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Muslim evangelism: earn ‘right to be heard’

NASHVILLE (BP) — Because Muslims expect to be shunned as terrorists by citizens of Western nations, Christians can sometimes win them to Christ by showing them radical love and acceptance, former Muslim Afshin Ziafat said at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s Leadership Summit on the Gospel and racial reconciliation.

“My goal when talking to a Muslim is for them to see Jesus in me and then for me to share Jesus with them,” Ziafat, lead pastor of Providence Church in Frisco, Texas, said during a March 27 breakout session on Islam. “I don’t know any former Muslim who became a Christian who has said to me, ‘I was just cornered in a debate, and it made sense that Islam was crazy and I became a Christian.’ Every former Muslim that I know who’s a Christian — every one of them — points to a person” who loved them.

In a main session, Ziafat explained the biblical rationale for loving Muslims, noting that the Gospel requires believers to share Christ in word and deed with people from different cultures and religions. Acts 10 and other Scriptures make clear that God intends to save people from all races, Ziafat said.

“If we go out with the message of reconciliation to people who don’t look like us, who don’t talk like us, who don’t dress like us, who are separated from us, we are living out the Gospel,” Ziafat said. “Why? Because the greatest divide isn’t even a racial divide. The greatest divide of all time is the divide between Holy God and sinful man.” Yet Jesus loved those on the opposite side of the divide.

Ziafat is passionate about loving Muslims in part because the love of a Christian guided him to faith in Christ as a teenager in Houston. Born in Texas to an Iranian family, Ziafat moved to Iran at age 2 but escaped back to America with his family four years later during Iran’s Islamic Revolution, in which hardline Muslims seized control of the government.

“It was not easy in 1979 to be from Iran living in America,” Ziafat said.

Antagonism toward Iranians mounted when a group of Islamic Revolution supporters took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats hostage for more than a year. Ziafat remembers hearing radio commentators call for the bombing of Iran. People threw rocks through the Ziafat family’s windows and slashed their tires because of their nationality, he said.

Meanwhile, Ziafat attended an American elementary school though he spoke only Farsi. His family paid a tutor to teach him English after school, and amid her teaching she gave him a New Testament with instructions to read it when he could understand. Ten years later, he read it and was saved.

“Had any other American given me that New Testament, I would have thrown it away because I didn’t trust them,” Ziafat said. “You want to win a Muslim for Christ? I believe you’ve got to earn the right to be heard. She did it by the way she was loving me.”

Ziafat hid his Christianity from his parents temporarily and was disowned by his father when they discovered it. The relationship was further strained when Ziafat revealed his call to Christian ministry and his father said, “I will always be ashamed of you.” Today Ziafat’s relationship with his father is restored, but his father has not accepted the Gospel.

Ziafat’s personal struggle to be accepted helped convince him of the need for love toward Muslims. Among the ways he demonstrates love for Muslims today is by training Iranian believers how to share the Gospel in their native country.

“If you’re only going to love people who deserve your love, well pat yourself on the back,” Ziafat said. “You just come up to the level of the world. But as life goes beyond that and you become exceptional and you start to reveal the Gospel, then you go beyond loving people who deserve your love [to] loving people who don’t deserve it, maybe who are supposed to be our enemies.”

Reaching Muslims for Christ must begin with praying for them followed by serving them in practical ways, Ziafat said. Then Christians should look for opportunities to discuss the Gospel. Key differences between Islam and Christianity can serve as points of discussion, he said. Among the differences noted by Ziafat:

— In Islam, God is sovereign and completely set apart from humans without also being a loving heavenly Father to His people, as in Christianity.

— Muslims believe humans are born sinless and judged on the basis of whether their good works exceed their sins. Christians believe humans are born in sin and saved by grace through faith alone.

— Muslims believe Jesus was merely a human prophet, although He was sinless and born of a virgin. Christians believe Christ is the divine Son of God.

Believers should draw on the similarities between Islam and Christianity to introduce the Gospel, Ziafat said. Passages in the Quran can be a useful tool in evangelism, he said, but he cautioned against treating the Quaran as an authoritative document.

“If I ever use the Quran [to witness], I use it in the way Paul used the inscription in Acts 17 and the way that he used the poetry of people in Acts … as a bridge to get them to the Word of God,” Ziafat said.

Islam is not a “religion of peace,” but it is difficult to determine whether Islam endorses terrorism, Ziafat said, noting that the Quran includes verses that advocate peaceful conduct as well as verses saying those who do not believe in Allah should be put to death.

Asking the question, “does Islam espouse terrorism,” he said it is clear that many Muslims do not embrace terrorism but are still shunned because of a popular fear that all followers of Islam are radical jihadists, Ziafat said. A Gospel witness to Muslims gains credibility when the believer sharing Christ meets Muslims’ deep need for friendship.

“The Gospel calls me to step out of my comfort zone and go out to people who don’t look like me … especially those who are my enemies, whom I am expected to hate,” Ziafat said. “When I show them love, the Gospel is revealed.”