Bedouin tents in the most barren and isolated sections of the Sinai desert. In the filthiest slums in Cairo. In the remotest mountain villages in Morocco. In the tiniest towns in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the poorest Palestinian neighborhoods of the West Bank. In teeming tenement buildings in Turkey. Friends from Iran and Saudi Arabia and Sudan and Yemen and Pakistan and elsewhere say dishes are ubiquitous there as well.
Why? Because Muslims in the twenty-first century—regardless of age or income—desperately want to be connected to the outside world. They want news and information that does not come from their state-run television networks. They want religious teaching that does not come solely from their state-run mosques. They are hungry for new ideas, different ideas.
Not everyone with a satellite dish has the purest motives, of course.
Many are searching for pornography and other forms of cultural pollution pouring out of Europe and Hollywood. But as people flip through the channels searching for something they want in the privacy of their own home or room, sometimes they stumble upon a channel showing something they need, a channel that provides them a completely different perspective on the God of the universe and a completely different take on how we can interact with Him.
With the explosion of satellite dish sales has come an explosion of satellite evangelism. Al Hayat is one of the premier sources of Christian programming, but it is certainly not the only network beaming biblical messages into the region.
The Egyptian-based “Nilesat” and the Gulf-based “Arabsat” systems refuse to carry any Christian programming, but today there are no fewer than sixteen different Christian television channels operating on the “Hot Bird” satellites run by the European telecommunications company Eutelsat.* These channels are widely diverse in Christian doctrine, style, and impact. Nevertheless, they all share the same objectives: to communicate the gospel; to broadcast sermons and church services in Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, and other regional languages and dialects; and to show Christian feature films and miniseries, including the famous JESUS film, which was produced in 1979 by Warner Brothers and Campus Crusade for Christ International and has had some 6 billion viewings worldwide in the last three decades. And these channels are succeeding beyond anything the Radicals can imagine.
One Christian network known as SAT-7 is regularly seen by at least 9 million viewers throughout North Africa and the Middle East, according to Dr. Graham Mytton, research consultant and former director of audience research for the BBC World Service, based on a survey of eight sample Muslim countries. This number includes 2 to 3 million viewers who watch daily or at least once a week: 319,000 people in Morocco, 201,000 in Syria, and 118,000 in Saudi Arabia. It also includes 5 to 6 million “occasional” viewers: 1.2 million people in Morocco, 464,000 in Syria, and 309,000 in Saudi Arabia.’
Not long ago, the head of one Middle East ministry told me a remarkable story he knew firsthand, one that is indicative of the kind of impact satellite evangelism in general—and SAT-7 in particular—is having.
An elderly woman in Iran was watching the JESUS film in Farsi in the privacy of her little apartment, he recalled. She had always been fascinated with the person of Jesus Christ, but she knew so little about Him. She did not have a Bible. She did not know any Christians. She had never been to church. She was not even particularly seeking out a film about Jesus that night. She just stumbled onto it while flipping through the channels coming into her satellite receiver.
But as the story unfolded, she began to respond to the love of Christ. She was intrigued by His teachings, amazed by His compassion and miracles, and moved by His love and forgiveness even for His enemies, even for those who had condemned Him to death and nailed Him to the cross.
When she saw the depiction of Jesus rising from the dead, she found herself in tears.
At the end of the film, the narrator explained how a viewer could pray to become a follower of Jesus Christ. In doing so, he read a Bible verse—Revelation 3:20—in which Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.”
Unfamiliar with the passage and thus not aware that Jesus was speaking metaphorically—saying that if a person opens the door of his or her heart and welcomes Him in, then He will come in and save that person—the woman thought, I guess I had better open the door. So she got up from her chair, walked over to the front door of her apartment, and opened it.
She was suddenly blinded by a bolt of light emanating from a figure in the doorway. “Who is it?” she asked.
“It is I,” Jesus said.
“Come in, my Lord,” she said, and Jesus entered her home.
For the next few minutes, Jesus spoke to her about Himself, told her He loved her and had forgiven her, and told her to get a Bible and begin reading it. And then, as suddenly as He had appeared, He was gone. The woman, startled but excited, looked back at the television screen and noticed there was a phone number she could call for more information. She picked up the phone and dialed it immediately.
The call was routed from Iran to an overseas number through a secure telephone system that terminated at a secret call center—one Lynn and I have visited—where Iranian converts who are trained as counselors answer calls such as these and help those wanting more information about becoming a Christian or growing in their faith.
“I just saw Jesus,” the elderly woman told a counselor, her voice trembling.
“That’s great,” the counselor replied. “Isn’t it a wonderful film?”
“No, no, you don’t understand,” the woman said. “I just saw Jesus—in person, in my home. He appeared to me. He told me I am now His follower. Can you help me get a Bible and understand what I should do next?”
THE POWER OF RADIO
Before the advent of satellite TV broadcasting, radio was the main way Arab evangelists brought the gospel to millions of Muslims—many of whom were illiterate—in closed countries. Even today, radio is still a powerful weapon in the evangelical air war in the epicenter. Trans World Radio, for example, broadcasts biblical programming in Arabic for twenty-eight hours a week (roughly four hours a day) from two stations, one in Cyprus and one in Monte Carlo, targeting the Middle East and North Africa, respectively. As a result, they receive more than two hundred thousand letters a year from listeners asking for answers to their many questions, requesting Arabic Bibles, requesting Bible correspondence courses, and sharing their stories of how they came to faith by listening to TWR’s programs. Other radio ministries have similar approaches and results.
As I was researching this book, a dear Arab evangelist friend of mine shared with me a great example of the impact of gospel radio. A few years ago, he received a letter from a man named Mohammed who was the assistant to an imam in Saudi Arabia. Though the young man lived in the most extreme Wahhabi country on the planet—and worked in a mosque every single day—he would go home after work and listen to Christian radio, which came on late at night.
