“For the first time in history, Muslims are coming to us. The only thing we have to do is tell them the good news; they are waiting for it”
Life hasn’t been easy for 28-year-old Syrian mother Kristina, a Christian of Armenian descent, who lived with her husband in Aleppo long before the civil war started in 2011.
It was in that besieged city that Kristina gave birth to her firstborn daughter, 18 months ago. She’s brought the little girl to the house where a World Watch Monitor contact meets her. While her mother talks, the toddler explores the room.
“Please close the door, I’d like to keep an eye on her,” Kristina asks, not letting her child out of her sight.
With the pain still visible in her eyes, Kristina recalls her first days of being a mother in the spring of 2015 – the war raging outside, electricity, gas and water cut off most of the time and her family unable to visit and help her.
“The first two weeks after my daughter was born were the hardest in my life,” Kristina says. “It was so cold that we put our mattresses on the living room floor, the warmest room in the house. There we lived for two weeks on the ground, wrapped in blankets.”
As soon as it was safe, Kristina, her husband and her baby daughter travelled to neighbouring Lebanon to safety. At first it was intended to be a short trip, but when the violence increased and also the Christian part of Aleppo was being bombed, the young family decided to wait for the end of the war before returning to Syria.
“I can’t let my baby girl grow up amidst all those dangers,” Kristina says.
With the violence continuing and worsening, gradually more Christians left Aleppo. In Kristina’s church, now only 10 per cent of the regular church-goers are left, she hears from friends.
“But you know what’s surprising? The church is still full; displaced people take their place. Especially Muslims are coming to the church now,” she says.
In Syria, the Christian children’s activities draw the most attention, Kristina says. A lot of Syrians from other parts of Aleppo – the fighting is heaviest in Muslim areas – have fled to the Christian areas to seek refuge. For many Muslims, it is the first time they have mixed with Christians.
Kristina also says the Muslim women were surprised to see that churches offered support and programmes for all Syrians, not just for Christians.
“Their mosques don’t do that,” Kristina says. “Many are re-thinking the faith they grew up in and have dropped their hostility towards Christians.”
Many Muslims were genuinely surprised when they met Christian women in our churches willing to serve them. Their image was that all Christian women spend most of their days dancing in night clubs and drinking alcohol! Meeting each other was a shock, both for them and for us.
A growing number of Muslim children have been attending the children’s activities, where the Bible is opened daily.
“The mothers are okay with that,” says Kristina. “They see it as positive if their children learn about God. It’s the husbands who are stricter, usually.”
But, gradually, also the mothers and, in some cases, whole Muslim families have found their way to the church activities, including the services.
“That absolutely did not happen before the war,” Kristina says. “Still the Muslims are afraid – especially when entering and leaving the building – but they are there. The children have opened the church’s doors, then the women followed, and finally the men.”
Kristina says Muslim women “feel liberated when they notice the church doesn’t see them as merely machines only fit for cleaning, giving birth to children, and raising them, like many Muslim men do”.
“In Islam, many women don’t have any rights. When they feel how Christians really care for them, it feels like heaven for those women. They see it’s possible to live as independent women, to dream,” Kristina says.
Despite the war, Kristina speaks of a “golden age” for the Church in the Middle East.
“For the first time in history, Muslims are coming to us. The only thing we have to do is tell them the good news; they are waiting for it,” she says. “They realise that, when living in a Christian environment, the [Christian message] will be shared. They may even see it as a sign of weakness if it isn’t.”
A New Home and a New Religion in Germany
Among the Iranian refugees filling European church pews
When I first met Mattias in July at a refugee shelter just north of Berlin, he went by the name Mohammed. He had arrived in Germany from Iran the previous fall, along with thousands of other asylum-seekers—sometimes up to 10,000 arrived in a single day. After the German government assigned him to this shelter, he converted to Christianity. “I wouldn’t say I was a Muslim” before, he told me. “I didn’t go to a mosque for an entire year. Now I am going to church every week.” He expects it will take about three weeks to get off his church’s waiting list to be baptized. Perhaps once he’s more settled in Germany, he’ll be able to change his name legally to Mattias, his chosen Christian name.
We sat together in a sparse dormitory room at the shelter with three other Iranians who had converted from Islam to Christianity. They attend a Protestant church together, but asked that I not provide the exact location nor give their full names. Two of them said they became Christian while living in Iran. Another, like Mattias, had converted after arriving in Germany as an asylum-seeker.
Throughout Germany, the pews of churches like theirs are filled increasingly by asylum-seekers. Though two umbrella church organizations told me that they couldn’t provide exact statistics or comment on the nationality of the asylum-seekers attending church, Christoph Heil, a spokesman for the Protestant Church of Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Upper Lusatia—which includes 1,300 parishes—confirmed the pattern. “Normally we don’t count the number of asylum-seekers who are baptized because we don’t differentiate between who is an asylum-seeker and who isn’t, but [asylum-seekers asking to be baptized] appears to be a new trend,” he said.
