Brother Mohammad Yamout is giving a presentation at Salam on Dec. 6, 2014, at 12: 30 pm, at Peace Lutheran Church, at 21W500 Butterfield Road, Lombard, IL 60148
A Middle Eastern Lunch will follow.
by Robert R. Schwarz
The only thing necessary for the triumph
of evil is for good men to do nothing.
Edmund Burke , philosopher (1729-1797 )
Two ordained ministers, a Muslim-raised missionary from Lebanon and I walked into the church while preoccupied with a statistic : an estimated 500,000 people with Muslim roots live in metropolitan Chicago. With the constant violence and suffering of refugees in the Middle East , we believed this statistic had far-reaching implications for all people of good will in our communities .
I was to interview this missionary for his insider view of what it’s really like to live as a Christian in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon . Each of us wanted some authentic knowledge about what really shapes the mind of the Muslim terrorist , and we wanted facts that went deeper than media reports of the Islamic faith as allegedly practiced by Muslims.
One of these ministers was 82-year-old Eldor ” Rick” Richter (this was his church in Schaumburg), author of Comparing the Qur’an and the Bible (BakerBooks, Grand Rapids, Michigan ,2011 ) . Rick, whose specialty is evangelizing to Muslims, is my coffee buddy at McDonald’s. The other cleric was Hicham Chehab, who converted to Christianity after fighting alongside the Lebanese militia . He’s pastor to several hundred Muslims and Muslim converts who attend his Salam Christian Fellowship churches in Lombard and Batavia. The missionary was Muhammad Y. , 48 years of age , who directs the Tyre Center for Gospel Proclamation in Tyre , Lebanon . One of his center’s ministries is the care of 1.5 million Syrian refugees—with more daily fleeing into his country. Mohammad had recently arrived in the United States for a fund-raising speaking tour and to visit his friend Hicham whom he hadn’t seen in ten years.
While my three friends paused momentarily in the church narthex to chat about a televised soccer game they had watched last night, I went over my research notes , such as the Wall Street Journal column ” Houses of Worship ” (June 27, 2014 ) in which Charlotte Allen had reported : ” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has found that Christians are persecuted in more places today than any other religious group, suffering formal or informal harassment in three-quarters of the world’s countries. The persecution of Christians, Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom wrote in the June 23 Weekly Standard, ‘is occurring on a massive scale…and in many parts of the world it is rapidly growing. ‘ ”
I had underlined Ms. Allen’s added comment that “many Christian churches in the West seem to be too constrained by ethnic sensitivities to assert themselves on behalf of their persecuted brethren. They haven’t paid much attention to the near-extermination of the ancient Christian communities in Iraq during the past decade of turmoil , or to the systematic destruction of Coptic churches in Egypt by the Islamic radicals in 2013. ”
“I’d like to first talk about your conversion, ” I told Mohammad. ” Then about your family and something about your work with refugees. ”
“Of course,” he replied. ” But make sure you don’t use my last name. When I gave up my Muslim faith for the Christian faith, I was put on a terrorist assassination list. ”
“Can I refer to you as ‘Muhammad Y. ? ‘ ”
He nodded approval and related his background: He had a degree in accounting and , at age 25 , had accumulated $500,000 by hard work but then lost everything while backsliding from the Christian faith he had embraced since a youth.
Muhammad wore dark blue pants, a pullover shirt with red and dark blue horizontal stripes and an a brown suede jacket , which he wanted me to know was “old. ” He has brown eyes and his black hair is flecked with gray . I found out he is five-foot ten inches tall and weighs 192 pounds . Muhammad is ruggedly handsome . A few other things one notices is that he takes his faith quite seriously and never is at a loss to make a point by quoting from the Bible if necessary. He laughs a lot . When stirred, especially about the threat of radical Islam, he rubs a finger across a short beard and raises both hands chest-high. He speaks English clearly and with a fast wit . While asking him questions about his personal life, I noticed he was often glancing down at his hand-held smart phone.
” What are you doing, ” I asked , wondering how attentively Muhammad had been listening.
“I’m texting some of your questions to my wife in Lebanon .”
” And she’s been answering you ? ! ”
He laughed. ” I can do five things at the same time ”
Further into our interview, I discerned that Mohammad was not unlike the missionaries I had met during my travels while conducting leadership workshops around the world for Lions Clubs International : Yes, this missionary was on call 24-7 and had , more or less, detached himself from what most of us consider essential to a normal life—like financial security and ordinary social pleasures .
