Over 30 years ago I was on a local train in Austria, heading in to the capital, Vienna. Sitting across from me were two young men who seemed to be foreigners and they had a large Koran which they were reading. I struck up a conversation with them as they spoke English. After a while, I told them I’d read the Koran some and suggested they read Surah 3:55. They looked it up, read it, read it again, looked at each other, said a few words together and then looked back at me.
Surah 3:55 says, “Behold! Allah said: “O Jesus! I will take thee and raise thee to Myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow thee superior to those who reject faith, to the Day of Resurrection.”
I had studied the Koran just a bit and somehow remembered that reference which of course says things about Jesus of Nazareth which most people would never think would be in the Koran, including these two young Muslims.
That was one of my first experiences sharing my faith with, and talking about God with, Islamic people. During the 6 years I lived in Vienna, we’d rather often have Islamic people over to our house or would meet them while we were out.
Then years later I worked for 3 weeks at the Nagyatad refugee camp in southern Hungary where thousands of Islamic Bosnians were being housed during the Yugoslavian war of the early 90’s. Again my experience with those people was a positive one. My friends and I would daily go to this camp which was an old Russian army camp, deserted since the fall of Communism, which had be converted into this refugee camp.
At this camp was an elderly woman and her husband and she was considered the spiritual leader of the camp. As it turned out, there was a young Islamic woman at the refugee camp at the time who was obviously being tormented by spirits that were not of God. The spiritual elders of the camp had not been able to help this woman to be free from the torment of those spirits. Some of my friends had asked if they could pray for the tormented woman. Permission was granted and when my friends had prayed for the woman, she was delivered from her torments and possession and was made whole. So the woman who was the spiritual leader of the Muslims there told everyone that we were the people of God and that they should receive us from then on, which they did.
In the centuries that the Ottoman Turks ruled over southeastern Europe, the only people who converted from Christianity to Islam was a portion of the people who live in Bosnia. Sarajevo later became at one point the northern most Islamic city in that part of the world. But others in that area didn’t convert from Catholicism or Orthodoxy to Islam. And the animosity between these peoples has been a running boil that has festered off and on for over 400 years.
Perhaps the experience I remember most from being at that refugee camp was when my translator and I were invited into a room to talk to some people. As soon as we entered the room, my translator, Rebecca, said quietly, “Uh-oh.”
Sitting in the room were around 15 young men who looked to be around 25 to 35 years old. They were all sipping thick black coffee and talking quietly with each other but I soon found that these were all front line fighters who’d fled the fighting. I knew I wanted to and needed to share my faith with these men but how could I do that? Through our conversation I found that several of them had seen their wives and children killed in front of them. They all had been in prolonged, often hand-to-hand combat recently. I could take it for granted that they’d all killed enemies of their people in combat.
What could I say to these ones? “Jesus loves you”? Well, yes. But how do I communicate that to these ones who were alive and mostly well on the outside but extremely traumatized on the inside? I searched deeply to find some way to connect with these soldiers and hardened combat irregulars. And the Lord led me to share with them what was for me the most traumatic and excruciating experience I’d ever gone through. I won’t relate what that was here but it very nearly killed me or permanently scarred me. And I told them that at that time, I had to find the grace, the love and the power of God in order to not let that event completely destroy me. I had to find a way to rise above that injustice I experienced and that unutterable pain that took the life and humanity out of me.
It was a very intense time and my translator was doing good to hang in there and translate what I shared with her to pass on to them. Because these guys were killers; violence was what they had lived in for years.
But they listened. OK, maybe it helped that I was a little older than them and that I was an American. I just told them that for their own sakes, they somehow had to find the grace of God to not let their experiences conquer their hearts and souls and turn them into permanently evil men.
A question I was asked by one of them seared my soul. I had told them of what I felt had been a crushing injustice I’d suffered and which nearly snuffed out my soul and my heart. One of them then in the group spoke up and quietly, very sincerely, asked me, “Why didn’t you kill him?” I had to answer that question, with God’s love and wisdom, as well as with humanity and reality.
Yes, they were Muslims and they knew we were Christians, the people they’d been at war with. But, in that room that afternoon, God brought us all to a deeper level. We were all human beings. We were all wanting to find and take the high road of life. We found that we had a common ground of empathy and even faith in God that we could look toward together.
Even these Muslim “killers” were human beings. They listened to me and my friend, responded and asked questions. I believe the Lord used that time to at least plant seeds of His love in their hearts that day. We need to be “always ready to give an answer of the hope that lives within us” (I Peter 3:15), even to Muslim warriors.