Muslim converts to Christianity that I spoke to in Germany cited the redemptive power of Jesus’s story, and disillusionment with Islam. It’s also worth noting the more earthly forces potentially at work: Germany does not grant refugee status to Iranians as easily as it does Syrians and Iraqis. Around 27,000 Iranians applied for asylum in the EU in 2015, with Germany hosting the overwhelming majority; according to Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, 60 percent of Iranian requests for asylum received positive answers that year. Iranians seeking refugee status must prove that if they are sent home, they stand the risk of being persecuted for their beliefs. In Iran, that often means Christian converts.
During conversations with newly converted Iranian asylum-seekers, it struck me that being born again after arriving in Europe was not only an act of faith, but a practical matter: Europe is largely Christian, after all. Some converts, like Mattias, weren’t particularly devout Muslims to begin with anyway. “There are asylum-seekers looking to get baptized who have converted in their home countries and others are getting in touch with Christianity now after seeing a certain way of life in Germany,” Heil said. “They ask themselves, what is the root of this way of living, [of] freedom and democracy.”
At his shelter, Mattias and three of his friends, who all appeared to be in their 30s and 40s, pulled a metal folding table into the middle of the dorm room to prepare for lunch. One of them told me he hoped Donald Trump would become president of the United States, since he’d heard he was a Christian. Before we ate, another of Mattias’s friends prayed as we bowed our heads, giving thanks for the food. “In Jesus’s name, Amen,” he said. “Amen,” the others echoed. Then we dug into rice pilaf from a frying pan.
The man who led the prayer said he had converted to Christianity in Iran after getting hold of a smuggled Farsi-language Bible. “Before it was just theoretical to me, but now I can see it and feel it by my pastor’s kindness,” he said. Another said he converted in Iran because of an old neighbor who had been born Christian. Christians, he said, “were kind people. In Islam, the person who does the killing and the person who dies yells Allahu Akbar,” he said. “In Iran,” he noted, referring to the Arab occupation of Persia that began in the seventh century, “we became Muslim by force.”
A week after that meal, I visited Trinity Lutheran Church, which also hosts a large Iranian congregation. A pale, yellow, sterile-looking structure set just off a residential street in Berlin’s southwestern Steglitz neighborhood, it appears modest compared to the grand churches of Europe. On the lawn out front, some of the Iranian congregants greeted each other with smiles and overzealous, welcoming handshakes. Others shuffled inside, their eyes averted. Notices written in Farsi were posted all over the church.
The pastor at Trinity is Gottfried Martens, 53, an affable man with a salt-and-pepper widow’s peak and kind smile. He explained that Trinity’s sister congregation in the adjacent district of Zehlendorf had been helping new migrants adjust to life in Germany since the 1990s, adopting a welcoming stance that eventually turned his church into a destination for Iranian Christians seeking help. Once a few Farsi speakers began attending, more arrived. In 2013, Trinity began its service focusing on “refugee work,” in Martens’s words, providing translations in Farsi and English during services and other church activities.
Before the service began that day, I talked with Saeed, another Iranian asylum-seeker. Up the stairs and past the Iranian ushers, we poked our heads into the nave. There were few seats available, so we crowded into the choir loft along with the other stragglers. There appeared to be around 300 people in attendance, mostly Iranians, but my translator pointed out that a line of men seated behind us included Hazaras from Afghanistan—also current or former Shia Muslims—like the Iranians. Only a dozen or so in attendance appeared to be German. A woman in the front pews still wore a hijab.
During the service, much of which was translated into Farsi, the Iranians and Afghans tried to follow along in the church bulletin, concluding each section with a hearty, accented “Ah-meeen” (familiar to the Iranians and Afghans from Muslim prayers) that filled the sanctuary.
“Do you want to go take communion?” Saeed asked when people began lining up in the center aisle after the sermon. I told him I would stay seated, since I didn’t know how to cross myself, which, naturally, confused him: earlier, I had told him that I was a Christian. He was a new believer, steadfast and eager about the outward signs of devotion like partaking in the sacraments, crossing himself at the appropriate times, and eating pork. The outward trappings of Christianity I grew up with in a non-denominational church in rural Maryland, by contrast—using euphemisms rather than cursing (darn rather than damn), voting Republican, eating Chick-Fil-A, and doing nothing remotely Catholic—were difficult to explain.
After the service ended, the Iranians and Afghans gathered downstairs for a meal of rice, lentils, and cabbage salad. Asylum-seekers had often complained to me about the German food at their shelters, which they found bland. But the church’s lunch menu seemed tailored to their tastes. During the meal, one Iranian man was filling out a baptism questionnaire that asked for his personal history. It soon turned into a group activity. “How do you write ‘engineer’ in German?” he asked the crowd that had surrounded him.