New York Times Article on Muslim Refugees Converting to Christianity

From the NY Times: The Jihadi Who Turned to Jesus

Something I have often written about and talked about is how when Middle Eastern refugees come to Europe and the West, for many of them it is the first time they have ever met Christians or even had the opportunity to hear the gospel or the freedom to read the Bible in their own language. We experienced this ourselves in Hungary, where we saw muslim refugees from Iran, Afghanistan and Kosovo convert to Christianity through our work in a refugee camp.

The New York Times posted this article recently about the conversion of a formerly radical muslim from Syria who converted to Christianity in Istanbul – an very interesting read especially in light of my post yesterday about my recent day-trip to Istanbul. His conversion was influenced by several factors, including his brother, also a formerly radical muslim, who had gone to Canada, where he met Christians and converted to Christianity.

Could it be that since these countries and cultures haven’t allowed Christianity to spread freely within their borders, that God is now bringing them to Europe and America precisely so many of them can hear the gospel and be saved? I believe so. I’ve written about that here: In Longmont We Met a Refugee from a Muslim Country. Here’s Her Story..

The question is: what will we Christians do with this opportunity?

“Should I Not Have Compassion on that Great City?”

Greetings from Kyiv, Ukraine! I have been in Europe for the past week on a ministry trip to visit some ministries that White Fields Community Church partners with in Hungary and Ukraine, with the focus of my trip being here in Ukraine.

I got a good price on a multi-destination ticket with Turkish Airlines. Part of the reason for the low price is that it included a 12 hour layover in Istanbul. I can understand why for some people that would be a terrible inconvenience, but for me on this trip it was a great added bonus! Recently I’ve been teaching classes on the history of Christianity, and Constantinople is a big part of it, so I looked forward to the chance to get to see the “New Rome” and the old capitol of the Byzantine Empire along with the Hagia Sophia – the largest Christian church in the world for nearly a thousand years, and a building that changed architecture.

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Inside the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), built in 537 AD!

Istanbul, with 14 million people, is the largest city in Europe. During my time there I went to the Asian side of the Bosphorus Strait, and from there I could begin to get a glimpse of just how big this city is. It was great preparation for the conference I was coming to teach at in Kyiv on the topic of “Vision for Our Cities.”

I was reminded of the message of the Book of Jonah, which is summed up in the final verse, where God says to Jonah, “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”

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Looking across the Bosphorus from the Asian side, toward the “Golden Horn”

Jonah’s view of Nineveh was that it was a city full of terrible sinful people who did terrible sinful things, and that they deserved God’s wrath. He was frustrated and upset by the fact that God wanted to offer them a chance to repent and receive mercy. But God spoke to Jonah at the end, and pointed out that Jonah was more concerned about plants than he was about people. God, on the other hand, cares more about people than plants – and so therefore, how could God not care about a city full of his most masterful creation, whom he loves? God wanted Jonah (and us) to understand the way that he feels about people, and about cities full of people: he loves them and we should too.

“And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”

On the streets of Istanbul and in the public transport areas I saw a lot of refugees from the Middle East. While I was in Turkey, the United States issued a ban on bringing laptops and tablets onto flights originating from 10 airports in 8 muslim-majority countries, including flights originating from Istanbul, something which will affect me on my flight home. The ban came as the result of the discovery of a plot to put explosives into an iPad.

As I walked through downtown Istanbul towards Taksim Square, I began wondering what it would be like for someone to do Christian ministry in that city. I was surprised at how European it was; aside from the mosques and minarets, most of the city looks like any other large European city.

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Galata Tower and a typical European neighborhood in Istanbul.

At the same time, I remember the news about German missionaries who were killed in Turkey a few years ago, and I realize that it would not only be difficult, but also dangerous for someone to do Christian ministry there.

Cities in general are “humanity magnified.” And because of that, there is inherently a dual nature to all cities: on the one hand they are full of the pinnacle of God’s good creation: people who are made in His image – on the other hand, we are fallen and so cities also have more brokenness, danger and sin.

The story-line the Bible tells is one which can be summarized in four points: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. That means that because of Jesus there is hope for humanity.

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Istanbul: very European and yet unquestionably Muslim

A Google search helped me find some international churches in Istanbul. I pray for their safety and for them to have effective ministry in this great city. May we truly understand the message of the Book of Jonah and may God give us His heart for cities like this one.

