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Elementary student links Muslim with his parents’ outreach in France

MIDWEST CITY, Okla. (BP)–Perhaps the most important greeting Arezki El-Hamzaoui ever uttered was a simple “Hello,” spoken in English to an American elementary school student named Bill Thompson.
Unknown to Arezki, his kind gesture would be the first step on his journey to saving faith.
A 72-year-old retired mechanical engineer and a French space program veteran, Arezki was born and raised in Algiers, Algeria, as a Muslim. He attended Islamic schools from an early age, reading the Koran, speaking Arabic and completing the five daily ceremonial washings and prayers of devout Muslims.
At age 23, Arezki moved to France, where he experienced career success and continued a devout life privately, though not without questioning his religion, he said. He rarely worshipped in a mosque.
“I loved God, but man gives many, many traditions. I didn’t agree with some of their traditions,” such as the low status of women in Islamic life, he said.
More than 20 years ago, Arezki founded a computer club in his hometown of Bouliac, France, a suburb of the country’s fifth-largest city, Bordeaux. Each week, Arezki hosts elementary school classes, which use his computer club as a lab.
It was nearly four years ago that young Thompson and his classmates visited Arezki’s club and a friendship was born.
Knowing about Arezki’s love of Americans and the English language, several students told him about their American classmate, Thompson. Arezki promptly approached the youngster, greeting him in English.
“He opened his eyes wide because everyone was speaking French there,” Arezki said. “From that moment we had a special relationship.”
Arezki said he fell in love with Americans during the Allied troops’ occupation of Algiers in 1942. “I became real friends with them from that moment and always loved Americans and speaking English,” he said.
The day Thompson and his parents, Barry and Sheri Thompson — Oklahoma natives and International Mission Board missionaries — met Arezki, only Bill Thompson knew of their religious differences.
“He was very anxious to present me to his parents,” Arezki recalled. “I didn’t know his father was a pastor. The parents didn’t know I was a Muslim. We became friends.”
Soon after, Arezki attended a Christmas outreach at the Thompsons’ church.
“I thought, ‘OK, I am a Muslim, but God is the same for all people.’ I was surprised by all the warmth. It was wonderful.”
Arezki began regularly attending the church’s English worship service, then small-group English Bible studies, which Barry Thompson said attract people from various worldviews simply because speaking English is very popular in France.
In October 1997, Arezki spent nearly a week with a group from First Baptist Church, Midwest City, Okla., the Thompsons’ home church, who came to help remodel the church in Bordeaux. After a baptismal service before the Midwest City group departed, Arezki stood up and proclaimed that more baptisms would follow, Sheri Thompson said.
“He had visited our French congregation one or two times. It became an extraordinary week with the team that came,” she noted. A series of e-mails between the Thompsons and members from the Oklahoma church chronicled Arezki’s spiritual journey.
“Our dear friend Arezki stands on the threshold of receiving the most powerful gift of all time … the grace and pardon of Jesus! As he said Monday afternoon, ‘The only thing standing between us is Jesus. You know that all my life I was taught that Jesus was a good prophet. The other day, though, a lady asked me if I was a Muslim and I responded, Yes, but … I couldn’t finish the sentence. More than ever, I am in an inner struggle. I must decide what to do with Jesus.’ You know the prayer of our hearts, and yours, especially those of you who know and love Arezki.”
While attending the English Bible studies, Arezki met Wahiba Zinkine, an Algerian and former Muslim, now a Christian. “Meeting her helped him,” Sheri Thompson recounted. “For him, being Algerian had meant you were Muslim.”
Because the English Bible studies attracted many people from varied religious backgrounds, Arezki said it was easy to ask questions without fearing judgment.
“It was wonderful. Slowly, slowly, I began to be more attracted to the church. We asked many questions about Jesus. … [F]or me it was very important. After 15 of those meetings, I opened my heart to Jesus March 17, 1999.
“It was a big day,” he said.
Arezki was baptized June 13, and the weekend of July 4 he visited his friends at First Baptist Church, Midwest City, who had prayed for 17 months that he would be saved.
“He has a heart for God,” said Sheri Thompson, whose family currently is on furlough in Midwest City. “He always had a heart for God. It’s like God put all the pieces of the puzzle together for him.
“It was neat to see how the Lord revealed himself … in his time.”
Arezki added, “[Bill] took my hand and led me to Jesus through his parents. Now I am a believer and I am trying to be a good believer. I have to thank Barry and Sheri for taking me in as a family member.”
He said his immediate family — a Catholic daughter and two irreligious sons — were surprised but supportive of his conversion. Now he is praying for theirs.
When the Thompsons return to France in August, they will focus more than ever on English Bible study groups as a springboard for evangelism, Sheri Thompson said.
“There is more and more a need and desire to speak English,” she said. “It’s a new phenomenon and we’re just thanking the Lord for it.”

Pierce is advertising manager and a correspondent for the Baptist Messenger, Oklahoma Baptists’ newsjournal.

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  • Jerry Pierce