The milestone in his life ? ” The day I got saved, ” he said. ” I was living at the time in a very rich community near the American University of Beirut where a lot of professional people lived, where one gets an education on the street. They talked about politics and social issuers and the Israeli-Arab conflict. It was a volatile neighborhood. I was a street kid , living with my mother and step-father , and my real father left us before I was born and divorced my mother. I started to think and ask questions like ‘why am I here ? ‘ and ‘who is God ? ‘ I was trying to find answers in the Islamic faith but to no avail. I spoke to an Imam [ a Muslim prayer leader ] but still did not find rest .”
Mohammad then recalled when , at age 14 and having been raised as a Sunni Muslim , he was sitting in a religion classroom which he had been attending since age 7 and listening about the Christian way of salvation. Irresistible thoughts about Jesus kept coming to him. ” The moment and the hour was awesome. But I was not ready to make a commitment to Jesus in front of my peers. I was afraid. I walked out of the classroom , and that night I could not sleep. There was a big struggle in me. But at 3 a.m. I kneeled down and prayed about how to make a commitment to Jesus . I prayed out loud ; it just came out of my mouth. ‘ Jesus, I am a sinner, Lord Jesus, forgive me, I need you. ‘ There was joy and I slept for four hours , and the next day I went to school , and my whole life was changed. There was so much going on inside me that I could not shut my mouth. I was on fire and I wanted to share with everybody what had taken place inside me. ”
Mohammad paused to catch his breath. Then glanced at his smart phone for any new text from his wife .
…and the Price
” After I got saved , I found out that to live for Jesus is not cheap, ” he continued. He told how during his early years as an evangelist when Muslim fundamentalists—both Sunnis and Shiites— twice tried to kill him in public . “But it wasn’t time for God to call me home. ”
Seeing he needed protection, Muhammad’s church pastor hid him in the north of Lebanon for six months. But when Muhammad returned and resumed his life-threatening evangelism, the pastor once again feared for Muhammad’s life and wrote a friend on the board of trustees of Bob Jones University in South Carolina and asked that Muhammad be enrolled there .
Three and a half years later, Muhammad returned to Lebanon with his diploma and soon began planting new churches and handing out thousands of New Testaments. “We were in a devil’s den, ” he said . He was persecuted , of course, such as the day his wife was driving their children to Sunday school and a young Shiite man rushed on foot at her car and tried—unsuccessfully— to drag her out, hitting her in the process. The Shii was angry, Mohammad said, because Mohammad and his wife were “preaching the Gospel to Shiite Muslim children . ” ( Shiites and Sunni, the two major Muslim sects, have been in conflict, often violent, ever since the death of their prophet Mohammad .) “But my wife came back smiling, ” Muhammad said smiling .
Courtship and Family
Muhammad claims being born into one of the largest Islamic families in Beirut (a cousin was a Muslim cleric ) .His father was born in the Gaza Strip, making him a “Palestinian-Jordanian.” In 1948 , the father moved to the West Bank ( then Jordan) and later to Lebanon, where he met Mohammad’s mother , who came from a “well-known ” Sunni background .He married her in 1965 but later left his wife , who then raised Muhammad alone and remarried in 1991.
” I found his whereabouts later and contacted him ,” Muhammad said. ” He knew I was a Christian and could not take it. He was rich . Before we parted for the last time, I told him that the God who took care of me in the last 30 years will take care of me in the next 30 years. ” The father now works as a building machinery contractor in Frankfort, German .
Mohammad met his wife, Grace Hanan—the Arab word for ”comfort’—at a basketball game at the American University in Beirut . “I was on fire for Jesus and was telling her that she needed to get saved. She was a nominal Presbyterian and thought I was a nut and for awhile was cautious with me. She was nice to me but didn’t want to continue with me. ”
Months later, when Lebanon in 1991 was in a civil war between Muslims and Christians, Muhammad was preaching in a church where Grace’s mother , coincidentally , was sitting near Hanan . The young woman didn’t know Muhammad was to preach that night. After the service , Hanan’s future mother-in-law introduced her to Muhammad. ” We started going out together, ” Muhammad said.
The couple courted for a year and a half, during which time Hanah was “saved and baptized. ” They were married in Muhammad’s church and honeymooned for three days in ” a big hotel up in the mountains. ”
Hanah, now 48, gave birth to five children: Laya Nour, 21 ; Selina Yasmine, 20; Lynn Samira, 16; Peter Karim, 13, and Sara Hanan, 7. One daughter wants to become a doctor, another an evangelist to children. The other children are living with their parents in Lebanon.
