Converting Muslims in Lebanon
Editor’s Note: The following are the prepared remarks of Fr. Patrice Laroche which were given at the 2016 Angelus Press Conference, The Missions. In order to remain faithful to Fr. Laroche’s intentions, the original style of the remarks has been retained throughout. Fr. Laroche’s final, oral version of the talk can be purchased through Angelus Press.
Before proceeding with my talk, let me give you some background on Lebanon and the challenges facing the Society’s apostolate there.
Lebanon is a small country of 10,400 square kilometers. It is 50 times smaller than France, but is populated with almost five million inhabitants, to which we now have to add about one and a half million refugees from Iraq and Syria who are fleeing the war.
Although we have had contacts in Lebanon for nearly 30 years, our mission in this country is still a modest one.
The principal reason for that is that most of the Christians who are leaving there belong to an oriental rite: in general they are Maronite Catholic, Greek Catholic, or Greek Orthodox. Since the 6th century, Lebanon has been a refuge for all Christian communities that were persecuted in the Middle East. Those who belong to the Latin rite are only a small number, about 15,000. This means that it is not in search of the Tridentine Mass that many faithful in the region come to us, which is the usual way people seek our assistance.
The second reason our apostolate in Lebanon remains small is the war, which lasted 15 years (1975-1990) and the general insecurity that led many people to leave. Many of the first Christians we met in Lebanon have since fled to France, Canada, or Australia.
It is also important to keep in mind that the Christians in Lebanon are very involved in daily political and economic difficulties; they don’t want to be involved in an ecclesiastical problem which they mainly see as a problem for the Latin Church.
Last but not least is the fact that we do not have enough priests to visit this country more often: once a year at the beginning, now two or three times a year.
However, during my visit in Lebanon some weeks ago, some young people came to my mass and asked after mass: “We need the Society of St. Pius X in Lebanon. Why do you have priests all over the world and no priory or school in the Middle East?” And they said as a kind of joke: “Anyhow, it can be safer today to live in Lebanon than in France or in Germany.” Next week some of these men will come to Menzingen with a priest, in order to speak with Bishop Fellay about the foundation of the SSPX in their country.
I will now divide this speech in two parts:
First, I will speak about the war in the neighboring country Syria.
Secondly, I will talk about the conversions of Muslims that are taking place.
Bechir Gemayel, the elected President of Lebanon, who was killed in September 1982 before he could begin his office, used to say concerning the war in Lebanon: “We have been aggressed as Christian; we have defended us as Lebanese.” By this he meant to say that Christians are the true citizens of the Middle Eastern countries.
At the end of the Lebanese war that lasted from 1975 to 1991, the Christians lost some of the influence they had at the political level. As before, the President of the republic has to be a Christian (a Maronite Catholic), but Lebanon has become a kind of parliamentary regime and is no more a presidential regime. Moreover, now one half of the deputies are Christians; the others are Muslims. The same must be said concerning the number of ministers. As before, the president of the ministers is a Sunni, the president of the parliament is a Shiite, and the chief of the army is a Maronite.
When the Lebanese war started, one half of the population was Christian, the other Muslim. Now with the emigration of Christians and the higher birth-rate of the Muslims, there are about 1/3 Christians and 2/3 Muslims.
Therefore the Lebanese war has weakened Christianity in the Middle East. Nevertheless Christians continue to play a big role in Lebanese political life, which is something unique in the Arab world.
Since the end of the Lebanese war, the country had been under the influence of Syria. Today it has become free from this influence, but enjoys only a fragile internal unity. And it is a real miracle that in spite of many attempts to destabilise the country, Lebanon could remain free from the war which is ravaging Syria. No doubt this should be attributed to the consecration of Lebanon to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which the bishops carried out with members of the government four years ago.
What is happening today in Iraq and Syria is not something new, since the mortal opposition between Sunnite and Shiite has been raging since the death of Mohammed and the visceral disagreement among his followers concerning his rightful successor.
