By the time he was 7 years old, growing up in Baghdad, Iraq, as a Sunni Muslim, John Paul — the name he later took when baptized — was starting to pray Islamic prayers, memorize the Quran and fast during Ramadan.
At age 12, he met a Christian for the first time, a student at his school.
“Because I was taught by Salafists, fanatics (at the mosque), I couldn’t accept that he was a Christian,” John Paul recounted to the Register of his initial reaction toward his classmate.
But the two students became friendly. “Actually, I didn’t treat him as a friend, at first. I treated him as a sick person who needed to be cured,” he recalled.
John Paul decided to read the Bible just to convince his friend that his Christian beliefs were wrong.
“The more I read the Bible — I was trying to criticize it, but something attracts you to it,” John Paul explained.
John Paul also asked his friend to take him to his church.
“I went there with him, and I started to pray that God ‘enlightens those infidels’ hearts.’ But again, I had that special feeling, like something is attracting me like a magnet,” John Paul recalled.
In fact, he felt drawn to visit the church a second time, but didn’t want to admit so to his friend.
Standing alone in the church courtyard, John Paul hesitated. “I was afraid that someone would know that I’m not Christian and they would beat me up or something. I would have done the same if a Christian tried to come into my mosque.”
There, he encountered a nun. “Why are you waiting here? Why don’t you go inside? This is God’s house. It’s for everyone, not just Christians. You can go in,” she told the Muslim teen.
“Her kind words affected me so much,” John Paul said. “Ever since, I love nuns; I love even just to see them.”
John Paul’s friend eventually transferred from the school. Off and on, John Paul continued reading the Bible, and, as he recalled: “It was Jesus who attracted me: the life that he lived on earth; the love he gave to people — the sinner woman whom he forgave and how he helped others to look at her differently.”
When he was 15, he bought the Book of John from a bookstall on a Baghdad street. “When I finished [reading John], I said to myself, ‘I will no longer be afraid,’” John Paul recalled. “Fear had prevented me from believing in Christ. It was the fear of hell that was promised to those who leave Islam,” he added.
Then John Paul met two more Christians at his school, and from them, he obtained additional Christian reading materials. Soon, he decided he wanted to become Catholic.
Riding a bus one afternoon, John Paul sat next to an elderly man holding an olive branch. It was Palm Sunday. “We talked casually, I was asking him about the branch, and by the end of the trip, he knew I was Muslim and that I wanted to be Christian.” The elderly man said it was too risky to be baptized in Iraq and advised John Paul to go to Lebanon, where the teen had some family.
As the situation in Iraq was deteriorating before the onslaught of the Iraq War, John Paul had a pretext in which to move to Lebanon after finishing high school.
‘New Life Full of Hope’
When John Paul showed up at a Catholic church in Beirut on a Saturday afternoon, he met a priest who listened to his story and recommended a weekly theological study group.
The next week, John Paul attended the group. There, the priest introduced the Muslim teen to Therese, a woman who helped Muslims with the Catholic formation process and who would later become his godmother.
To determine John Paul’s knowledge, he was asked about a range of topics, including the sacraments, salvation and the Bible. After two months of study, the bishop determined that the Muslim was ready to be baptized, telling John Paul that he was ready even before coming to the study group.
“It was a start for a new life full of hope,” said John Paul of his baptism on the day before Easter. He chose his baptism name not just in honor of then-Pope John Paul II, but also for St. John the Evangelist and St. Paul.
Lebanon — which has a native Christian population of about 40% — is the only country in the Arab world where it is legal for a Muslim to become a Christian.
“It takes a lot of courage for a Muslim to even entertain the thought of converting,” said Father Martin McDermott, an American Jesuit who has served in Lebanon since 1971. “They have to decide if they can withstand the pressure from their own people,” he added.
So far, John Paul is godfather to 15 former Muslims, whom he has assisted with their faith formation, including a family who fled from Syria after their baby died in its mother’s arms.
“For those who are coming into the faith because of the hate and terrorism they have experienced, we need to teach them that we need to pray for those who are still living in the spirit of hate,” John Paul explained. “Their motivation to become Christian shouldn’t be hatred; but, rather, when you become Christian, you need to forgive and love everyone.”