Backsliding and Losing It All
Now crept a more subtle enemy into Muhammad’s camp—ambition. Speaking slower and softer, he explained: ” Because I came from a poor family, I always had an ambition to ‘make it’ in life . I forgot what is permanent in life and sacrificed it for ‘the immediate. ‘ ” At age 25 and now married with children, he owned four retail stores in Beshamoun , a city near Beirut. He had accumulated $500, 000, then went bankrupt—a crime in Lebanon—and was imprisoned for four months. He left prison still “hard-headed about ambition , ” he said , “but God had His way…and I surrendered to it. ”
In 2008 in Beirut, he was ” stripped naked and lost everything” . He went to his wife and said, “Honey, I’m quitting everything .” She was shocked, Mohammad remembers. He liquidated what was left of any assets and started evangelizing on the streets. Three months later his wife once again questioned his sanity when he announced the family was moving to Tyre, where nearly everyone was a Muslim. ” But my wife was a Godly woman, and agreed to move. ”
For four months , Muhammad and his wife and five children slept on a concrete floor of the building that would become their ministry headquarters. Muhammad was keen to have his children well-educated in a Christian school but was disheartened upon learning the total annual tuition would be $12,000. The family prayed, and within a few days the school principal asked Muhammad to send his wife to office, where he not only hired her for a “good” salary with benefits, but also enrolled the children tuition-free.
For fun, Muhammad plays basketball with friends on a court in Tyre . He also enjoys the family’s pets: turtles, a parrot, a cat, and dogs ( a beagle , Belgium shepherd, and a Dachshund ) . “I’ve raised pets all my life so they came with me to the marriage. My pets served as a good schooling for my children; my pets taught them responsibility, cleanliness, love and compassion. At one time we had a puppy who died and all my children were crying and I could see they were learning to love. ”
This missionary said he reads all kinds of books ( mainly in English) about politics. He has no time for television or movies, though he did enjoy seeing the movies “Ben Hur”, ” Quo Vadis “, and ” Gone with the Wind. ”
” What do you want people to say about you after you die ? ” I asked him. His reply: “I don’t want people to say anything about me. ” I pressed him , and after a deep sigh he said, “He served. ”
The Awesome Variety of Refugees and Religion
Lebanon and its capital , Beirut—once known as the Switzerland of the Middle East—defies updated demographics because of frequent oceanic waves of refugees and the multiplicity of religious faiths the refugees bring with them into the country, Muhammad pointed out . In fact , no official census of Lebanon has been taken since 1932 . Muhammad cited Lebanon’s likely population as an estimated 4.4 million people, and today the country is struggling to absorb a refugee population of 7o0,000 Palestinians as well as those 1.5 million Syrians. According to a United Nations report, ” this deluge of refugees has overwhelmed Lebanon’s schools and public services, strained its economy, and stoked the sectarian and political tensions that continue to fuel the war in Syria. ”
” The Syrian refugees come with just the clothes on their backs,” Muhammad said. His refugee ministry center is part of the Emmanuel Baptist Church of Tyre , a city of 300,000; he himself claims no religious denomination, but all churches in Lebanon, he said, must operate under a “legal umbrella” of a denomination. At his center, Muhammad and his volunteer aid workers give out food, clothing, eye glasses, medicines, and New Testaments . ” We give these regardless of whether the refugees have accepted Jesus as Lord. ” Last Easter , Muhammad’s center boiled 5,000 eggs and gave to each refugee a loaf of bread and a New Testament.
At a nursery , Muslim children learn Biblical verses taught by South Korea youth volunteers who write the scripture on a blackboard. “I have found Korean Christian believers more zealous than others to reach out to [to evangelize ] Muslims ,” Muhammad said. ” They do this by being hospitable and by socializing. ” He said that last summer his ministry center gave aid to more than 1,000 children.