One night he tuned in to a fifteen-minute broadcast that was focusing on Egyptian illiterates. The language of the program was a dialect used by impoverished people from upper Egypt, and the broadcaster spoke slowly and with very simple vocabulary. He began by sharing three or four testimonies of Muslims who had come to Christ. Then he shared a short message focused on one simple truth: Jesus Christ is powerful, and He answers prayer. That was all.
Now, the Saudi man was well educated and deeply religious. He could have been turned off by this simple presentation and angered by all this talk of Jesus penetrating the airwaves of Mecca and Medina. But he had a need in his own personal life, a very specific and unique need.
For a long time he had prayed to Allah and to Muhammad to help him meet that need. But nothing happened. And then he heard on the radio that “Jesus Christ is powerful, and He answers prayer.”
As an assistant mosque leader, he believed that he could not pray to Jesus, that Jesus was not omnipresent, that Jesus was not God to be prayed to. But he said to himself, “I have nothing to lose if I do.”
So as he went to bed, he started repeating that phrase again and again. He fell asleep with the words in his mouth: “0 Christ, the powerful.”
At five the next morning, there was a knock on his door. His brother was at the gate, saying, “Good news, good news, Mohammed.”
Mohammed said, “What’s going on? Why do you wake me up now?”
His brother said, “I don’t know what happened, but your need, your request, has been met.”
Mohammed was stunned. He remembered what he had gone to bed saying: “0 Christ, the powerful.” And right there in front of his brother, he said, “I’m a Christian now. I am a Christian.”
He quit his job at the mosque. He went underground. He received biblical discipleship and ministry training. And today he is a Christian evangelist in Saudi Arabia.
“So, Joel, who worked?” my Arab evangelist friend asked me. “Who changed this young man? Christ the Lord. That’s very simple. He went in faith to Christ, and Christ delivered. And that’s the story of scores and scores of people. God has used radio to open the eyes of anyone, including Muslims, if they are willing to have their eyes opened to Him.”
THE GROUND WAR ‑ PART ONE
How the Revivalists are making disciples despite extreme persecution
ALL OF THE TRUE FOLLOWERS of Jesus Christ in the Muslim world that I have met are deeply burdened for their neighbors and their countrymen. Often when they pray, they are in tears because they know that hundreds of millions of Muslims go to bed every night without any hope, without any peace, without having their sins forgiven, without the assurance that they are going to heaven when they die. This grieves the Revivalists and motivates many of them to take enormous risks to get the good news of God’s love and plan of salvation to those who have never heard the gospel or never accepted Christ as their Savior.
What comforts the Revivalists, they say, is Jesus’ message in Matthew 16:18, when he said, “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (KM. This passage is a great source of relief and consolation for pastors and ministry leaders in the epicenter because it means that at the end of the day, they are not responsible for the success of the church in the epicenter. That’s Jesus’ job. He said that He is building His Church in the epicenter and around the world, and nothing and no one can stop Him.
What, then, is the job of the Revivalists?
Simple: to obey the Lord Jesus Christ in whatever He tells them to do. “If you love Me,” Jesus said in John 14:15, “you will keep My commandments.”
So what does Jesus tell them to do? Love Him enough to preach the gospel, make disciples, plant churches, and teach and equip others to do the same.
To some the notion of doing the work of God even while trusting God to ultimately accomplish that work may seem contradictory. But not to the Revivalists. They say the distinction is that the burden of obedience lies with individual followers of Jesus Christ, while the burden for success lies with Jesus Christ Himself. As one ministry operating very effectively in the Muslim world likes to teach its members: “Your job is to share Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and leave the results to God.”
To men and women trying to serve the Lord in very dangerous and difficult circumstances, these are liberating principles. The Bible teaches that Jesus loves His true followers regardless of their performance. He wants them to obey Him, whatever the cost, but He is not grading them based on their results. The results are dependent on Him, not them, and this, many Revivalists have told me, helps them sleep peacefully at night despite the enormous task that lies before them.
“BOOTS ON THE GROUND”
As we saw in the last chapter, the leaders of the Revivalists are deeply grateful to the Lord for providing radio, satellite television, and increasingly the Internet as powerful and effective new ways of reaching vast numbers of Muslims with the gospel and biblical precepts.
Still, most are not convinced that they can win the battle for the souls of the Muslim people through an “air war” alone. That is, they do not feel that they can merely beam in the evangelistic programming and Bible teaching—however strong the quality of those programs—from afar and make the revolutionary impact they believe is needed. What is vital, they insist, is waging a massive and historic “ground war” to complement the “air war.” As God directs them, therefore, they are steadily and systematically putting “boots on the ground” all throughout the Muslim world—men and women trained to make disciples, who will be qualified to make other disciples, who will be able to make other disciples as well.
Ultimately, the Revivalists say, their hope for transforming the Muslim world is not in technology but in human beings who have been”revived”—spiritually transformed by faith in Jesus Christ and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit of God.
Jesus, they note, used no technology when He came to a dusty corner of Roman-occupied Palestine. Rather, He preached to the masses, sometimes five to ten thousand at a time. He also recruited individuals, built a team, and invested His time in teaching this small band of brothers how to live like God-chosen global game-changers. He walked with His twelve disciples. He ate with them. He traveled with them. He spent time with their friends and family members. He gave them projects and assignments to test the content of their character and the quality of their faith. He forgave them when they made mistakes. He encouraged them. He prayed for them. He prayed with them. And He loved them to the last moment of His life on earth.
What was the result? Admittedly, one—Judas Iscariot—failed disastrously, betraying them all. But look at the other eleven disciples. They started as worldly, fearful, jealous, petty, competitive, small-minded, uneducated, and untrained men. But after a few years of walking and talking with Jesus and observing His life, His purity, and His supernatural power in action, these men became such bold, decisive, and fearless preachers, pastors, evangelists, and apostles that even their opponents had to admit that they had soon “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6, KJV). This is the model believers in Christ must follow, the Revivalists say, if they are to change the Muslim world.