In Longmont We Met a Refugee from a Muslim Country. Here’s Her Story.

Pew Research Center reports that the United States admitted a record number of Muslim refugees in 2016. 38,901 Muslim refugees entered the U.S. in fiscal year 2016, making up almost half (46%) of the nearly 85,000 refugees who entered the country in that period, based on data from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center.

In a previous post, I mentioned what I would do if refugees moved into our neighborhood. This past week, we met someone who lives in our neighborhood who came to the United States as a refugee from a muslim country.

Last Friday, our kids were invited to 2 birthday parties on the same night. I took one kid to the one party, my wife took the others to the other party.

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Kosovo

At the party my wife went to, she got to talking with one of the parents and came to find out that she was born into a muslim family from a muslim country, who had come to the US as refugees. The country? Kosovo.

After growing up in New York City, this woman married an American man, and together, the two of them became Christians.

This woman’s parents, at that point, refused to speak to her, but once she had children, her parents started coming around more often.

This woman and her husband now live in Longmont and they are involved in supporting various Christian ministries, churches and missionaries in Kosovo and travel there from time to time.

Here’s the point: this is what happens to good number of muslims who come to the United States: they meet Christians, they hear the Gospel, they become Christians, and then they begin to reach out and support Christian missions in their country of origin.

08-21-14_the_green_prince_mainIf you haven’t yet, check out the movie The Green Prince. It’son Netflix. It’s about Mosab Hassan Yousef, a Palestinian and the eldest son of Sheik Hassan Yousef, one of the founders of Hamas. The Green Prince, is the film adaption of the book, Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices, tells the true story of how Mosab was recruited by Israeli intelligence to work against Hamas.

But what is particularly interesting about Mosab’s story, as is documented in the book and the movie, is how in 2007, Mosab left the West Bank and came to the United States. Living in San Diego, he was invited by some acquaintances to come visit their church. There he heard the gospel, the message of God’s love, and he met Christian people who embraced him. In 2008, Mosab publicly announced his conversion to Christianity, putting himself at risk by doing so.

Now guess what he does: He reaches out to Arabic speakers with the message of the gospel. Talk about legit: a son of Hamas speaking in Arabic about Jesus and the hope of the Gospel. That’s powerful for people in that culture, and in ours as well.

“Religion steals freedom, kills creativity, turns us into slaves and against one another. Religion can’t save mankind. Only Jesus could save mankind through his death and resurrection. And Jesus is the only way to God.” – Mosab Hassan Yousef

With all of these refugees from muslim countries coming to the United States, there is an incredible opportunity: for the first time, many of these people will be able to hear the Gospel, to meet and be embraced by Christian believers, and to choose for themselves what they will believe.

May we who call ourselves Christians be found faithful to act towards them as Jesus would, and may we be used by God to help them find love, liberty and salvation in Christ. Lives and destinies will be changed, and maybe even the world as we know it.

A Refugee Story of Our Own

60 years ago this week, the Hungarian people rose up against the Stalinist government of Hungary and the Soviet occupation.

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Toppled Statue of Stalin in Budapest

The revolution ultimately failed, and in the wake of it, my wife’s father, Ferenc, fled Hungary along with some 200,000 people, and became a refugee. Ferenc was able to escape across the border into Austria along with a friend thanks to the help of a local villager who helped them navigate the minefield at the border. Unfortunately they later received news that this man had been caught and executed.

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Those who fought and those who fled were known as 56-ers (Ötvenhatosok).

Time magazine named the Hungarian Freedom Fighter the Man of the Year in 1956.

The revolution began on October 23, 1956 with rallies and protests. When the  ÁVH (Hungarian secret police) fired into the crowd of protesters in front of the parliament building, people formed militias, armed only with rocks and molotov cocktails, but were later able to break into military weapon storage and get guns. The revolution spread throughout the country, and on Oct 28, 1956 Soviet troops withdrew from Budapest. The Hungarians thought they were free, and began to establish a new government, but on Nov 4, in the middle of the night, the Soviet army rolled into Budapest and crushed the revolution completely and finally.

One of the saddest parts of the story of the revolution, was that the United States had been broadcasting into the Eastern Block via Radio Free Europe, telling people there that if they were to rise up against the Soviets, the US would support them. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, because at the exact time when the Hungarians did rise up, the US was in the middle of negotiations about the Suez Canal and needed the support of the Soviet Union, and they weren’t prepared to turn the Cold War into World War III.