Today, however, the violence in this confrontation is amplified through destructive new war technologies and seemingly endless financing by large foreign states like the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel on one side, and Russia and Iran on the other side.
In Iraq, during the regime of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni minority was ruling and oppressing a Shiite majority. The fall of Saddam Hussein opened the doors to a bloody confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis. The latter have found in the so-called Islamic State or ISIS a means to avenge themselves.
In Syria, since 1970, an Alawite minority (the Alawites are relatives to the Shiites and form about 10% of the Syrian population) is leading the country, where there is a Sunni majority: about 70%. For this reason the fall of President Assad is the aim of the Sunni dynasties of the Saudis and Qatar. Therefore, mercenaries from the whole Sunni world are involved in this war in the name of the Jihad, the holy war. On the other side, Iran and the Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah are supporting the Alawites in this war for life or death.
As a peaceful minority in Syria (about 10% of the population), Christians are trying to stay in this land to which they are the elder inhabitants. And quite naturally, the minorities are helping each other. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni (Sunnites were a minority in Iraq), had good contacts with the Christians. And also in Syria, the Christian communities did not suffer much under the Alawites, at least in the last years.
Why is there war in Syria? Because the more someone takes the Koran seriously, the more he is keen to become violent. He becomes violent because he finds in the Koran the justification of his violence. Since politics and religion in Islam are joined together, it is very easy to manipulate the Islamic population, either Sunnite or Shiite, for political goals in the name of Allah. The international political forces that wants disorder in the Middle East are, in a very Machiavellian manner, taking advantage of this and of the native hatred between Sunnites and Shiites.
The coexistence between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon is nothing new. Usually they lived together peacefully and the Christians were not discriminated against, as in the other countries of the Middle East. But religion was not a subject of conversation between Christians and Moslems.
In Lebanon you can find indeed villages where Christians cohabitate with Shiites, with Sunnis, with Druses (who are a sect that split from Shiite Islam 1,000 years ago), but you do not find villages that are exclusively Shiite-Sunnite, Druze-Sunnite, or Druze-Shiite. The reason for this is that Christians have been and remain a stabilizing and peaceful force, not just in Lebanon, but other parts of the Middle East as well.
Terrorism and organized attacks against Christians is nothing new, even though there have been periods of relative peace in the past. But why are we witnessing a new radicalization of Muslims and a revival of the violent, militant Islam which existed in the past? 1. According to Islamic law, when Christians are a minority, they can be tolerated under certain conditions: they have to pay a special tax, the jyzia, in order to be protected, and access to higher positions and professions is forbidden. It was the case of the Christians under the Ottomans, except in Lebanon, where the Christians could generally enjoy a relative autonomy.
2. In recent decades there has been a revival of radical and violent Islam. Why is that? I think it is due to the following reasons:
Is it possible for a Muslim to convert?
The Islamic law forbids a conversion from Islam to Christianity. Such a conversion is punished by death. The Sharia, the Islamic law, is usually part of the constitutions of the Muslim countries. Even if this is not the case, as in the still secular Turkey or in Lebanon, the Islamic mentality within the families makes it very difficult for someone coming from Islam to receive baptism. His family can kill him. At the very least he can expect his friends and family to shun him, and he may even lose his job.
All these difficulties explain that, up until now, the conversion of Muslims has been rare. Archbishop Lefebvre observed that in Senegal, in the Christian schools, the Muslim children learned also the catechism and a few were moved by grace and asked for baptism. But they had to wait until adulthood and then leave the country.
One must say that, in the course of history, there have been very few apostolic missions in favor of the Muslims which were successful. There were some during the 13th century in the Christian states established in the Middle East after the Crusades, but this lasted only one century, since these states were definitely lost in the end.