The key is the personal touch. The Muslim culture is an Eastern culture, not a Western one. It is based on relationships and storytelling and on people spending long periods of time with one another. People in Eastern cultures are not so worried about schedules and quotas and sales figures and returning e-mails and phone calls quickly. They are interested in personal contact. They are interested in firm handshakes and good food and strong coffee and sweet tea and looking in a man’s eyes to see if he is a good man or a bad man and whether he can be trusted or not.
In such a culture, a spiritual revolution cannot all be waged or won by remote control. It cannot all be done from radio and TV studios in Europe or the U.S., or via e-mail and Web sites. Some of it—much of it—must be done face-to-face, person-to-person.
Can that be dangerous? Absolutely. But the Revivalists say there is no other way.
Never before in human history have there been so many followers of Christ living in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. The mission of the Revivalists, they tell me, is to focus on helping mere followers turn into fully devoted disciples who are willing to do whatever Jesus tells them to do, go wherever Jesus tells them to go, and say whatever Jesus tells them to say. They want to do so in every city, every town, every village, and every neighborhood in their countries and region.
What’s more, they are trying to identify, train, and mobilize leaders. They are prayerfully seeking out men and women who are ready to help new converts study the Bible for themselves. They are looking for people who are willing to lead new and young believers in worshiping their risen Savior. And they are hoping to find people who are able to plant new churches, often in the privacy and secrecy of their own homes, since renting or buying or building a church facility would draw too much attention and buildings could be attacked by Radicals and blown to smithereens. This, the Revivalists stress, is how movements are made.
WAGING A SPIRITUAL WAR, NOT A PHYSICAL ONE
In the pages ahead, I will profile some of the most effective “ground commanders” I have met in the Middle East. But first, let me be crystal clear about an extremely important point. When I use the terms “air war” and “ground war: I do not mean to suggest in any way, shape, or form that the Revivalists are violent people or that they would ever resort to military weapons to force their beliefs on others. To the contrary, the Revivalists abhor violence as much as the Radicals embrace it. Their deeply rooted conviction not to use violence to advance the Kingdom of Jesus Christ comes directly from the teachings of the Bible.
On the night of His arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told Peter not to attack Roman soldiers with his sword, noting that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:57, NIV). Likewise, the apostle Paul wrote to those he was discipling, saying, “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4, NW).
Paul made an even more detailed case to this effect in Ephesians 6:10-17: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Revivalists do not use pistols, rifles, machine guns, explosives, or bombs of any kind to advance their objectives. They understand that a physical war as well as a spiritual war is being waged against them, but the Bible teaches them to wage only a spiritual war, a war of ideas and beliefs, not a physical war.
Thus, they say they thank God every morning for a new day and for continued life. Then they pray that God would fill them with the Holy Spirit, suit them up in the full armor of God, give them the strength and the courage to do and say whatever He commands them, and accomplish His divine purposes for that day in and through their lives.
RECRUITED BY A PAKISTANI
Hamid is one of the most wanted Iranian Revivalists in the world.
Precisely because he is so effective in recruiting and training Iranian evangelists, disciple makers, pastors, and church planters, the Iranian secret police have hunted him for years. They nearly assassinated him in 1994, but by God’s grace he and his family narrowly escaped with their lives.
While I have known of Hamid for nearly two decades, I finally met him for the first time several years ago in a secure, undisclosed location.
I have no idea where he actually lives, but I have enjoyed the privilege of staying in touch with him, and I was deeply grateful when he allowed me to interview him for this project. His story deserves an entire book, not just a portion of a chapter. Nevertheless, allow me to share with you a few highlights and some of his observations of how the ground war is being waged inside Iran.
“I was born in 1943 in Isfahan, Iran, and at the age of seventeen I became a follower of Jesus Christ,” Hamid recounted. “I am not from a Muslim background. I am from a nominal Christian background. But before I was born, my mother had a dream in which she was told, ‘You will have a boy, and this will be his name. He will serve the Lord.’
“From the age of three, I loved God. My grandmother was a Catholic, and she taught me to pray before bed. As a teenager, I began to serve in the Orthodox Church. But at seventeen, I just had an inexplicable love for Jesus. I believe He chose me even before I was formed in the womb. He just decided I would be His follower, His servant. He is God. He doesn’t always explain. I just had a passion to serve the Lord. I went to the priest and said, ‘I want to preach!’ It was like what the apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:4: ‘He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him.—
“Did your friends love Jesus the way you did?” I asked. “Did they also want to preach the gospel in Iran?”
Hamid laughed. “No, I had no other friends like this.”
The Catholic and Orthodox churches in Iran did not even believe in preaching the gospel back in the 1960s and 1970s, he said. They were not trying to lead Muslims to Christ. To do so was illegal, anyway. So Hamid got little encouragement and no training.
“The turning point,” he told me, “happened in 1974. I had already graduated from college. I was a mechanical engineer, and I was working for an oil company. But one day I met a Christian leader from Pakistan who was traveling through Iran looking for someone to start a nationwide ministry in that country.”
Hamid said he had little interest in helping the Pakistani. After all, “the economy in Iran was thriving at the time,” OPEC was battling the West, the price of oil was soaring, and Hamid had a comfortable life.
“Three months later, the Pakistani returned to Iran and invited me to attend a conference outside the country about evangelism and discipleship,” Hamid said. “I was curious, so I agreed to go. While I was there, a voice in my heart asked me, ‘What do you want to do with the rest of your life?’ I wasn’t sure. I liked working for the oil company. But the voice said to me, ‘Every day, thousands are going to hell.’
“For three days and nights I struggled with God. Finally I knew what I had to do. I went back to Tehran and resigned from the oil company. The Pakistani arranged for me to receive nine months of ministry training. Then in 1975,I started a ministry to reach all of Iran with the gospel.”