Mary Led Him Home
For one of John Paul’s godchildren, Charbel, baptized in 2017, visions and messages set him on a path to discover Christianity.
It was during Ramadan. As he was walking in Beirut after morning prayers at the mosque, Charbel heard a voice from the sky, words which he had previously never heard before: “Glory be to Jesus, the only Son of God. And glory to the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.”
“It was shocking for me,” Charbel recounted to the Register.
Charbel, who grew up in a Sunni enclave in Beirut, didn’t know any Christians with whom to share his experience. That Christmas Eve, Charbel was studying at home. “I saw the Virgin Mary for the first time in front of me. And she told me, ‘Don’t be afraid. Keep searching. I’m with you,”’ Charbel recounted.
“All I know how to say is that it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. From the moment I saw her, I felt peace in my heart. I felt like I’m home,” Charbel recalled of the vision.
He tried to meet Christians on social media, but to no avail.
He would see the Virgin Mary again on Christmas Eve for the next three years. “And she would always say the same exact words,” he recalled.
Not until after the last vision did Charbel become friendly with a Christian he met at a party.
Charbel recounted the visions and said he wanted to learn about the faith, and his new friend agreed to help. He introduced Charbel to a priest, who gave the Muslim the Bible, some prayers and John Paul’s phone number. After their initial meeting, John Paul, in tandem with Therese from the theological study group, assisted Charbel with a path for formation.
Charbel was baptized on the feast of the Holy Cross eight months later and chose the name Charbel in honor of Lebanon’s St. Charbel.
“The day I got baptized,” he recalled, “I was crying like a baby the whole day — tears of joy, of being loved.” Charbel has since become godfather to two Muslim converts.
One of the most challenging doctrines for Charbel to accept in his formation process was the Holy Trinity. Now, he likens the Holy Trinity to a fountain: The base is the Father, the water shooting up is the Son, and the Holy Spirit is the pump that powers the fountain; humanity is in a boat in the fountain’s pool.
“Some of us have to choose: I made the decision to jump from the boat into the everlasting, holy love,” Charbel explained.
Six months after his baptism, Charbel chose to enter a monastery. “Now my reason for living is to be with the One I love,” he pointed out.
Through his involvement in the theological study group, John Paul met his future wife, Mary, also a Sunni Muslim who converted to Catholicism.
Like John Paul, Mary’s path to Christianity started with the Bible, sparked by discussions she had with Christian friends while attending university in Beirut.
“I saw that God took a human body and lived life as he wanted us to live, not just giving orders. He experienced all the pain. The more I was reading, I was falling in love, actually,” Mary told the Register.
After an initial three-year soul-searching period in which she read the Bible, Mary reached a turning point. “I surrendered to that love,” she pointed out.
Mary began talking to God, sharing with him “as if I was talking to my friend,” she said. It was the opposite of what she had known in Islam. “The idea of God in Islam is that he’s too far away, too mighty. It is forbidden in Islam to talk to God like this,” she said.
Over the next two years, Mary continued with biblical and religious reading, including the lives of the saints. She also began listening to Lebanon’s Voice of Charity Radio and praying along with its broadcast of the Rosary. “It was helping me to get closer to the Virgin Mary,” she said.
In honor of the Blessed Mother, Mary was the name she chose for her baptism in 2010, five years after her faith journey began.
When John Paul and Mary became acquainted three years later through the theological study group, they shared with each other their conversion stories — and soon they fell in love.
“It is beautiful how God is leading our lives and how he helped us to meet each other,” Mary added.
With the joy of becoming a Christian, John Paul noted, comes the challenge for Muslim converts to the faith “to love unconditionally those who you know that, if they find out that you are a convert to Christianity, would probably hate you to the degree that they would probably harm you,” he said, referring to the Muslim community, particularly family members who adamantly object to such conversion.
The couple are looking forward to baptizing their first child, now a baby. But they realize that, once their child grows and begins to talk, they will face more challenges in keeping their Christianity hidden from their families and other Muslims they know.
But, no matter what, their newfound faith is their anchor.
As John Paul explained, “It’s not easy for us, living in a mixed society, to declare what we believe in explicit terms. This is why we live our faith by actions rather than words.”
Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.