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?

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Always Winter, Never Christmas

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The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis’ classic first book in the Chronicles of Narnia series, tells the story of 4 children: Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter Pevensie. The setting is World War II, and the the children have been sent to stay with family friends in the English countryside because of the German attack on London.

As they are exploring and playing in the house, Lucy hides in a wardrobe, only to find that it is a portal to another world. As she passes through the portal she finds herself in Narnia – a cold place, covered in snow. She meets some creatures, who tell her about the bleak condition of Narnia: it is a land under the curse of an evil witch. Every day is as if it is “always winter but never Christmas.”

This is perhaps one of the most apt and poetically concise descriptions of hopelessness ever written: “Always winter, but never Christmas.”

2016 hasn’t been a great year on some fronts. Terror attacks in Europe, death and destruction in Syria. Maybe you have experienced some things in your own life, that make you acutely aware that you are living in a land that is under a curse – where it feels like you dwell in perpetual winter.

As Lucy and Edmund found themselves in Narnia, suddenly the children heard the sound of sleigh bells approaching. They figured it was the evil witch, so they hid. However, it was not the witch, it was Father Christmas!

Having been held captive by the witch, he had finally gotten free. “I have broken through at last,” he says. “She has kept me out for a long time, but her magic is weakening. Aslan is on the move! A merry Christmas! Long live the true King!”

We live in a world where there is a curse, where there is winter and cold and darkness, where there is pain and hardship – yet ever before us is the promise of Christmas: that Jesus has come to the world to save us.

Advent isn’t only about looking to the past, it’s also about looking to the future – to the fact that the curse is being broken, that the True King is coming and the winter will one day be over and the warmth and life of Spring will come.

Relient K wrote a song a few years back about this very thing:

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.

 

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!