LAUNCHING A MINISTRY TO REACH ALL OF IRAN
“Did you think it was possible to reach every Iranian with the gospel?” I asked.
Not really, Hamid conceded. He wanted to see God to do something great in his country, but the task seemed overwhelming.
Then I asked, “Did you see the Islamic Revolution coming?”
“No,” he said. “Even three months before the Revolution, no ordinary citizen in Iran that I knew would have thought that this would happen, that the Ayatollah Khomeini could topple the shah and change Iran forever.”
“How then did you and your wife launch a national ministry by yourselves?”
“We concentrated on five things from the beginning,” he said. “First, we identified men and women from many churches who displayed a passion for the Lord, and we asked them if they would like us to disciple them.” If they said yes, Hamid and his wife would teach them the Bible. They would teach them what it meant to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit and not try to live the Christian life in their own limited strength and knowledge. They taught people to share their faith and to serve the Lord completely, in every area of their lives.
“Second, we took our disciples to parks to practice witnessing [telling people about their faith in Christ]. Third, we recruited and trained four disciples to become full-time staff members with our ministry, because we knew we couldn’t do it on our own, and we didn’t want to do it alone. Fourth, we started a Bible school by correspondence.”
This provided an opportunity for Iranian Christians all over the country to study the Bible on their own, using the lessons Hamid sent them, and to do so in the privacy and safety of their own homes. The students would then mail in their completed homework, and Hamid and his team would correspond with them, correct their homework, answer their questions, and help them grow in their faith as best they could.
“Fifth, we held conferences and special meetings,” Hamid added. This provided Iranian believers the opportunity to gather together for more intensive Bible study, prayer, worship, and fellowship. Hamid believed it was very important for the Christ-followers in the country to have time together, to get to know one another, to know that they were not alone, to pray with and for one another, and to be encouraged to go back to their towns and villages to share their faith in Christ and help fellow believers grow in their faith.
THE GROUND WAR IN IRAN
Not many Muslims came to Christ in the early years of the ministry, Hamid admitted. The believers were growing bolder in their faith, and that was good. But there was very little interest among Iranian Shias.
That all changed in 1979.
“I thank God for the Ayatollah Khomeini,” Hamid said with a big smile, “because he did something that all the believers and all the missionaries in Iran put together for a hundred years could not do. He presented the true color of Islam. Iranians could suddenly see what Islam really is. And they began to turn against it because it’s not what they thought it would be.”
Violence. Torture. Imprisonments. Executions. Rapes. Corruption. An eight-year war with fellow Muslims in Iraq.
“You see, Joel, for Muslims, it’s not hard to love Jesus,” Hamid continued. “The hard part is leaving Muhammad.
There is an Islam in people’s minds that does not exist in reality. The Islam of their minds is Utopia. Islam is complete, they think. So why should they leave and go to another faith? Plus, they think if you leave Islam bad things will happen to you. Muslims are very superstitious. They believe if you read the Bible you will go to hell. Some believe that that if you leave Islam, your face will turn into a monkey face—all kinds of things like this.
Before the Revolution, we would start sharing the gospel with Muslims by talking about God. ‘Do you believe He exists? What do you think about Him?’ That kind of thing. But after the Revolution, we could not start by talking about God because people were so angry. They would say, ‘If this is God, then I don’t want this God.’ So I realized that we have to start with Jesus. ‘Have you heard of Jesus? Have you read His teachings? What do you think of Him?'”
People started responding. They wanted to read about Jesus in the New Testament. They wanted to see films about Jesus. They wanted to read Christian literature explaining how to follow Jesus.
By 1980, there were a few thousands MBBs in Iran, Hamid said. Now he believes there are a few million. The challenge today is that there are not nearly enough pastors and other ministry leaders to help all these believers grow and mature in their faith. This is why Hamid and his team have focused so much time, attention, and resources on identifying believers who could become wise, loving, and caring leaders. That’s why they are helping to train and develop such leaders. They see God bringing great “flocks of lost sheep” into His Kingdom, and the Lord has shown them that the desperate need in Iran is to train up more “shepherds” to care for these sheep and guide them in biblical truth.
THE HIT LIST
It is not easy to be a shepherd in Iran, however. The price for serving Christ in full-time ministry is very high. Many ministry leaders have been arrested, tortured, and even executed or assassinated.
In late 1979, for example, an Anglican priest was beheaded in the Iranian city of Shiraz. Around the same time, five bullets were fired at Iranian pastor Hassan Dehghany. Though he miraculously survived, his twenty-four-year-old son, Bahram, was soon found dead, martyred for his faith in Christ. In 1990, the Iranian government hanged a man named Hoseyn Soodmand for turning from Islam to Christianity. In 1994, three key Iranian Christian leaders were assassinated one after another—Bishop Haik Hovsepian, Mehdi Dibaj, and Tateos Michaelian. Then in 1996, another Christian, Mohammed Yousefi, met the same fate.
During the killing spree in the 1990s, an Iranian secret police official fled the country and gave a media interview saying that more murders of Christian leaders were coming. A crumpled-up hit list was actually found with the body of Tateos Michaelian after his death. The list contained the names of those Christian leaders who had already been murdered and a list of names of pastors who had not yet been killed. Hamid’s name was on that list. As it turned out, he and his family were able to get out of the country, leaving all their worldly possessions behind, just hours before assassins came to his home to kill him.
I asked Hamid why he thought the systematic killing of pastors had begun in the early 1990s.
“Three reasons, I think,” he said. “First, the war with Iraq was over, and the concentration of the government was shifting to domestic problems and threats. Second, more people were coming to Christ than ever before. Many had become believers in the 1980s, certainly. But in the early 1990s, a real spiritual awakening began in Iran, a real acceleration in the numbers of Muslim converts, and the government was noticing this. And third, the leader levels were rising too high. The quality of the leaders we were recruiting and training was too high. They were older and more educated and very effective. It was no longer poor and uneducated people coming to Christ. Now the educated were coming to the Lord—doctors, engineers, philosophers, rich people. And they weren’t just converting from Islam, they were giving their money to the cause of Christ. They were giving their gold jewelry to the Church to help fund more ministry work. The government and the mullahs are scared of Christian leaders because they are very high quality and the Lord can use them to lead many people very effectively.”