A bookstore at the center called “Noah’s Ark ” provides free coffee and Internet service in a room usually filled with more than 285 refugees. ” We also have a summer camp where 60 or so kids come for five days to enjoy Jesus,” Muhammad said. “Last year I took it upon myself to put 50 children in a school. We try to do everything to show them the love of Jesus. Today the people know that Jesus loves me. ”
Christianity , Muhammad will tell you, has a long and continuous history in Lebanon as well as a rich history of ethnic and religious diversity. He reminded me that the Bible tells of Jesus’ visits to the southern territories where He performed many miracles. And , he added, Lebanon’s cedar trees are mentioned in the Old Testament , and today the cedar tree remains the country’s national emblem . A Roman Catholic saint named Sharbel Makhlūf , whom Pope Paul VI called the “admirable flower of sanctity blooming on the stem of the ancient monastic traditions of the East ,” tended sheep in the early 19th Century in Lebanon’s wilderness. Though a civil war—it occurred after Lebanon gained independence as a mandate of France in 1943—in the 1970’s and 1980’s was said to have wrecked the country’s economy and infrastructure, many tourists still remember Beirut’s heyday as a charming and sophisticated city . ( I saw a bit of it briefly in the 1960’s . )
Muhammad’s church is less than a year old , and its Sunday attendance is about 20 people . The country has 17 sects with a Christian population of 31 to 41 per cent (21% Maronite, 8% Greek Orthodox, 5% Melkite Catholic ) . Other sects , as reported by Statistics Lebanon, a Beirut-based research firm, are : 54% Muslim (27% Shia; 27% Sunni), 5.6% Druze ( they do not consider themselves Muslims ) , and 6.4% other Christian denominations like Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Assyrian, and Copt . Most Protestants (Presbyterian, Congregational, and Anglican ) , reports Wikipedia, were converted by missionaries ( primarily English and American ) during the 19th and 20th Centuries . Roman Catholics, under the leadership of the Pope and curia in Rome, number about 1, 200, 000. Most are Maronites.
The Volatile Topic of Islam and Its Koran
Mohammad asked about lunch when he noticed that Hicham and Rick were waiting for us in the church narthex . I grew anxious about a remaining question which appeared to open a safety pressure valve in this missionary when I asked, “Mohammad, is there anything that repels you about the Islamic faith?”
” There is no love . I do not see love in the Koran. I see a lot of selfishness , especially with marriage issues , like my mother’s first husband being able to divorce her so easily . Also, a man can marry four women ? A religion that promotes hatred and non-tolerance of others, and a social life that is contradictory to human values ? ”
He went on for another 20 minutes.
” And when you confront them [ radical fundamentalists ] with this, they tell you that you have read a wrong translation of their Koran. ”
Muhammad had touched a nerve in me, too . Some Suras in the Koran I had found disturbing , notably Sura IX 5 (known as ” the verse of the sword, ” Ayat-as-seif ) : Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them… And Sura IX 29 : Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the religion of the truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low. And Sura VIII 39: fight then until …religion is all for Allah. (These citations are from what many Muslim scholars consider the most authoritative Koran text in English, The Glorious Qur’an , rendered by Mohammad M. Pickthall . )
And there was this lead paragraph from the Wall Street Journal article (“Christians in Iraq Get Death Threats “, July 19-20 , 2014 ) dispatched from Baghdad: ” The Islamic militants who seized large swaths of Iraq last month have threatened Christians with death if they don’t convert to Islam, pay a tax or flee insurgent-held areas by Saturday. ”
Muhammad now waxed philosophical: ” I’m not saying that the Western world is a Christian world, which is a fantasy, for if it were totally Christian , there wouldn’t be any tolerance for any other religion. But the Western world is secular and this is why all people from all religions come here ; it’s a safe haven. God allowed people to have the freedom of choice. ”
Mohammad then went after Middle East dictators like Assad, Mubarak, and Ghadafi , each whom he said didn’t care about the people and “have used religion to usurp power and to stay in control . ” He reminded me that several American politicians, powerful and otherwise, had used a similar strategy to win election. “All monarchs of the past in the Middle East, ” Muhammad continued, “thought of themselves as Gods and made rules to control the people. ”
I broke a journalist’s rule and , for a moment, got emotionally involved with my interview. “That kind of manipulation and hypocrisy has been going on forever in most Arab countries !” I said . ” Yet the people keep electing these tyrants . You’d think by now that the people, the ordinary citizens would put a good man on the ballot and get him elected ! ”
Mohammad frowned . Then loud enough for Rick and Hicham to hear him, he exclaimed, ” The people are afraid ! Fear is the key ! That’s why they need Jesus to overcome their fear, and that’s why I’m there. ”
Tough Words for Some American Christians
Muhammad’s passion for evangelism I had witnessed a few days earlier when he spoke at Hicham’s church in Lombard. He had been invited as a guest of honor months ago but his visit had been delayed for a several weeks while his ministry was being investigated by the powerful Hezbollah party . The party , he told me, had once warned him not to stay in Tyre if he continued evangelizing. The implication was that Hezbollah had serious concerns that Muslims would start believing in the words of Jesus rather than the Koran.
