“There’s a big gap between the god I used to worship and the one I worship now,” Mohammad said. “We used to worship in fear. Now everything has changed.”
In the New York Times Saturday Profile on March 24th, 2017, journalist Patrick Kingsley introduced a subject that rarely appears in the gray pages of the liberal eminence – a profile of a jihadist who had his life transformed by Jesus Christ.
When 22 Christian refugees gathered in the basement of an apartment in Istanbul early on a recent Sunday afternoon, it was quickly clear that this was no ordinary prayer meeting. Several of them had Islamic names. There was an Abdelrahman and even a couple of Mohammads. Strangest of all, they jokingly referred to their host — one of the two Mohammads — as an irhabi. A terrorist.
If Bashir Mohammad took the joke well, it was because there was once some truth to it. Today, Mr. Mohammad, 25, has a cross on his wall and invites other recent converts to weekly Bible readings in his purple-walled living room. Less than four years ago, however, he says he fought on the front lines of the Syrian civil war for the Nusra Front, an offshoot of Al Qaeda. He is, he says, a jihadi who turned to Jesus.
Bashir Mohammed says he once fought for a militant Muslim group on the front lines of the Syrian civil war. Today, he leads a Christian prayer meeting in an apartment building in Istanbul, Turkey.
Bashir Mohammad said that he once identified himself as a jihadist due to his deep ties to Al-Nusra Front, the Sunni Islamist terrorists who were known as al-Qaeda Syria until 2016 when the extremists officially broke ties with al-Qaeda. In doing so, the Syrian terrorists became ISIS’s main rival in the war-torn middle eastern country of Syria.
In four years, according to his wife and neighbors, he went from being an angry follower of Islam ready to kill for his faith, to a man of peace who seeks to help other Muslim converts to Christianity grow in their faith.
Even he admits it’s an unlikely story.
Four years ago when the 25-year-old was an active member, his thoughts on Christianity were quite different than they are now and so were the extremists.
He told The New York Times that “Frankly I would have slaughtered anyone who suggested (Christianity)” because of his love for Islam and extremism ideologies.
It was a long journey that included growing dissatisfaction with the “holy war” in Syria. As a fighter for al Nusra, a splinter group of al-Qaeda, he saw death on the battlefield and the mass executions and torture of prisoners.
His story began in a Kurdish part of northern Syria, Afrin, where he grew up in a Muslim family.
At 15 Mohammad was introduced to a jihadist preacher. And a few years after that, in 2011, the year the Syrian crisis broke out, a time when everyone witnessed the ugliness of fighting, he became “re-energized” with Islam extremism ideology the preacher spoke about. So like other young men who felt called by the movement, he joined al-Nusra on the front lines. In doing so, he tormented prisoners and committed a long list of horrors all in the name of Nusra and their propaganda. According to Mohammad, it all made the “violence seem tolerable.”
You know “(al-Nusra) used to tell us these (prisoners) were the enemies of God… and so I looked on these executions positively.”
The front lines of the Syrian war took its toll and on a “break” he went to visit his family and his fiancé (now wife), Rashid. Both his parents and Rashid expressed concern over his growing anger and short fuse. Instead of him staying at home like the family had suggested, he left and went back to fight alongside fellow soldiers in the movement.
But unlike before, he started noticing different things like Syrian national forces using barbaric measures to kill prisoners, just like his side. To him, he looked at this as an awakening. Saying, It was “Muslims killing Muslims.”
Disillusioned with the idea of Muslims killing other Muslims, it was then, “I realized there was something wrong.” It conflicted with the reason why he joined the Syrian al-Qaeda, saying, “I went to Nusra in search of my God.”
One day, peering through binoculars at Syrian government soldiers executing their prisoners, he realized there was no difference between him and the enemy.
The harshness that came with this realization made him say good-by to al-Nusra for good. And just a few months after returning to his home in Northern Syria he fled with his wife to Turkey.
Although, he remained a passionate follower of Islam, he soon had an experience that introduced him to the power of Jesus Christ.
When his wife Rashid became seriously ill, Bashir did the unthinkable and allowed a Christian cousin living in Canada to have his prayer group pray for her over the phone.
In a few days, his wife recovered and Bashir asked his cousin to introduce him to someone who could tell him more about Christ.
After several conversations with a missionary Bashir was close to renouncing Islam to follow Jesus.
Bashir says the welcoming attitude of churches and the generous prayers of Christianity drew him to the faith. And, he says, reading the Bible brings him more peace than the Koran.
But it was dreams that he and his wife had that sealed the deal. Rashid dreamed that a character from the Bible miraculously parted the sea; Bashir dreamed that Jesus gave him some food.
Even though Muslim converts to Christ face great danger, there are many stories of converts from Islam to Christianity in the Middle East and they often include people having dreams and visions of Christ.
In one respect, Bashir’s story is different because instead of trying to leave the country he is choosing to remain and face the danger to help others grow in the faith.
In the young man’s new life in Istanbul, he has created a new community with his wife. And every Sunday afternoon, he holds a Christian service in his Istanbul living room where himself, his wife and twenty-two other Christian refugees recite scriptures and celebrate God.
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