“Do you miss your life in Iran?” I asked Hamid.
He sat back and sighed. “Yes,” he said. He misses his country, and he misses his friends. But he has no regrets. He said he believes God is using him far more now that he is living on the outside where he can study and teach and preach and travel freely without fear of arrest, or worse.
“Just look what God is doing in Iran today,” he said. “How can I not be grateful to the Lord? I wouldn’t have believed in 1974 that we could see millions of believers in Iran, because people were so secular and so rich back then, compared to today. Women used to fly to Paris to get their hair done and fly back to attend a wedding. During the time of the shah, my team and I shared the gospel with more than five thousand people one summer, but only two people showed interest. Now, there are too many calls coming into our offices from people who have accepted Christ or want to know more about Jesus. We don’t have time to answer them all.”
And that, Hamid says, is why he focuses on training leaders capable of responding to the spiritual revolution Jesus has unleashed in Iran. “Like Jesus said, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.'”*
THE GROUND WAR ‑ PART TWO
More accounts of leaders on the front lines
FOR THE PAST SEVERAL DECADES, the most effective and influential pastors and ministry leaders operating on the front lines of the Christian ground war in the Muslim world have been those who, like Hamid, were born into nominal Christian families. But as more Muslims have come to faith in Christ, grown in their faith, and begun to gain practical ministry experience, a rising number of Muslim Background Believers have emerged as effective spiritual leaders in the epicenter as well.
Samir is one example. I met him on my first trip to Iraq in February 2008 and was immediately impressed with his love for Jesus Christ and his passion for ministry.
Born in 1968 in a southern Iraqi village, Samir, an Arab, was raised a devout Shia Muslim. While his forefathers were Shia imams (high-ranking Islamic clerics) and his parents were devout, Samir said, “Nobody pushed me to be very religious. I chose that. I was about eleven or twelve. I started going to the mosque and meditating on many things.
There was something special between me and my God, I believed. I felt God was very near to me. I was so close to God that I used to try to do funny things to make God laugh. And I felt He did laugh, and I felt He was happy . . . and I was happy.”
After he graduated from college, trained to be an electrician, Samir was arrested. “I was perceived by Saddam’s police as a Shia activist or a subversive,” he told me.
“Were you a rebel?” I asked him.
“Yes, I was,” he conceded. “I was against the government and against the Sunnis. But I was not violent.”
Samir spent seven months in jail. When he was released, he was required to serve in the Iraqi Army, but he refused and was sent back to jail. A special court released him from army service—Saddam’s Sunni-dominated army had no interest in training Shias to use weapons—but Samir was fired from his job. With his growing reputation as a Shia activist, he found it difficult to find work.
By the end of 1994, Samir decided that if he was going to be tagged as a Shia Radical anyway, he might as well become a Shia Radical. So he moved to the Iraqi city of Najaf and applied to study at the Hawza, the most elite Shia Muslim seminary in all of Iraq, second in prestige and influence only to the main seminary in Qom, Iran. Once accepted, Samir plunged himself into his studies and received high marks from his professors.
In time, Samir not only completed his studies but was greatly honored by being invited to become a professor at the seminary to teach Shia doctrine to the fresh, eager students. Samir eagerly agreed.
VISIONS AND TRANCES
“There are two areas of teaching at the Hawza,” Samir told me. “The first concerns knowledge—that is, teaching students Islamic theology and Sharia law The second concerns one’s spiritual life—that is, helping students develop their relationship with God. I was fascinated with both, but especially with getting closer to God and helping others do the same.
“Shia Islam is very mystical, and we taught the students that there are higher and higher levels of spiritual growth that they need to attain and lead other people to. One of these levels is discovering God’s love for you and building your love for God until you become consumed by God. The challenge is that Shia doctrine teaches that God’s love is not available for everyone, only for those who go through this very specific spiritual journey that we were teaching at the Hawza.
“We taught our Shia seminary students to do various spiritual exercises. In these exercises you are supposed to meditate until you are in, essentially, a trance. In that trance, you will begin to see visions or revelations of ancient imams and the various prophets and other historical figures. But Shias consider actually seeing such visions a very low level of revelation, because seeing these ancient figures could hinder a person from going higher and seeing God Himself. But these visions and revelations are indications that you are going in the right direction.
“Now, please understand, Joel, that I was teaching this all to my students. I was one of only four professors at the seminary teaching this form of meditation. But one day something unexpected happened.”
“What was that?” I asked.
“One day I was meditating, and it was almost as if I was flying in an airplane,” Samir explained. “I was climbing up from the ground, higher and higher, and then I started passing through the clouds, and I was climbing higher and higher and then suddenly it was as though I was slipping away from the atmosphere and entering another reality, and then I saw Jesus. He was smiling at me. He looked just like the one I had seen in the JESUS film that I had once seen on television, but with a darker face, an Eastern face. In the first vision, I had no communication with Jesus, but I felt very peaceful. Then, over the course of the next few days, He appeared a second, third, fourth, and fifth time. He began to speak to me. He gave me answers to the many questions I had.”
The Qur’an, Samir noted, teaches Muslims that Jesus is to be highly revered. It says Jesus was born of a virgin, was a wise teacher, and did miracles. But it does not give many more details than this. Yet Samir had become intensely hungry to understand this Jesus who kept appearing to him. He could not tell the two hundred Shia students he was teaching about the visions he was having. But as a scholar, he knew he had to do more research. So one day he told one of his students to go to Baghdad and find a complete Arabic copy of the Bible for him, though he did not say why. The student complied, and Samir, in the privacy of his own room, began reading the Bible voraciously. The more he read, the more intrigued with Jesus he became. So he would pray more, hoping to see Jesus again, and he did. For a certain period in the mid-1990s, Samir said, Jesus was appearing to him every day.