“There are Christians today in the Middle East who stand with dictators to protect themselves , ” he had told his audience. Only two per cent of all the world’s Christian missionaries go to the Middle East, he said. His voice pitched higher and louder , reminiscent of the fire and brimstone sermons of old time American tent crusaders. ” American Christians are not living up to their standards of being holy for a holy God…It’s all for Jesus or nothing at all….” After giving a power point presentation of refugee scenes in Lebanon, his voice raised even higher: ” We don’t need methods to reach Muslims. .. It’s simple: You love them ! Give them a hug, take them to lunch, visit them in prison…the Gospel is so sweet and awesome because it’s simple ! ” ( Weeks later, Mohammad would email me: ” The security situation in Lebanon is not good. We might be in for some violent conflict. But God leads my battles with ISIS, Hezbollah, and every ungodly group, using the most powerful weapon on earth: LOVE . ” )
Lunch, Final Reflections, and a Prayer
After the interview , the four of us drove to a café and took an inordinate amount of time filling our plates with a variety of Asian and Middle Eastern food spread upon six long buffet tables and two dessert bars. Though it was obvious by dessert time that no one had any stomach for “serious” talking , I felt obligated to ask Muhammad one more question . ” Tell me, Muhammad , ” I said, “what’s your personal challenge in life ? ”
” To live in purity, ” he replied. ” To not defile myself, to not let sin creep into my soul. I face that challenge daily. ”
“I think we all face that challenge,” Rick said.
We rose to leave . I think Rick and I would have liked to have come up with a Hitler or a Stalin to blame for much of the violence on earth today. That would be a much more concrete target to oppose than radicalized Islamists popping up all over. “Dealing with evil that is woven into the fabric of the world’s culture is tortuous ,” I told my friend. When we were to meet the next time for coffee at McDonald’s , he would read to me a line from Holy Scripture ( Ephesians 6:12 ) ; it identified , he believed , the real culprit, whether of war in the Middle East or a gangbanging in Chicago: For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.
Soon after that day in McDonald’s, Rick was to hand me an old Wall Street Journal interview ( March 6-7, 2010 ) of a former Palestinian who had converted to the Catholic faith while serving as a spy for Israel. Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of the founder and then leader of Hamas , stated his belief that terrorism can’t be defeated without a new understanding of Islam. “The problem is not in Muslims, ” he told the Journal’s editorial board member Matthew Kaminski . ” The problem is with their God. They need to be liberated from their God. He is their biggest enemy. It has been 1,400 years they have been lied to. ”
Walking in camaraderie to the cafe parking lot, I , for one, still wondered what was my role as an American and a Christian in the scheme of all this . Was it no more than writing articles like this? Life had shaped Mohammad, Hicham, Rick and I into different people with vastly different likes and dislikes , drives, and personalities . Yet what we had in common was clear : a bonding relationship with a Jew born 21 centuries ago in the Middle East. It was a good start.
Driving home with Rick that day, I told him of my encounter with a Muslim taxi driver who had taken me home from O’Hare International Airport . For fifteen minutes this man from Pakistan had been explaining to me what he thought were the many similarities between Islam and Christianity. He had obviously s seen his share of violence and hatred and how it had been tolerated—if not often encouraged in the Middle East— from father to children to grandchildren to great-grandchildren and on and on. In my driveway as he unloaded my luggage , I briefly thought of how unbridled hatred and lust for revenge can perpetuate themselves , making peace impossible .
I handed my tip to the Muslim man and, looking at him with a smile, I politely said: ” Many of we Christians actually do practice something which you Muslims don’t… We forgive our enemies, sometimes even pray for them. ” The Muslim opened his mouth as if stunned by such a preposterous thought. He stared at me for a few seconds , then got in his taxi and drove off. It was too late to mention one of life’s fundamental temptations stated by a saint name Benedict , founder of Western Monasticism : unbridled passion for revenge . But I did hope my words , at the least, would deprive him of a good night’s sleep.
A few days after this interview , Hicham posted this prayer on his internet blog ( http://salamarabicfellowship.blogspot.com ) : ” Most of us who have considered giving our lives to Christ have been bullied by pressures, threats, and mistreatment from family, friends, colleagues, supervisors, religious authorities, and police. This week we pray for Muslims who are searching for the truth. Many Muslims are not satisfied with the religious teachings and traditions they have known all their lives . They try to find a solution to their problems, relief in their dilemmas …”
© 2014 Robert R. Schwarz
All comments welcome