Fouad Masri openly admits he once was consumed by hatred which did not discriminate.
Masri grew up in the war zone that was the Lebanese capital of Beirut in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His hatred was fueled by the constant death and devastation around him.
“I grew up hating Israelis and Palestinians,” Masri recalled. “My best friend died in a PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) bombing. I was of the opinion that if you got rid of both of them that would solve the problem.”
The brutal upbringing prompted him to declare himself an atheist and turn his back completely on God. This was not a minor issue considering his family heritage. His grandfather fled the Ottoman army in present-day Turkey prior to World War I. He came to America, became a Christian and took his faith back to Lebanon where his son – Masri’s father – took it to heart in becoming a pastor.
Over time Masri felt a pull in the opposite direction. He considered the age-old question of where your soul would go if you died today, no small consideration living amid a war.
He also experienced the horror of an unforgettable family coming over for dinner one evening. The father took a 2-year-old son to the bathroom. The mother and the three other children were killed when a mortar shell stuck the kitchen where they were sitting.
The jarring episode forced him to recognize the change that needed to be made was within him.
“I realized the problem was me,” he said. “More laws or a political structure cannot solve the problem of the heart of man. Throughout history weapons have changed but weapons don’t kill people, people kill people. I went to my room and prayed to God to change my heart and to be a soldier, a soldier of love.
I”I began praying for the PLO and the Israelis. My heart became so soft because I came to understand that skin color or political allegiance did not matter. In the eyes of God, we all need to be saved.”
Masri was fortunate to make it to the United States for higher education. After returning to Lebanon following his Bachelor’s degree, he returned to the U.S. for his Masters and stayed to start in 1995 what today is the Indianapolis-based Crescent Project.
The aim of the ministry is simple on its surface but woven with social and cultural complexities – getting Christians to engage Muslims about their faith.
Masri recognizes the significance of this task at the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I think Americans are becoming apathetic toward Islam, hoping that this idea is all going to go away someday as an issue. It just isn’t,” Masri said. “What happened on 9/11 was nothing new. I remember hearing about planning a wave of attacks in 1978 when I was in high school. The church needs to be aware that Islamic terrorism is not going to go away. We have to address Muslims in a conversation. With better security we may lower the risks, but if we don’t deal with Muslims it’s simply going to fester.”
In engaging Muslims, Masri wants interested Christians to learn how to share the Gospel without being judgmental and without a blatant aim of conversion. The Crescent Project has DVDs and holds seminars to further that aim, but regardless Masri sees key misconceptions Muslims have of Christians, and vice versa, as barriers to opening a dialog.
He said the misconception which “bugs me the most” is the notion many Muslims coming to the U.S. from overseas believe that the Christian concept of a trinity is actually polytheism, and the worship of three gods. The misconception goes that God, Mary and Jesus are three separate gods and that Jesus was conceived by God having sexual intercourse with Mary.
“What we would say as Christians this is absolute sacrilege is taught to Muslims elsewhere,” he said.
Another common misconception is for Muslims to link modern Christianity to the Crusades, that today’s Christians are bent on destroying or converting Islam, Masri said.
“This is a result of never being exposed to authentic Christianity and what is the truth about our faith,” he said.
Yet as is often the case with stereotypes, it cuts both ways.
Masri said it is false to believe the majority of Muslims have been radicalized into extremism. Many Muslims are identified as such culturally rather than because they have deep theological roots.
“If I told you that you had to be a Southern Baptist to be a citizen of the United States, you would identify yourself as a Southern Baptist,” Masri said. “This is the case in many Islamic countries. You have to identify with it. If you are from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and you aren’t a Sunni Muslim, you have to leave the country. Many in the Christian community don’t have the faintest idea of how this works.”
The end result, Masri said, is that allegiance to Islam runs skin deep for many Muslims once they come to the United States. He said Christians often make the mistake of thinking they need to be experts in the Muslim holy text, the Koran, to be able to engage Muslims about the Christian faith.
“Most Muslims do not understand the Koran and do not read it regularly,” he said. “For many, their knowledge of the Koran theologically is nominal at best.”
What that then opens up with the religious pluralism that exists in the U.S. is an opportunity to open a dialogue about Christianity in general and Jesus in particular. It can be eye-opening for both parties, particularly if Muslims are adherent to verses 9.29 and 9.30 of the Koran (http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/k/koran/koran-idx?type=DIV0&byte=282392) which calls upon Allah to destroy Christians, Jews and non-believers in Islam.
“People are amazed when they see how fascinated Muslims are to hear authentic Christians discuss the New Testament and Jesus,” he said. “When they come here, America is so beautiful and so transparent about discussing these things, it’s amazing to them. … They have never heard the parables before or the concept of loving your neighbor as yourself. There is so much interest in talking about Jesus, it really surprises people.”
Masri wants that sense of wonder to enliven Christians’ own faith by being part of a dialog.
He also sees it is a basic necessity with the growing diversity of American society.
“I think in the past it was easy to brush Islam aside,” Masri said. “It was something that was not accessible. Not now. There are 7 million Muslims now in the U.S. That’s more than Lebanon and Libya combined. There are 200,000 here in Indiana. They are our neighbors.
“They have to be part of our conversation.”