First person: I found Christ but may lose my Muslim family

The Times (England), Jan. 8, 2003
by Ahmer Khokhar

What happens when a Muslim deserts Islam and embraces Christianity? The author says his family felt betrayed and he was rejected by his father – a deeply religious man who calls Al-Qaeda “martyrs”

I remember clearly the moment when I realised that I was going to become a Christian. It was Easter 1988 and I was 14, sitting alone in the lounge of my parents’ home in Liverpool, when the film Jesus of Nazareth, starring Robert Powell, came on the television.

By the end of the film I was in tears. Never had anything had such a profound effect on me. It changed my life because for the first time I doubted Islam. I realised that the Old Testament prophets were Jews, not Muslims as I had been taught. I knew that Jesus had died in agony on the Cross for us.

That night I went to bed terrified. How could I tell anybody how I was feeling? If I rejected Islam I would lose my devoutly Muslim family. My parents would be devastated and I feared they might throw me out of the house.

So I tried to ignore it and went back to Islam, praying five times a day by bowing to Mecca and trying my best to be a good Muslim. But I was questioning more and more. Why did I have to bow to Mecca? I knew now that God was everywhere. I wasn’t the same person any more, I was troubled inside. I felt that, for me, Islam was living out a set of rules which prohibited calling God “Father” or praying to him spontaneously.

Islam teaches that if your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds in life you will go to Heaven; if not, you will go to Hell. But I knew that God was holy and perfect and it is through His grace, His forgiveness, that we ascend to Heaven.

I had always had Christian friends and it appealed to me how they used to talk about their personal relationships with Jesus. They seemed to be really nice people. They didn’t abuse or hate anyone; on the contrary, they loved everyone regardless. In the mosque we had been taught that Jews were our greatest enemy, inherently evil, and that Israel should be destroyed.

No matter how much I tried to dismiss them I kept getting these thoughts in my head: “Jesus loves you. God cares about you.” At one point I was so terrified of being found out by my family that I tore my pocket Bible to pieces.

In the end I confessed to my chemistry teacher at my school, the Bluecoat in Liverpool. We talked about the Holy Spirit and he prayed for me there in the classroom, and that was when I was born again. It was a wonderful moment for me, but it has also caused a painful rift with my family which continues to this day.

I was the first-born son of Pakistani immigrants to England. We lived in Woolton, an affluent suburb of Liverpool, in a new house. I had a strict Islamic upbringing but I was also spoilt with many presents and toys bought for me as a young boy. My father sent me to the local mosque at weekends for religious instruction until my early teens. We addressed both the teachers and the Imam as “Uncle”.

In Islam, a child is born a Muslim if the parents are Muslims. There are two aspects of my parents’ faith that I have never forgotten. First, they have a complete certainty that Islam is the only path to God and the Koran is unquestionable as the book of God. Second, they do have some respect for Christians because there is a sizeable Catholic minority in Pakistan.

Despite my conversion to Christianity I have never lost my respect for many Islamic values and teachings. I also retain much of my parents’ Pakistani culture, language and traditions.

However, that has not stopped my parents being devastated by my conversion. They discovered it when some Muslim pupils at school told my dad. It had been the talk of our class, although some pupils thought I was just trying to suck up to the chemistry teacher. Dad is a very respected and prominent Muslim in the community and it was unthinkable that a son of his should turn to Christ.

At first he was calm and protective of me but he still confiscated the Book of Psalms under my bed. I was a studious pupil and a senior prefect and perhaps he thought it was a phase I was going through. But it made me very insecure. I no longer had an identity. I didn’t know to which culture I belonged.

After A levels I went on to study chemistry at Manchester Metropolitan University and it was in Manchester that I was baptised; my parents knew nothing of this. It was a huge step as it was a public affirmation and commitment of my faith in Jesus Christ.

