Christian converts from Islam
Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Giorgio Paolucci, editor-in-chief of the Catholic Italian daily 'Avvenire' and the co-author of the book 'I cristiani venuti dall'Islam' (Christians Coming From Islam) written together with the Lebanese journalist Camille Eid.
WLODZIMIERZ REDZIOCH: - How did your book about Christian converts from Islam originate?
GIORGIO PAOLUCCI: - Together with my friend Camille Eid I sought people who due to their choices had problems to share their experiences although they were happy because of their choices. So this book is an attempt to show 'the tip of the iceberg' concerning the phenomenon, which is not marginal at all.
- It was not an easy task, wasn't it?
- The first problem was to find converts from Islam. Perhaps all people have heard about Abdul Rahman, the 41-year old Afghan who faced death threat and who today lives in Italy. On that occasion, for two weeks all papers in Italy and all over Europe wrote about the problem of apostasy in Islam and death penalty, which the Islamic law provides for apostates. Therefore, our task was to find these people and show their stories. We wanted to prove that these matters do not only concern distant countries such as Afghanistan but also happen in Italy and other European countries.
- Why are these matters to concern Europe, too?
- Due to migration followers of Islam live among us. Thus Islam in is in Europe, with its complexity, including the big problem of religious freedom that has not been solved by Islamic countries and secular Muslim communities dispersed all over the world. Our book deals with theological and legal aspects of apostasy and penalty for it. We have also showed stories of converts in order to understand how people can be fascinated with Christianity, at risk of being threatened, persecuted or facing difficulties. Within two years of work, overcoming the opposition and fears of many people, we managed to collect testimonies of 30 ex-Muslims who converted to Christianity and today they are living as Christians in Italy.
- Why do Muslims convert to Christianity?
- Everyone asks questions about sense of life, happiness, love, friendship, and life after death. The people we met did not often find satisfying answers to these questions in the Koran and in their Muslim upbringing but they encountered fascinating testimonies of Christians, their friends, colleagues, neighbours, teachers who showed them that there was a more convincing answer. This answer is not the Koran but Christianity. So Jesus Christ crowned their search and human desires.
- Could you tell us some story of conversion from Islam to Christianity?
- At first I would like to stress that Islamic environments and families are very hostile to cases of conversion to Christianity. In extreme cases converts are subject to persecutions or are killed. Investigating the testimonies of converted Muslims I was convinced that at the beginning of the process of conversion people are fascinated with Christian testimony.
Let me give you a special example because it concerns a Turk. This young man did not find answers to his questions in the Islamic tradition. He went to an imam who ordered him to read the Koran and advised him not to ask too many questions that could lead him astray. One day he entered a church during Mass and heard 'Take and eat it, this is my Body'. God who becomes flesh, who becomes a companion on the way of man and who gives him his Body cannot be accepted in the Islamic tradition but at the same time this is something fascinating. Then the young Turk visited a priest and began discussing fundamental questions about life. The priest's answers were so convincing that he 'entered the way' leading to conversion to Christianity. When he was baptised he decided to devote his whole life to Christ. Today he is in the Jesuit novitiate in Italy and he dreams of returning to Turkey and working with the youth in his own country.
- What do Muslims find in Christianity and what is missing in Islam?
- To answer this question I want to present a story of a Bosnian officer. During the Balkan war he fought against the Serbs. One night, he was in the trenches and listened to the radio of Sarajevo that broadcasted both the speeches of Mustafa Ceric, chief of the Islamic community in Bosnia and Hercegovina, and Cardinal Vinko Puljic. Ceric promoted sacred war (jihad) for Islamic land, the war which was every Muslim's duty, whereas Cardinal Puljic said that there would be no peace in that land if we had no courage to forgive, and that only reconciliation can restore friendship between nations.
The officer was struck by the fact that his commander encouraged to use guns and his enemy called for reconciliation. Finally, he left his gun and went to Italy. He was put to prison there since he was accused of starting a fire; as it later turned out the accusation was false. A Croatian nun visited the prisoners. When she learnt he was Muslim she asked him if she was to bring him the Koran. He answered that he knew the Koran and wanted to read the Gospels. The nun brought him the Gospels, which became the book of the Bosnian. That was how their unique friendship began and it brought about the baptism of the Bosnian officer.
These are stories that contain some miracle because every conversion is miraculous, actually being an act of God's grace.
- Is it true that certain Muslim got converted while listening to the Italian Radio Maria?
- That's right. It was an Algerian who wanted to learn Italian. Since the university in Algiers was closed due to riots he bought a language video course and began studying it at home. He also listened to many Italian radio programmes. One evening he found a station that repeated the same words - it was the rosary recited by Fr Livio Fanzage, the founder of Radio Maria. From that day he listened to that station regularly. Thanks to the radio and religious books he got to know Christianity. After some time he concluded that Christianity was what he was looking for. However, the French priest in Algiers did not want to baptise him thinking that it was too dangerous. Therefore, the Algerian went to Italy where he was baptised (naturally he visited Radio Maria). Today he is living in Tuscany and leads a secret life because he is still in danger of being killed.
- What conclusions did you reach on the basis of your survey concerning Christian converts from Islam?
- Our book makes three challenges: challenge to Islam so that it grants their believers freedom of religion; challenge to the state authorities of the West that guarantee this freedom; challenge to lukewarm Christians so that they know that meeting Christ means a true 'revolution' of life. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18, states that religious freedom is the foundation of every civil society. That's why Muslim communities in the West have the right to demand protection of their religious rights but they should also permit people to change their religion.
Every government must ensure that the right to freedom of religion is obeyed. It cannot be accepted that a Muslim who has chosen Christianity must hide his new religion and e.g. go to church situated several dozen kilometres away from his home so as not to be persecuted by his local Islamic community. Muslim converts are also a great challenge for the Church because they are elements of 'the spring' of Christianity in the times where in many countries it has stopped being 'the agent' of existence and has become only 'a decoration'. Meeting these new Christians, coming from Islam, we were impressed by their enthusiasm and courage. 'You do not realise what treasure you have... Jesus Christ has revolutionised our lives'. Certain Algerian told us, 'You possess a closed jewel case in which you have a treasure. We come to your churches and cannot see this treasure; we come to your country and see a closed case. You should keep it open because it contains treasures for all people. You are shy and ashamed of Jesus instead of promoting Jesus to immigrants'. We saw extremely living faith in those converts and that makes us aware that Christ has brought about a real revolution in the world.