The Muslims lived in their own corner, and the Christians in the other. The relations were of war or of commerce, according to the places and times. The Religious Orders which were established in the Middle East could only care for the Christian prisoners of the Turks or those travelling through these lands. Let us listen to what St. Vincent de Paul, a holy missionary, told his religious confreres:
“You must avoid a reef among the Turks and the renegades: in the name of Our Lord, have no contact with these people; do not expose yourself to the dangers which could issue because, while exposing yourself, you would jeopardize everything and you could do great harm to the poor Christian slaves who would be denied your assistance and you would shut the door in the future for the liberty which we still enjoy of rendering God some services in Algiers and other places.
See the evil which you would create for a small apparent good. It is easier and more important to prevent many slaves from perversion than to convert one single renegade. A doctor who preserves others from evil has more merit than he who cures. Your duty is not towards the souls of the Turks or renegades, and your mission does not extend upon them, but upon the poor captive Christians.”
The apostolate with the Muslims is not possible in a country ruled under Islamic law, but it may be possible where there are Islamic populations living under non-Muslim governments.
This had been the case in North Africa, but the secularized French put up endless obstacles to missionary activity. It could also have been the case in France itself when, after the Algerian independence, many Muslim families, faithful to France and afraid of reprisals in their own country, immigrated to France. But that was the period of the Second Vatican Council, and afterward the bishops themselves refused to work for the conversion of the Muslims.
After his return from Algeria, a French priest, Fr. Maurice Avril, worked at evangelizing these Muslim immigrants, but only one French bishop encouraged him. Here is the letter the bishop addressed to him:
“As I return from Ireland this morning, I am reading with a profound emotion your report inspired by the Holy Ghost. Thus, I hurry to tell you my joy, my admiration and to assure you of my prayers. This is what all priests and all missionaries in Islamic territories should believe and practice with prudence, yet with fortitude and perseverance. Ah! If all missionaries and all Christians were convinced of what you are expressing, which is nothing else than the pure and clear Truth, much good would be accomplished.
Alas! Needless to say, this type of report is not at all according to the taste of our epoch, which promotes religious liberty, which, under the pretense of “Human Dignity,” refuses to preach and convert. Faith has declined.”
The prelate who wrote these words was Archbishop Lefebvre.
Today, the Muslims are in our own lands. The secular society is incapable of integrating them and many of them turn radical. But many, too, ask themselves about the Catholic faith, especially when they meet fervent Christians.
In his book, Islam and Terrorism, Mark Gabriel, former professor of Islamic History at the Al-Azhar university of Cairo, who converted to Christianity, gives ten practical pieces of advice for the apostolate among the Muslims.
Use the Word of God, because the Muslims respect the holy books. The Gospels in particular are the best starting points.Pray without ceasing: what touches hearts is God’s grace.Be for them a true friend: dedicate time for them, help them with their problems.Raise questions which may lead them to reflect and question their way of life. For instance: are you sure that God pardons your sins? May I show you what the Bible says about it?Listen with attention: this is simple courtesy.Speak openly of your faith, without excuses. Bring up in particular the theme of sin and its consequences.Prepare your arguments, but do not go for discussions which humble or harass your listeners.Never manifest any scorn towards Mohammed or the Quran.Respect the customs and sensibilities of the Muslims: for instance, if you invite one of them to your home, do not offer them pork or alcohol.Persevere: the Muslims raise many questions when confronted by the Gospel. It is through humility and friendly words that we open their hearts.
Nowadays it seems that more Muslims are converting to Christianity than in the past. I will give you some examples that I personally know.
Once a week, this priest used to give a public catechism, making use of a loudspeaker and microphone in the streets where he would compare the teaching of Our Lord and the Koran.
On the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (14th of September) and other occasions (for example, the feast of Rosary), this priest makes a big procession in the streets of the city. Some years ago, three priests were riding on the back of camels and the faithful were accompanying them with prayers and religious chants. Now the priest stands on the back of a huge metal dove that is put of the top of a car. It means: Jesus come peacefully for the conquest of the souls.