My father-in-law, Ferenc, was able to get refugee status in Austria and petitioned for asylum in the United States, and was among those who were accepted. The United States said they would accept 100 young men who were willing to work. They took them on a B-52 Liberator, and after a stop-over somewhere in Africa, they were brought to a military base in New Jersey. Asked where they wanted to live in the United States, they chose Chicago, because it was the only American city they had heard of.

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B-52 Liberator, the plane Ferenc and other refugees were brought to the US in

Ferenc later gained US citizenship, got married and had 2 kids. He went to college and worked in the tech industry. He loved Hungary, but understood he couldn’t go back. He also loved America, because of the opportunities and the freedoms he enjoyed here.

It was also in the United States that Ferenc heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ and became a Christian. He was born in Hungary during World War II and raised in the Stalinist era of communist Hungary, which meant that although he identified as Roman Catholic, he never practiced it. Upon coming to the US, Ferenc began attending Catholic mass, but the real turning point in his life came when his son, my brother-in-law, was invited as a teenager to a church by some friends. My wife and her brother had gone to Catholic church growing up with their parents, but as they got older they had stopped attending. Tony, my brother in law embraced the gospel message of who Jesus was and what he did: the Divine Son, dying in our place, for our sins, so we could be forgiven, justified and redeemed; rising from the dead that we might have eternal life through him.

Tony invited Rosemary, my wife, to come to church with him, and she did. He also invited his mom and dad, who were much more hesitant to come because of the charismatic nature of this particular church.

Ferenc, however, listened to what Tony said about Jesus, and so Ferenc looked for a church where he felt comfortable going and learning more. He ended up finding Calvary Chapel in Vista, CA – and Rosemary began attending with him.

Rosemary remembers the time when her dad really understood the gospel for the first time. She says that he was emotional, having been touched deeply by the love and the grace of God towards him, and at the same time somewhat angry, saying: “I went to church for years…but I never heard the gospel!   Why did they never tell me that I needed to repent of my sins and put my faith in Jesus, and that God extends grace and mercy and eternal life to those who will receive it?” 

I went to church for years…but I never heard the gospel!   Why did they never tell me…? – Ferenc Kovács

Ferenc attended Calvary Chapel in Vista for years. While he attended there he met another man, István, who was also a 56-er. About this time, the great changes were taking place in Eastern Europe which led to the end of Communism in those countries. Calvary Vista led the way in sending teams to preach the gospel and to plant churches, first in Yugoslavia and then in Hungary.

Ferenc was so excited to see what God was doing, and he wanted so badly to go to Hungary and tell his fellow countrymen the good news of the gospel, and the message that God loved them and that Jesus had died for them. Unfortunately, he never got that opportunity. Ferenc suffered from Juvenile Parkinson’s Disease, a devastating condition for a man who had formerly been an avid athlete and soccer player. Ferenc died from complications from Parkinson’s in 1996, at the age of 59, but not before seeing his daughter go on mission trips to Hungary. His friend István did go to Hungary and spent years working with Calvary Chapel in Budapest.

We ended up working together in, of all places, a refugee camp

In 1998, Rosemary moved to Hungary to work with Calvary Chapel, spreading the gospel and planting churches. It was there that I met Rosemary in 2001. We ended up working together in, of all places, a refugee camp, in Debrecen, Hungary where we ministered several times a week to people mostly from muslim countries, who had never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. We provided for them materially through donations, and we also offered them Bibles and held Bible studies, translated into several languages. Over this period of time, we saw people from Kosovo, Iran, Afghanistan and several African countries become Christians after hearing the gospel clearly presented for the first time in their lives and having the opportunity to read the Scriptures for themselves.

Today, we have a modern-day refugee crisis. We’ve been told that they are a “Trojan Horse” – and maybe some of that rhetoric has some truth to it, but I also know that people were sceptical of people like Ferenc, my father-in-law, who came from a Communist country – and guess what: during the Cold War, some spies and people with bad intentions against America did come to the US pretending to be refugees. It doesn’t change the fact of Ferenc and many other refugees’ stories of escaping oppressive regimes and not only finding freedom, but also having the opportunity for the first time in their lives to hear the life-transforming message of the gospel.

