It was one of those moments I thought to myself, “Is this really my life?” Hawa, one of our good friends in Phayao, Thailand, had asked our family to come over for dinner and prepared an amazing meal. Joining us that evening was her father. In fact, it was his home, and he was the one who invited us. Hawa would later tell us that we were her first friends he ever invited to their home for a meal.
There was a moment during dinner, in the midst of great conversation, when my son sat down next to her father and began sharing food from the same plate. He smiled, patted Dax on the head, and continued to talk about his hajj, the pilgrimage all Muslims undertake to Mecca once in their lives. It was difficult to process this situation. My two-year old son was sharing a meal at the table – if you can call a mat on the floor “a table” – of this man who grew up in Pakistan. This man who is now the imam (Muslim religious leader) of a mosque in a small town in northern Thailand. This man who welcomed us and showed us such hospitality. If I wasn’t mistaken, Hawa’s dad was acting a lot like a “person of peace.” There would be no shaking the dust off our shoes that day.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, along with many Iraqis, Afghans, and other nationalities, fled their homes seeking safety in Europe. Many of them witnessed firsthand the brutality of ISIS and the Syrian government. They were looking for people of peace.
As thousands of desperate asylum seekers were knocking at Hungary’s door, Viktor Orban, the prime minister, declared, “Please do not come…I think we have a right to decide we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country.” The Christian culture of Hungary was apparently at stake. He admitted, “We Hungarians are full of fear.” So, the thousands of sojourners were forced to continue searching for a people who would welcome them.
The debate should really have never happened. It was the year 781, and the Abbasids, the dynasty that ruled Islam for half a millennium, were implementing the heaviest restrictions on non-Muslims to date. Mahdi, the caliph (political and religious leader of Islam) at the time, staged a debate in Baghdad and invited the Christian patriarch Timothy I to argue the case for the Christian faith. After two days of tough questions and differing opinions, Timothy concluded, “May God grant to us that we may…share it [the precious pearl of the faith] with you…We pray God who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, to preserve the crown of the kingdom and the throne of the Commander of the Faithful [the caliph] for multitudinous days and numerous years.” While Timothy I clearly articulated the gospel and his theological convictions, in a potentially hostile context, he was able to extend, and receive, peace in his dialogue with the Muslim community.
In 1009, al-Hakim, the caliph of Cairo, tore down the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and revoked a treaty that allowed Christians safe pilgrimage to the holy city. Sixty years later the Turks took over Jerusalem and became the leaders of Islam in the Middle East. The church in the West responded, in 1095, by commissioning an army to take back Jerusalem. Four years later they successfully took back the city, massacring its people in the process. This violent response was the first of many crusades spanning the next two centuries.
Bishop Deqani-Tafti was a bishop in Iran for almost 30 years. He was exiled from his homeland during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. A few months later his only son was brutally murdered in Tehran. The bishop and grieving father offered this prayer for his son’s funeral.
“O God, we remember not only Bahram [his son], but also his murderers. Not because they killed him in the prime of his youth and made our hearts bleed and our tears flow. Not because with this savage act they have brought further disgrace on the name of our country among the civilized nations of the world. But because through their crime we now follow thy footsteps more fully in the way of sacrifice; the terrible fire of the calamity burns up all selfishness and possessiveness in us; its flame reveals the depth of depravity and meanness and suspicion, the dimension of hatred and the measure of sinfulness in human nature, it makes obvious as never before our need to trust in God’s love as shown in the cross of Christ and his resurrection. Love which makes us face our hate toward our persecutors; love which brings patience, forbearance, courage, loyalty, humility, generosity, greatness of heart; love which more than ever deepens our trust in God’s final victory and his eternal designs for the Church and for the world; love which teaches us how to prepare to face our own day of death. O God, Bahram’s blood has multiplied the fruit of the Spirit in the soil of our souls. So when his murderers stand before You on the Day of Judgment, remember the fruit of the spirit by which they have enriched our lives, and forgive.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)
May God’s Spirit purify us of any hatred and fear we harbor for our Muslim neighbors and make us into a people of love and peace.