“The Lord in some of these appearances would give me homework assignments. He would tell me where to read in the Bible, specific verses. He would give me a verse, without a specific address. For example, He wouid tell me to find where it says, ‘But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.’ But He wouldn’t tell me where in the Bible that verse is. So I would have to read the whole Bible to find the verses.”
Other times, there were specific events that Jesus would tell Samir would happen, and they would come to pass. Once, for example, Jesus told Samir that he would see a certain person in Beirut, and sure enough, the next time Samir was in Beirut he saw that person, even though that person did not live in Beirut and rarely traveled to Lebanon.
“From the first homework assignment that He gave me,” Samir told me, “He called me to follow Him alone. He made it clear that He had a very big work to do and that He was calling me to be part of it.”
THE TRANSFORMING POWER OF THE BIBLE
Samir, the Shia seminary professor, had fallen in love with Jesus Christ. He had become convinced that Jesus was the One True God and the only way to salvation. He had become convinced that Islam was wrong, that the Qur’an was not the word of God, and that only the Bible contained the true words of the living God. The process he went through to reach such conclusions was not a classic conversion process, to be sure. But there was no question: Samir had become a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ. And as soon as he realized his calling to serve Christ by teaching the Bible and not the Qur’an, he fled the Hawza for his life.
Samir told me that when he thinks about his salvation, he remembers the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph was captured by his brothers and sold into slavery. But eventually God set him free, made him a leader in Egypt, and used him to save his brothers and all the people of the Middle East from a terrible famine. Joseph could have been angry with his brothers for forcing him into slavery, but he wasn’t. “You meant evil against me,” Joseph told his brothers, “but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Genesis 50:20).
Similarly, Samir believes he was enslaved in Shia Islam, but he is not angry with his Shia brothers. Rather, he believes God took him to the Hawza to help him better understand the Shias and to learn how to reach them with the gospel of Jesus Christ and teach them through the transforming power of the Bible.
“I am so grateful to God, and I am so fortunate,” Samir told me. “By entering all those visions and trances I could have been trapped by Satan forever and sent to hell. But I think that God, in His amazing love and grace, respected the innocence of my childhood, when I wanted to know Him and make Him laugh. So God protected me from getting trapped. He pulled me close to His heart through Jesus Christ and taught me His Word. I was so lost, but He came and saved me just because He loved me so much.”
Samir is convinced a great revival is under way in the Shia world and that God is revealing Himself in supernatural ways to many devout Muslims who were lost and trapped in their own sins like he once was. In Iran to his east, millions of Shias are coming to faith in Jesus Christ, and tens of thousands are entering full-time Christian ministry to preach the gospel, make disciples, and plant churches. Samir believes that in time millions of Iraqi Shias will come to Christ too, and he is committed to teaching the Bible to young Iraqi disciples to prepare for that day to come to fruition. “The Lord has a special work to be done among the Shias of Iraq,” he said with great passion and confidence. “God is working directly here, just like in the first century when Jesus chose the disciples directly.”
Samir’s story inspires almost everyone who hears it. In fact, while he was sharing his testimony with me, another Iraqi—in this case a former Sunni Wahhabi Muslim who had his own miraculous encounter with the Lord and is now in full-time Christian ministry—was sitting beside me and listening as well. Deeply moved by Samir’s faith, this MBB turned to me and said, “Jesus has removed the hatred for the Shias from my heart. When I see the intense, passionate devotion of the Shias to God, I am moved. They are wrong. They don’t yet know that Jesus is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, as my brother Samir now does. But they are so devoted. I want to understand this devotion better and help reach them with God’s truth so they can be devoted to Jesus instead. And now, when I see for myself that God has chosen a Shia person to follow Jesus Christ and serve Him in ministry, I know that He is really powerful and is really moving in this country.”‘
A KURDISH JIHADIST BECOMES A REVIVALIST
God is drawing not only Iranians and Arabs into His Kingdom; He is drawing Kurds to Christ as well and is appointing them to be courageous “ground warriors” for His name.
During my first trip to Iraq, I had the privilege of meeting a particularly passionate and effective Kurdish Christian leader by the name of Kerem.* Today, he is sharing the gospel, discipling new Muslim converts, and training up future church leaders. But not that long ago, Kerem was a foot soldier in a much different war.
“I was born in 1969 in a Sunni religious family,” Kerem told me one cold winter night in Kurdistan as we sipped coffee together. “Because my family was religious and committed to religion and I was going regularly to mosque, I met members of a Radical religious group. And gradually I found that those people believed in jihad. I was so excited with them. I had faith in jihad like them. My terrorist group that I was a member of was worse than al Qaeda.”
“In what way was it worse?” I asked.
“Al Qaeda in Iraq is a known organization with a known leader and with clear intentions of attacking the U.S. and Israel, as well as Muslim apostates, with suicide bombers and other terrorist means,” he explained. “But our group [Al Haraka Al Islamia Fe Kurdistan, or the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan] was brainwashing simple people to become time bombs in their own homes—to become radicalized Muslims who reject every norm and custom in their home if it is not pure, fanatical, Islamic teaching, to create a spirit of rebellion. We trained people to think of themselves as true, pure holy men and then to attack their families as infidels.”
Kerem became a teacher of the Qur’an and received terrorist training to kill infidels. “But from 1988 until the beginning of 1991,” he told me, “I had many questions inside myself about God. I hated serving God by force. I hated praying by force, fasting by force, and I did not feel right about forcing others to follow God and destroy their families. When I asked my leaders—religious leaders or political leaders—if this was right, if we were doing the just thing, they told me don’t ask these questions. I was prohibited from asking questions.”
After Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent Gulf War in 1991 in which the U.S.-led coalition defeated Saddam’s forces and liberated Kuwait, there was a revolution in Iraq. The Kurdish Muslims in the north and the Shia Muslims in the south rose up in hopes of overthrowing Saddam’s government. “We declared jihad against Saddam and his regime,” Kerem explained. “We carried weapons and started to fight.”
One day, Kerem and several of his colleagues led an attack against an Iraqi military unit and in the process captured four prisoners. “The emir, or the prince, of our group told us to go and kill those prisoners. There was a river nearby. Other prisoners captured by fellow terrorists were killed there and thrown into the river. We took our prisoners there, and they knew that we were about to start shooting them. But they were begging for their lives, and they started praying parts of the Qur’an because they noticed that we were Muslims?’
Kerem was deeply conflicted. As a Kurd, he hated Saddam’s regime and was dedicated to liberating the Kurdish people. But he had been developing doubts for some time about the violence he and his friends were engaged in. Now he kept telling himself, “These are Muslims. As a Muslim, I cannot kill them.”
At that point Kerem threw down his weapon and refused to join in the executions. “One of my group told me that I would be shot because I had disobeyed the emir,” Kerem recalled. “But I prefered to be murdered instead of being a murderer!”
The executions proceeded. All four of the prisoners were killed. When Kerem and his colleagues got back to their headquarters, sure enough, Kerem was denounced by the leaders of the group for disobeying orders. But he shot back, “I will do worse than disobey your orders. I divorce Islam from this moment.” He repeated the words three times. “They thought I was giving excuses for my behavior. They threatened to kill me because I had left the religion.”
Fearing for his life, Kerem fled from the headquarters and eventually escaped to Iran for safety.
“Wow,” I said. “Things must have really been bad for an Iraqi to escape to Iran for safety.”
He laughed and agreed. But he said he didn’t know what else to do. He was a wanted man inside Iraq. He was a wanted man inside his own terrorist organization. What’s more, he was wracked with guilt and anxiety and confusion and desperate to find peace.
THE TURNING POINT
“Inwardly I knew there was a God,” Kerem told me. “But I also knew He was a different God from Allah.”
The Qur’an, he said, was teaching him to hate and to kill. He, in turn, was teaching such violent suras from the Qur’an to young, impressionable Muslims, and he was recruiting others to wage jihad against Saddam’s regime as well as against Muslim families that weren’t as Radical as his terrorist organization thought they should be. He knew this was wrong, but he had no idea where to turn or what to do next. “When I left this terrorist group, I left also the praying and everything,” Kerem said. “I hated God. I hated praying. I hated everything called religion. I liked only one thing: myself, my life.”
Years later, Kerem was able to slip back into Iraq. He decided to move to Baghdad and lose himself in the vastness of the big city. Gifted with artistic talents, he enrolled in a fine arts academy, and completely unexpectedly, this proved to be the turning point in Kerem’s life.
“There was a painting on the wall of one of the classrooms with a cross on it and the words, in Arabic, ‘God is love.’ I was curious about this, but I was also confused. It was a very strange thing to me to think of God as love. The god I knew had no love. There was a Christian girl in my class, so one day I asked her, ‘What does that saying mean?'”
The girl told him that this was a verse from the Bible, from 1 John 4:16, which says plainly, “God is love.”
“I had no idea what she was talking about,” Kerem said. “So I asked her if she could get me a copy of an Arabic Bible—there was no Bible in the Kurdish language at the time. After two days she brought me one book, the book of Matthew. I went back home and started reading. I couldn’t sleep. I read it three times. As I read, I knew it was all true. I just knew it. And I felt a peace that I couldn’t explain come over me. I felt angels all around me. I feit that there was a burden on my chest that was gone. I felt that I had discovered someone called Jesus. The next day I went back to the college, and I was smiling. Most of the students noticed that, and they asked me why I was happy. I couldn’t teli them why. Not yet.”
That night, Kerem turned on his radio and happened to tune in to Trans World Radio, a Christian broadcasting network operating out of Monte Carlo. “The man on the program was repeating the same verses of the Sermon on the Mount that I had just read in Matthew.* I was so moved by the Sermon on the Mount. It was so beautiful. I had never heard any teaching like it, and I knew it was true. I knew in my heart that these words were spoken by the One True God. After finishing his program, the man on the radio offered the opportunity to pray to receive Jesus Christ as my Savior. I didn’t hesitate. I accepted this lovely God. And from that day my life started changing. I had been hating God, but then I started loving God. I had been hating people of all religions, but then I started loving all, even people in Islam. Once I became a follower of Jesus, then Jesus just gave me a love for people I had never experienced and could hardly explain.”
Kerem not only found himself filled with a divine love; he also had an insatiable hunger to know God personally and study the Bible more and more for himself. He read the book of Matthew constantly, as it was the only portion of the Bible that he had at that point. As he read, he developed an intense desire to obey Jesus because he loved Him so much.
He learned about the importance of being baptized as an act of repentance—that is, turning away from one’s own way of doing things and choosing to follow Christ—and as a simple act of publicly professing one’s love for and devotion to the living God. He saw that John the Baptist told the people to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). He saw that Jesus was baptized in order to “fulfill all righteousness.” He saw that this made the Father say He was “well-pleased” with Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17). He also saw that Jesus told His disciples to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Kerem decided that he, too, should be baptized. He quietly visited one church after another, but they were filled with nominal Christians—not true followers of Jesus Christ—who refused to baptize him because he had been a Muslim. He insisted that he had been changed by God, but they refused to listen. “They were afraid to baptize me,” Kerem explained. “They were afraid of the secret police. They were afraid of informants. They were afraid for many reasons. But they forgot the 366 times in the Bible it says, ‘Do not be afraid.”
Kerem refused to give up, and eventually, by God’s grace, he found a brave Catholic priest who baptized him in the early 1990s.