I see the current refugee situation through this lens: the lens of my wife, her brother and my late father-in-law. I see it through the lens of the many people who became Christians in the refugee camp I worked in, who had never had the opportunity to hear the gospel or the freedom to become Christians in their home countries. I see it through the lens of the Iranian refugees I met in Budapest last year, whom White Fields church bought Bibles for, because they were hearing about Jesus and getting baptized, changing their names and evangelising other refugees.

I’m not afraid of refugees – my father-in-law was one. The mass exodus of people from Syria is a difficult and messy situation, but here’s what I’m going to do if Syrian refugees move into my neighborhood: I’m going to befriend them, love them, show them kindness and seek to share with them the life-changing message of the gospel, a message which they likely have never heard before. I hope you’ll do the same.

 

Hungary Becomes the First Country to Officially Defend Christians Persecuted by ISIS

Some good news coming out of my former home, Hungary, this week:

This week, Hungary, which has during the past year come under pressure for its handling of Europe’s mass migration crisis, has become the first government to open an office specifically to address the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Europe.

“Today, Christianity has become the most persecuted religion, where out of five people killed [for] religious reasons, four of them are Christians,” Catholic News Agency (CNA) quoted Hungary’s Minister for Human Resources, Zoltan Balog, as saying. “In 81 countries around the world, Christians are persecuted, and 200 million Christians live in areas where they are discriminated against. Millions of Christian lives are threatened by followers of radical religious ideologies.”

I’m glad to see someone standing up for these persecuted Christians in the Middle East. It’s about time. Good on you, Hungary!

For the article about it in Christianity Today, click here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/september/first-country-to-officially-defend-christians-persecuted-by.html

Photos From Our Trip So Far

Preaching at Golgota Debrecen with my friend Jancsi translating. The church is biligual and does all services in Hungarian and English.
Refugee Bible study in Budapest with Farsi translation. They use “Simply Jesus” to teach the Gospel through movement which requires minimal translation.
Many of these Iranian and Afghan refugees recently became Christians
Pastor Jani of Golgota Eger representing for Longmont City!
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This is how we got around in Debrecen in Bodi’s tiny car…
Bodi bácsival a Békástónál

 

Advent Meditations: 8 – Jesus Was a Refugee

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behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. – Matthew 2:13-15

I remember the first time I heard the words: I was 19 years old and worked with refugees in Hungary. We had organized a retreat, in which we took some of the refugees who attended the Bible studies we held at different refugee camps around the country to a “retreat center” in the Buda hills – if you could legitimately call that place a retreat center. It was pretty rough – but at least a step up from conditions at the refugee camps, which were former Russian army bases and workers camps which had been converted into shelters for thousands of refugees from Asia, Africa and the Balkan Peninsula.

A pastor from Oregon who had a heart for refugee ministry had come out for the weekend-long event. That first evening, as we sat down for Bible study, he began with these words: “Jesus was a refugee too.”

Jesus was a refugee too.

I had always known the story found in Matthew’s Gospel, of how, after Jesus was born, Herod the Great had ordered that all baby boys in Bethlehem under 2 years old be put to death, so that the one who had reportedly been born King of the Jews would not threaten his power. Having been tipped off to Herod’s plans, Joseph took his wife Mary and the young Jesus and fled by night to Egypt… where they stayed until Herod died.

No one is quite sure how long Jesus stayed in Egypt, but tradition says it was somewhere between 4-8 years. Jesus spent his early childhood, as a refugee, fleeing a murderous regime…

In fact, part of the mentality that the Jewish people were instructed to have in the Old Testament, was that they had once been “sojourners” (what we would call “refugees” or “migrants”) and therefore they should show love, mercy and kindness to foreigners (refugees and migrants) in their land.

Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 10:19

King David was also at one point a refugee. In 1 Samuel 27 David was being targeted for assassination by a murderous King Saul. Ironically, the Philistines treated David better than the people of Israel did.

But here’s the point: part of the Christmas story is that when God became a man, he could have chosen to be born in comfort and to live a life of ease, but he didn’t. He chose to be born in a barn, to a teenage girl and a construction worker. He chose to become a refugee – to live in exile, despised and held in suspicion, treated as outsiders by those in the country they took refugee in.

Why?  So that he could relate to the poor.  So that he could even relate to the refugees.