After learning this, I asked Fr. Gharios the following: “Father, do you have a method for converting the Muslims?”
First, we have to live poor; We should have an authentic Christian life.We also need a good knowledge of the Koran and of the Moslem faith, because many words of Mohammed can be used against Islam. Finally, we have to understand Christ’s love in the Incarnation: Christ has given that which was his own in order to give it us; Mohammed has taken from the others to make it its own.
Then I asked, “Father, do you meet much opposition?” He said:
At the beginning they tried to intimidate me. They came to throw dirt in the court of the presbyter. Now, rather often, Muslims come to insult me or to discuss with me. Therefore I prepare now for their attacks. It is very important not to be defeated when arguing with Muslims.
Unhappily, opposition comes also from the ecclesiastical authority. I answer: “Christ has not taught us to handle things with diplomacy and has not preached ecumenism. ‘Go and teach’ is the order given to the apostles. In our country there are thousands of priests. What are they doing? We are losing compared to the Muslims. As St. Paul says, we need to have the love of the Cross. A married man must be faithful to his wife and love her during his whole life. And we priests have renounced an earthly family in order to bring others into Christ’s family, and shall we not therefore love Christ above all and teach others about His love?”
Fr. Gharios explained to me that the preparation for baptism lasts usually three years, though sometimes this has to be shortened in certain cases. Last August he told me that he is now preparing 212 catechumens for baptism. He has about 60 to 80 catechumens per year. Besides the necessary knowledge of the Catholic Faith, he observes whether the catechumen has shed his Islamic habits. For example, he will suddenly poke him with a needle, and if the catechumen shouts, as they are accustomed to shout in such circumstances: “Ya Muhammad— O Mohammed,” he says: “You must still wait to be baptized; you haven’t lost your Muslim habits.”
If someone comes and says he is interested in becoming a Christian, Fr. Gharios says he has to be very prudent. Sometimes there are intelligence agents who come and try to accuse Fr. Gharios of proselytizing, and so he would have to test their sincerity. But somebody told him once: “Father I know already the Koran. I would like that you speak about Jesus, the Christ.” “So I have known that he was sincere and began his Christian formation,” Fr. Gharios said to me.
Some years ago, in 2000 or 2001, I witnessed the baptism of a young man in Fr. Gharios’s church.
It was 3 pm. We were in Baalbeck speaking with Fr. Gharios. He suddenly stopped the conversation, took out his phone and made a call. He said: “Hello, Ahmed speaking. Could I speak with Ali?” The priest, who had known some days ago that we would visit him, was using a false name to call one of his catechumens at his work place. Father Gharios told the catechumen, “The friends I spoke to you about have arrived. Go home, change your clothes and come to the church.”
The bell rang and Father Gharios went to open the door. He introduced Ali, a young 25-year-old mechanical worker. “He will be baptized today.” For some minutes they spoke together. Then Fr. Gharios explained to us that the young man was in jail for two weeks because his cousins, knowing that he wanted to become a Christian, had accused him of stealing a car by finding four false witnesses against him. The cousins also said they would kill Ali if he became a Christian.
I asked: “Who will be the godfather and godmother?” Fr. Gharios designated a man and a lady who were accompanying us. “What will his Christian name be?” “What’s your name?” he asked. “Patrice.” “O.K , he will be named Patrick.”
We went to the church. The sacristan had already begun to prepare everything for baptism.
There were only nine people in the church, the priest and catechumen included. Some pictures were taken. While going back to the priestly house to sign the register, Patrick asked me not to publish the photos.
Later, Patrick was no longer allowed to work at the garage. Fr. Gharios had to find a new place for him to work in Beirut. When I visited Fr. Gharios some weeks ago, I ask for him about Patrick and Father said that he is a good Christian, is married and has now two children.
