From a field worker
In some of the Arabic speaking Muslim nations there is a presence of Christianity. It could be an ancient church structure or, as in one Middle Eastern country, a church secretly carved out inside a mountain. However, the nation where I lived for some years had no visible presence of Christianity – the believers believe in secret. They meet in small secret groups in frequently changing secret locations. There are no churches on a hill, no church bells ringing, and no church steeples in the distance, no lights at Christmas and no chocolate eggs at Easter. It’s a strange world to an outsider who has come from a land where there’s a church ‘on every corner’ and commercial reminders of Christian traditions passed down through the years.
As I got to know my Muslim friends and neighbours, I quickly came to realise that it is not just the landscape that is void of the message of Christ. Many of my friends are completely uninformed of the story of a God who came to earth as a baby, grew, died a painful death on a cross, and rose from the dead – once for all. Their holy book and unquestioned teachings convey a different story and their scholars teach them that we believe in a lie.
My friends in this harsh mountainous land don’t believe in the original sin that we inherit from Adam, the rebellion that began in the garden. Their belief system explains that people are bad because they forget they were born good. They don’t intend to be bad. Intention (al niyah) is everything. According to their teachings, God evaluates our deeds not on the basis of what we do, but according to the intention behind it. They believe that we are born good, and if we happen to forget, there is a prescribed system for working off the debt.
Do they believe in Jesus? As my friend and driver Zaed said to me on my last day in town, ‘Ummi Miriam, I do believe in Jesus.’ Following my question, ‘Did he die on a cross for your sin and for mine and rise from the dead three days later?’ his response was the standard ‘Of course not, Ummi Miriam – I cannot believe such things.’ When one is born good, forgets sometimes and does something bad by mistake, extra prayer followed up with a healthy dose of generosity and good works is the solution to the problem. That, or revenge for injustices received. It isn’t possible that Jesus is God; it isn’t possible that God would die on a cross… once for all.
These lands celebrate two special festivals or eids. Their first and lesser festival, Eid Al Fitr, begins with a forty-day fast and ends with lavish family meals and gift giving. Their second and bigger Festival of the Sacrifice, Eid Al Adha, was explained to me by my local friends as the festivity recognising Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as an act of submission to God’s command. Eid Al Adha celebrates the time when God intervened to provide Abraham with a lamb to sacrifice instead of his son.
The Eid Al Adha that I experienced in this exotic Arabian land will not be easily forgotten. Rows of severed cow and goat heads were lined up, side by side, on ledges in front of butcher shops, extending for several blocks. It was a gripping scene. Observing this from inside the sanctuary of my car, I was taken aback by the sight of children splashing in the pools and rivers of blood running down the paved mountain roads in front of the shops. It was surreal!
‘Why the sacrifice?’ I asked local friends in my pursuit of a spiritual discussion. ‘Is it connected to the forgiveness of sins?’
‘We remember Abraham’s obedience and God’s provision’ was the response I often received.
But more importantly, it led to a discussion of our second eid, the biggest festival of all – the one we call Easter – the eid where we reflect on Jesus’ shed blood and remember that our debt was paid… once for all.
From a field worker