This is one of the things I love most about Kerem: he has no fear. He believes in the greatness of his God. He knows how powerful his God is because of how dramatically God changed his life, from jihad to Jesus. Now, Kerem says, he is willing to go wherever Jesus tells him to go, do whatever Jesus tells him to do, and say whatever Jesus tells him to say, no matter what happens.
And he is not all talk. Kerem, I have found, is a man of action. First he led his brother to faith in Jesus Christ. Then he helped translate the New Testament into the Kurdish language. Now he is helping translate the Old Testament into Kurdish. He is also training young men to read and study and be able to teach the Bible, because he has seen the power of God’s Word to change lives, beginning with his own. What’s more, he is absolutely convinced that Kurdish MBBs are going to be used by God to take the gospel all throughout the Middle East—through regions of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran—and he is determined to stay engaged in the spiritual battle for the souls of Muslims until God takes him home to heaven.
“The truth is, I did not really decide to follow Jesus,” Kerem told me. “Jesus called me to follow Him, and I was not able to resist that call. Like when Jesus called Matthew and said, ‘Follow Me,’ Matthew left all to follow Jesus. He couldn’t resist. This is a divine calling.”
ONE LAST QUESTION
The apostle John concluded his account of the life of Christ with this thought: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
I feel these chapters on the Revivalists could be concluded the same way. Having met with and interviewed more than 150 Revivalist leaders, I could not possibly include all of their stories in these pages. And I must confess this pains me, because I find each of their testimonies of God’s love and power utterly amazing and deeply encouraging, especially in light of the extreme persecution and pressures that these leaders face on a daily basis.
Once when I was in Iraq, I had the privilege of having dinner with the first known Shia Muslim convert to Christianity in the entire modern history of Iraq. He became a follower of Jesus Christ in 1967. He was baptized in 1972. He began to share his faith and make disciples and plant churches in 1985. He has been kidnapped by Radicals multiple times. But he loves Jesus more than ever. And he is absolutely convinced that the Iraqi church will eventually be led by MBBs, even though most pastors there now are NCBBs.
Another time, I had the honor of dining with arguably the most influential ministry leader in Iraq, an NCBB who told me the story of how he went into full-time ministry. He had been an ordinary professional business man. One day, his village was attacked by Radical Islamic terrorists, one of whom ran up to his house, leveled an AK-47 at him, and pulled the trigger. But the gun didn’t fire. The terrorist pulled the trigger again. It still didn’t fire. The terrorist pointed the gun in the air and pulled the trigger to test the gun. This time it did fire. So once more the terrorist pointed the gun at this Christian man and pulled the trigger. But again, the gun didn’t fire. The terrorist ran off, and the Christian man knew that God had miraculously spared his life. The next day, he quit the Iraqi oil company he was working for and committed himself to serving the Lord hill-time, making disciples and training church leaders.
In Afghanistan, I had the privilege of meeting a senior Afghan church leader who had been living in the United States in 2001. That summer, he saw a documentary film on television about the horrors the Taliban was inflicting on the people of his home country. He prayed, “Lord, if You get rid of the Taliban, I will quit my job and move back to Afghanistan to serve You there.” Two months later, the 9/11 attacks happened. Two months after that, this man saw a breaking news story on CNN announcing that U.S. military forces were on the ground in Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda and the Taliban. He gasped. The Lord had kept His end of the bargain. Now it was his turn. Keeping his promise, he quit his job and moved to Afghanistan, where God is now using him in a mighty way.
In talking to these and a host of other Christian leaders in the epicenter, I had one question that continued nagging at me. They were describing millions of people coming to Christ throughout the region through dreams and visions. And they were noting that those who come to faith in Christ through visions are fruitful immediately, meaning they start living holy, pure lives and are completely dedicated to Christ from the moment of conversion. They compared these conversions to Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in Acts 9. Paul never doubted his decision to follow Jesus later on. He never wavered. He never faltered. He was bold and devout right away, because his experience with Christ was so personal and so powerful that it changed him forever.
What, then, I asked, is the role of sharing the gospel, preaching the gospel, showing people the JESUS film, using radio and satellite broadcasting, and so forth if God is drawing these people to Himself supernaturally?
“That’s a great question,” one dear Iraqi Christian brother replied. “It’s true that every single Shia MBB I know or have ever heard of has come to faith in Christ directly, without apparent human persuasion. It’s not always a dream or vision, although it often is. Sometimes it is simply that the Lord speaks to them directly in their heart, sometimes audibly, sometimes not. The key is that one day they don’t believe in Jesus, and the next day they do. But it’s not because someone sat down and persuaded them. It’s that God just did a supernatural work in their heart.”
“Okay,” I said, “but again, why are so many Revivalists risking their lives to communicate the gospel to Muslims if the Muslims who are coming to Christ are not being persuaded by the Revivalists?”
“Because, Joel, the Bible tells us to teach the Word of God and to preach the gospel, and so we obey,” he replied gently. “And actually, when you look closer at the stories of these MBBs, you will find that each of them has had some exposure to the name of Jesus and the story of Jesus in his or her past. Think of what the apostle Paul said: ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!” . . . So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.”
“Likewise, in Matthew 13, Jesus teaches the parable of the seed and the sower. He insisted that His followers sow seeds—that is, preach the gospel and teach the Word of God—everywhere. We don’t know whose hearts will be like good soil and receive God’s Word and bear the fruit of changed lives. Only God knows that. We are simply supposed to obey. Just like the farmer—he just plants the seeds; it is God who makes them grow and bear fruit. Arguing with Muslims about Christ will not lead people to Christ. But we are supposed to teach them about Jesus whenever possible, and encourage them to read the Bible, and love them, and pray for them; and somehow God uses this as part of His mysterious plan to adopt Muslims into His Kingdom.”
I had my answer, and it wasn’t complicated. If you love Me, Jesus said, you will obey Me. It was not an easy answer, but it was simple.