When that pastor at our refugee retreat opened with those words: “Jesus was a refugee too,” suddenly he had everyone’s attention – and everyone wanted to know about this God, this Savior, who would become just like THEM. Who understood them, who could empathized with them, and who loved THEM.

Here’s the message of Christmas:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. – 2 Corinthians 8:9

Loving the sojourner in your land: a great (and biblical!) way to celebrate Christmas this year.

 

Thoughts on the Refugee Crisis in Europe – and How You Can Help

Hungary has been in the news a lot lately because of the refugee crisis going on right now in Europe. Because my wife and I lived there for so long, many people have been asking for my opinion on what’s happening, so here goes:

What is happening right now is going to shape the future of Europe

This is something of historic proportions. Estimates range from 300,000 to over 1 million Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan migrants and refugees having entered already into Europe over the past several months. Countries like Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic are mostly homogeneous nations; they have had almost no muslim population to speak of. Until now, muslims in Europe have been based solely in the Western countries. That is now going to change.

I don’t believe that most of these migrants are muslim radicals; the great majority of them are people fleeing atrocities and horrible circumstances, which is very understandable. However, since the floodgates have opened up, there is no saying who all is coming into Europe right now, and I’m sure there is a mixed bag, with some of those radical elements being part of it, seeing a wide open door to Europe and taking the opportunity. Conspiracy theories are rampant as to the idea that this is a muslim invasion of Europe, but honestly, really radical muslims in Syria and Iraq who want an Islamic state would probably be most inclined to joining ISIS anyway, since that is what they want.

Long term solutions and short term responses

The long term solutions to this problem are certainly not something I’m qualified to give, but I would assume that peace and stability in Syria, and the defeat of ISIS is a big part of it.

The Dublin Agreement, which says that the first European Union country a migrant enters is responsible for registering them and then processing them is, in my opinion, unfair. It serves to protect the wealthy countries of North and West Europe and keep the burden on the poorer countries of Southern and Eastern Europe. I’m glad to see the Dublin Agreement being ignored and reconsidered. I do think the suggestion of Donald Tusk of Poland is fair, that the countries of the European Union should share the burden of these refugees. Some countries are not really affected by it, while others bear the brunt of it.

However, since the Dublin Agreement has been being ignored, with Austria and Germany accepting thousands of refugees who were “stuck” in Hungary, I expect even more refugees to come, as word of that spreads, and there is an apparent open door into Western Europe for anyone willing to make the journey. None of these people want to stay in Hungary. They are trying to go through Hungary into the wealthy countries of Western and Northern Europe.

In the short term, the response of Christians in Europe to the refugees has been amazing. I do believe that as Christians our calling is to love and serve those right in front of us, no matter their creed or nationality, and many of my friends and former colleagues in Hungary and Serbia are doing just that. Below I have included a link for how you can support their efforts.

The response of Hungarian citizens to the refugees in their country has been outstanding. They have treated them with love and respect. The video that was on the news yesterday of a Hungarian camerawoman at Röszke tripping and kicking refugees was despicable and not at all characteristic of the Hungarian people. This woman was filmed tripping a man carrying a child, so that he and the child fell, and later kicking a young refugee girl in the stomach as she tried to run by. It turns out this woman worked for a far-right wing news source, and even they didn’t approve of her actions and she was fired.

My wife Rosemary and I worked with refugees for years in Debrecen, Hungary – and what we found was that for many of these people from majority muslim countries, coming to Europe was the first time they had been exposed to Christianity and for most of them it was the first opportunity they had to hear the Gospel and read the Bible. We saw many people convert to Christianity, and I do believe that this may be a great opportunity for these muslim people to come to Europe and hear about Jesus. The work of Christians in loving them will make great strides towards this end. Pray that God would use this crisis as a way of bringing many of these people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

How you can help

Our friends at Calvary Chapel Bible College Europe in Vajta, Hungary – only a short drive from Röszke, the major flashpoint for refugees entering Hungary, are providing food and blankets, among other things, to the refugees who have been being kept at a temporary “camp” on the border, which is just a fenced off corn field, where refugees, including many children, are sleeping on the ground in increasingly cold temperatures. For the last few nights it has been 10 degrees Celsius / 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Here is the link to where you can donate to support their efforts.

We also have friends in Szeged, Hungary, only a few kilometers from Röszke, and they have been very involved with the refugees as well. Here is a link to their blog where you can follow what they are doing.

Pray for the refugees and those serving them in the name of Jesus!