But those summer holidays — between June and September 1995 — were the worst of my life. I had a trivial row with one of my younger brothers and he turned against me. He took letters that I received from Christian friends in Manchester, offering support and prayers (since I would be unable to attend church and meet other Christians until the new university term in the autumn), and showed them to my Dad.

My father made me stand in the middle of the room while he sat reading them. It was terrifying listening to his vitriol against Christianity as he read my private letters. He was so angry that he visited some of my friends from school to find out more about how I had got involved with Christianity, which he described as a cult.

Later that evening I was sitting in that same lounge where I first saw Jesus of Nazareth when he came in, locked the door and began to abuse me in the most vicious way. He said I had brought shame on the family and that he would rather I was dead. They were only verbal threats and I have forgiven him since, but the scars will never leave me. My mother cried herself to sleep that night.

I know Dad didn’t mean it — it was only out of concern for me. As Muslims, my family believes that Christians will go to hell like all nonbelievers and they believed that I had rejected them, their values, their culture and their religion. Many Pakistani Muslims have little understanding of Christianity, which they believe is a religion for white people from Western countries who have loose moral values and get drunk. They struggle to admit their own failings and are quick to pass judgment.

Things improved a little after I graduated and left home to work in the pharmaceuticals industry. My family continue their pretence that I am a Muslim and my Christanity is never spoken of. I do not take my Bible home with me if I visit them.

My brother and I are now very close, and he accepts my Christian faith. I have retained what is largely a good relationship with my parents. However, they cannot accept Christianity and when I reject their plans for an arranged marriage next year, they will disown me.

I still do not regret changing my religion, because for me it was impossible to ignore the calling of Jesus.

The last year, however, since September 11, has been the most traumatic for me. The focus on al-Qaeda has destroyed what was left of the relationship between me and my father and highlighted the enormous differences between us. He cannot understand why I do not support al-Qaeda. What the US and the Western world must understand is the real root of the conflict. They must realise that the creation of Israel is the pinnacle of the Islamic world’s hatred.

I fully understand the Israelis’ reaction to terrorism and why they want Israel to exist. But we have to find a way for Palestine to exist also. I think many Christians in the current climate perceive Islam as a religion of fanatical extremists who commit acts of terrorism. There is a major lack of understanding of each other’s beliefs and values.

My parents and relatives of the same generation support al-Qaeda. They see the current conflict as a struggle between Islam and the tyranny of Christians and Jews in the Western world. Their anger is mainly against Israel, the presence of American soldiers in the Middle East and US threats to attack their Muslim brothers in Iraq.

My father has always believed that if Palestine displaced Israel, American soldiers left the Middle East and sanctions against Iraq were lifted, al-Qaeda and other martyrs, as he calls them, would lose their support. He claims that 90 per cent of terrorism from the Islamic world would end, and many Muslims around the world share those views; that America and Israel are the two biggest enemies of Islam.

It is difficult for the second and third generations of immigrant families to share all of their parents’ beliefs. I speak English as well as Urdu, watch American films, wear designer labels and listen to Western music.

Since September 11, many Muslims have developed a hatred of Christianity when they see so-called Christian countries such as Britain and Australia joining the US and supporting Israel.

Even now, at 28, I still feel a loss of identity. I feel rejected by the Pakistani community in England because, according to them, I have betrayed their religion and culture.

Equally, I feel out of place in church, because some Christians do not understand Islam and the consequences for me of my conversion. Christian friends whom I respect have advised me to put some temporary distance between me and my family in the hope that their anger will pass. So earlier this year I emigrated to Australia to become a freelance cricket journalist, a passion I have always had.

In February my mother is coming out to visit me and to try to persuade me to consent to an arranged marriage. I am praying that, in a different country and face to face with me, she will accept what I am.

My Muslim friends accept me, but if I was living in an Islamic country I would be killed for converting to Christianity.

My prayer is for the world to realise that the only way to solve conflicts is by talking to people and understanding their beliefs instead of resorting to war and violence.

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