Growing up in Alaska I never knew a single Muslim or anything about Islam. The only time I saw Arabs was in cartoons or in classic films like “Lawrence of Arabia.”
But today, on my desk, I am pictured standing between two Muslim Arabs from the Tamarraset region of Algeria. We met in Rome at Blessed Charles de Foucauld’s beatification in 2005. A few years later one of those men, Yacine, guided me on a 2011 tour of the Hoggar and Tamarresset region during my sabbatical in which I retraced the steps of Blessed Charles. The other man in the picture was murdered sometime after the photo was taken. It was rumored he was getting too close to Christians.
I have a Muslim friend who regularly comes to pray at my parish in Magadan, Russia. We prayed for his son and his son was healed. He also regularly prays before the image of the Merciful Jesus. I consider him a good friend. Another Muslim friend visits the parish on Fridays — her holy day — and drops off clothes and food for the poor. We use these to help those in need, especially young mothers with babies.
Friendship with these Muslims has given me a deeper appreciation of their faith and inspired me to read more about Islam — especially about how to explain Christianity to them.
You see, there are deep misunderstandings that many Muslims have regarding Christian doctrine. This needs to be challenged and clarified.
In explaining and sharing our faith, we Catholics must always be clear and clarify what we actually believe — this goes for dialogue with evangelicals as well as in interreligious dialogue with Muslims and those of other non-Christian faiths.
In clarifying the distinctions between Islam and Christianity I suggest one book that will satisfy anyone’s hunger to know and see Islam from its religious roots to the present situation, “111 Questions on Islam: On Islam and the West,” by Jesuit priest Father Samir Khalil Samir. He is an Egyptian Arab Christian with incredible credentials and a long list of degrees. He is also one of the foremost experts when it comes to understanding Islam and coexisting in modern society.
Over the years, my Muslim friends here in Magadan have shared with me what they think Christianity is all about. Beginning with these conversations I have begun to clarify to them that what they were taught, in many respects, we do not actually believe.
In one instance I was asked why I don’t recognize Mohammad as a prophet even though they recognize Jesus as a prophet. I explained that seeing Jesus as only a prophet — even a great prophet — reduces Jesus to someone he was not. He was not just a prophet. The Qur’an and therefore Islam itself denies the very foundation of Christianity: Christ’s divinity, the incarnation, the crucifixion, the redemption, and the Trinity. Muslims are taught that the Trinity consists of God, Jesus and Mary.
As you can see, the challenge is how to show Muslims the real Jesus, not the version presented by the Qur’an, but Jesus as he is revealed in the Gospels. Most Muslims believe that Islam is the ultimate and definite revealed religion, and they are convinced that Christians falsified their Scriptures to counter the truth. This presents a real problem when it comes to sharing passages of Sacred Scripture with them. Yet I do and I show where our Scriptures are consistent and where Jesus himself proclaims his divinity. I show them where the Scriptures teach that Jesus was really crucified and died. Muslims are taught that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. They believe that such a death is not worthy of a great prophet of God.
I also try to show where our Scriptures affirm Jesus’ resurrection and where Jesus showed himself to his followers. My goal in all this is simply to share with these friends the gift of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
If Jesus is only a prophet, he can’t forgive sins and redeem souls. But as Risen Lord he can. Despite living in this politically correct time I still want to be a good pastor and share the Good News with anyone who is willing to dialogue.
My Muslim friend came early to pray today and we were adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. He said to me afterwards, “You are prayerful like we are.” I said, “Yes come let’s pray together.”
I know that Jesus wants us as brothers. And may Jesus Christ be praised in this.
The writer is pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Magadan, Russia.