President Trump’s first foreign trip includes Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican, an itinerary no other President has endeavored. Trump addressed the leaders of about 50 Muslim nations while in Saudi Arabia. While in the Holy Land, he met with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Now Trump is in Vatican City meeting with Pope Francis. Clearly Trump is hoping to facilitate what would be the biggest deal of his life—a peace deal. While Trump’s desire to facilitate peace talks are certainly admirable, I cannot help but wonder how successful he can be if forgiveness is not at the forefront of the discussion. Trump mentioned the need for concessions but there was no mention of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a powerful force for both those who extend it and receive it.
My first reaction to the classic Crime and Punishment was a bit negative. Raskolnikov, the main character, commits a horrendous and senseless crime. He is brilliant, good looking and gifted, but suddenly he makes a terrible decision. Then it hit me that the great Russian novelist’s purpose is to illustrate the meaning of grace and the power of forgiveness. Sonia, a former prostitute, forgives this despicable murderer, follows him to Siberia, and finally leads him to repentance. “Love resurrected them,” writes Dostoyevsky. During his long incarceration, Raskolnikov devours the New Testament, and slowly her faith becomes his. He is born anew.
This is a picture—be it ever so dim–of what is happening in the Islamic world, as believers in different countries, with various church traditions, forgive acts of violence, hatred and bigotry. What all these Christians have in common is that they love God, and live as minorities, in a context increasingly threatened by radical Islamic terrorism. The stories are painful and heart-wrenching, and some Muslims may be puzzled–even frustrated–by the response.
In 2014, ISIS radicals took over several towns near Mosul, Iraq, forcing people to flee by the thousands. One town, Qaraqosh, was the largest Christian center in the entire country, with a population of 50, 000. For the next two years, militant jihadists did their best to destroy any evidence of Christianity in the town: they burned churches, demolished icons and statutes, and pulled down bell towers. Last year, Iraqi forces retook Qaraqosh, but for security reasons, only a few families have moved back to dig through the rubble.¹ What I will never forget is how Myriam, a little ten-year old girl, responded to this terrible injustice. Interviewed by Sat 7 in Erbil (Kurdistan refugee camp), she conveyed her forgiveness through a song and these words: “I forgive ISIS for forcing my family from our home and hope God will forgive them too.”²
Coptic Christians have repeatedly been targeted through bombings and beheadings, but time and time again have forgiven their attackers. The latest atrocities (April 9, 2017) were twin suicide bombings on Palm Sunday in Tanta and Alexandria, where dozens were slain, and over 100 injured. One of those killed was a family man, whose young widow was interviewed on the most prominent talk show in Egypt. With her children close by, Naseem Faheem said, “I’m not angry at the one who did this. I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you. You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.” For twelve long seconds, the announcer was speechless. Finally, his voice cracking with emotion, he said, “How great is this forgiveness you have! If it were my father, I could never say this …” Across the nation, Muslims heard her testimony, and were amazed.³
Something similar happened in 2013 at All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan. Twin bomb blasts followed the Sunday morning service, killing 98 souls and injuring another 144—many still have splinters in their bodies from the explosions. All told, 125 families were affected; 53 were orphaned and 23 lost a spouse. Although the victims did not know for sure who had carried out this massacre, amazingly, 93 percent of them forgive the perpetrators. The reason given by these Anglican believers was straightforward: “Jesus teaches us with his life model to forgive our enemies, and we remember his prayer on the cross, ‘Father forgive them, for they know what they do’ (Lk. 23:24).
Although my experience pales in comparison to the above examples, one act of forgiveness years ago gave a clear witness to Pakistani Muslim friends. While serving as missionaries, our family was attacked by an angry mob in 1979. Believing a false rumor that Americans and Jews had seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, they took it out on us, burning vehicles, destroying equipment and smashing furniture. They might have killed us but for the grace of God. Three days later, the news came out that what had happened at Islam’s most holy place was the work of radical Islamic terrorists. When we forgave our attackers, some close neighbors said, “Now we see the difference between you and us; when we are unjustly treated, we tend not to forgive, but you have forgiven your enemies.” I said, “this is what Christ commanded us to do.” After this, we stayed on for years, and saw more fruit.
There is no question that because of their intense suffering, many Christians in the Middle East are forced to leave, but they can still choose to forgive. When we reach out to Muslims with love and forgiveness, we will not always see immediate results, but ultimately the Gospel must triumph. I like what the great apostle to Islam, Samuel Zwemer, said over 100 years ago:
“The sword can only produce brutality; the cross, tenderness. The sword destroys human life; the cross gives it priceless value. The sword deadens conscience, the cross awakens it. The sword ends in hatred; the cross in love. He that takes up the sword perishes by it; he that takes up the cross inherits eternal life.”
- Alan Taylor, “Iraqi Christians Slow Return to War-Damaged Qaraqosh,” The Atlantic, April 27, 2017.
- “Iraqi Refugee Girl Forgives ISIS, Shares Powerful Testimony of Faith: Her child-like faith and comments about forgiveness will encourage and inspire you,” Sat. 7.
- Jayson Casper, “Forgiveness: Muslims Moved as Coptic Christians Do the Unimaginable,” Christianity Today, April 20, 2017.