Five years ago, there was a conversion which has been known in all Lebanon: It was a young lady, about 21 years old, daughter of a Shiite sheikh (a religious chief) of Baalbek. Her father didn’t accept the conversion of his daughter and tried to hinder it. He maltreated her. But it became such a scandal, and the television reporters came, so that the young lady could testify that she wanted quite freely to become a Christian.
Some weeks ago, at the time of my last visit in Lebanon, I met her when I visited Fr. Gharios. So I took the opportunity to ask her, “Would you tell me how you had found the way to believe in Jesus Christ?” She answered that when she read the Koran, she was surprised at the violence and the wickedness of Allah. She couldn’t understand why God wouldn’t be good. When she asked questions of the educated Muslims they could not give her a satisfying answer.
Once she visited a cousin and she found among his books a copy of the New Testament. She opened it and found the chapters of St. Matthew’s Gospel which are known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” She read them and thought: “He, who is speaking in that way, is the true God.” And since this time, she said, she wanted to become a Christian.
Of course, sometimes fanatic Moslems have tried to intimidate Fr. Gharios, but he is not impressionable and is not influenced by these attempts. Twice, five years ago, after the conversion of this young lady, and two and half years ago, when two boys of a fanatic family received baptism, and a sheikh also converted, Hezbollah came and took Father Gharios prisoner for five days. They beat him, they gave him burns. But Father said that he was happy to suffer for Jesus and that he will be happy to give his life for Him. Nowadays Hezbollah leaves him in peace and acts as if they are friends, because they are occupied fighting the Islamic State.
Fr. Gharios is the most famous of the priests who are working for the conversion of Muslims in Lebanon. There are others. Some years ago I met in Zahle (one of the big Christian towns in Lebanon) a young lady, a doctor. I met her with the priest who baptized her. She was dressed as if she still were a Muslim, I mean with the covered head. Nobody in her family nor in her workplace had known about her conversion. It would have been too dangerous for her. She came, I think, from a Sunni family.
Last year I went to a Syrian Catholic convent, which is also the summer residence of the Syrian Catholic Patriarch. An Iranian lady whose husband had been killed and who had fled from Iran with her two children some months before was preparing to become a Christian. She and her children were baptized by the Patriarch. And she, who was a university professor of Persian philology in Iran, was then working as a cook in the kitchen while waiting for a Visa for Canada.
The special interest of this story is that for about one year now, the deacon who was with me in Lebanon and kept contact with this family received an email from the lady. She wrote that her niece, Hanna, had taken the opportunity to flee to Germany. She asked if we could help her. She wanted to become a Christian, too. We had the priest of the nearest priory (in Hamburg) make contact with her. He gave her catechism and since she could speak neither German nor English, her sister, who is still a Muslim and lives in Germany, translated the catechism. Hanna was baptized last July.
I would like to draw some conclusions from what I have said.
First of all, we should always thank God for the grace of faith. It is great gift of God that is not given to everybody.
Second, let us thank God that we know His love. As Saint Paul says to the Ephesians: “May you be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love which surpasses any knowledge.”
And finally, conversions, and especially those of Muslims, are not at all impossible, but are obtained through prayers and sacrifices. It is the law of the communion of Saints. As Our Lord said: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him” (John 6, 44). Only God can move the human heart and lead others to conversion. But usually God the Father is waiting for our prayers in order to give this grace that people understand who the true God is and begin to regret their sins. This is the grace of conversion. God is watching after our apostolate in order to give the grace of illumination: This means God will not usually reveal the Faith directly, but work indirectly through us as His instruments.
Let us also better understand the words of Our Lady in Fatima: “Pray, pray much. Do sacrifices for the sinners: indeed many souls are going to hell, because there is nobody who sacrifices oneself for them.” St. John saw Our Lady with the moon under her feet. I think this means the Islamic world, and the Virgin Mary will conquer it if we are her instruments.