Used with permission from “The Pilgrimage,’ Penfold Books 2003
Rezi Sabri from Iran
Attacking a Christian in a Wheelchair
With mounting anticipation, I waited for just the right moment to launch a revenge attack against the enemy of my people and my God. From my hiding place I intently eyed two approaching Armenians. ‘‘How filthy and unfit as human beings they are,’’ I thought to myself. As the men came closer, I pondered the best course of action whereby to inflict injury and pain. I watched as they descended the steep hill directly across the street from me. I could see the face of the paralysed Armenian Christian who was sitting motionless in his wheelchair. He was young, perhaps in his early twenties. The man who was pushing him stopped in front of a house. He carefully set the brakes to prevent the chair from rolling forward and then entered the house.
Suddenly I realized the time had come for the assault. With a shout of triumph I sprang from the alley and ran furiously across the street. My enemy looked up at me. Though but for a moment, time seemed to stand still as our eyes met. Burning with hatred, I glared into the man’s terror-filled face. He began begging, crying, and screaming not to be hurt. But my heart was hardened against him, in determination to fulfil my plan. Grasping the wheelchair, I gave it a hard shove. It began moving down the hill, rolling faster and faster until it crashed into a wall. The wheelchair overturned, hurtling the young cripple to the ground where he lay sobbing, unable to lift himself up.
Hatred boling within, I hurled rocks.
At the sound of his screams, the paralysed man’s companion rushed out. A small crowd quickly gathered. Further anger stirred within me as I watched the group of sympathizers. My rage and hatred boiled over. I began hurling rocks and insults upon them all. They turned to stare at me as if I were insane. I was alone but felt quite safe. No one in the Christian ghetto dared to apprehend me. I had fulfilled my duty in despising these followers of Christ. I felt no regret for my actions. The feeling of dominance was exhilarating. As I returned home to my mother, I smiled as I thought of how I had successfully demonstrated loyalty to my Muslim faith.
My attitude and actions were not unusual for an average 12-year-old child in Iran. Christians were outcasts in our Muslim community and we were taught to hate them. Harassing followers of Christ presented a favourite pastime for us young ones. We delighted to abuse, insult, mock and attack them – and their church buildings. Whoever was most successful in tormenting them was hailed by his peers as worthy of the highest respect and praise.
Born into a Shi’ite Family in Iran
Born in 1936, the youngest of six children of prosperous parents in Rezahe, Abidajan, in Iran, my father ran a successful construction business and my mother was from an affluent and notable family. While only six years old my father died, but my mother raised her children with great ability, which included ensuring her children imbibed her Shi’ite faith. There are several distinct sects of the Muslim religion in Iran, and each one holds to beliefs that contradict the others. Although the Shi’a sect worldwide numbers significantly less than the major Sunni sect, approximately eighty five to ninety percent of Iranians are Shi’ites.
Fear of Allah
The Shi’a Muslims believe in Allah ‘the Most High God’, and Muhammad, his prophet or ‘Messenger from God’. Allah hears our prayers and is merciful and forgiving. If one believes in him and follows his instructions in righteousness, he will find mercy, the forgiveness of sins and the eternal reward of heaven. Yet the main motivation for allegiance to Allah is neither love nor the development of a relationship with him. It is considered presumption and ignorance to entertain the notion that one can actually know the living God. For me, as a Muslim, fear of Allah’s wrath compelled me to submit to his will. The word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission’. Shi’ites are dedicated to following the teachings of the twelve Imam (leaders), who held political influence and interpreted Muhammad’s teachings through the centuries. To become a Muslim and attain heaven, one must believe there is one God and that Muhammad is his Prophet. Believers in Islam must make the confession of faith, called a ‘witness’: “I believe that there is no god but God, and that Muhammad is the Prophet of God.” This statement is more than a testimony of what one believes; it is really an oath or a pledge to follow the Islamic way of life.
Pilgrimages to tombs constitute an important part of religious tradition in Shi’a society. During these pilgrimages money is offered in sacrifices at various tombs and shrines, as the Shiites pray to the dead. Asking for forgiveness, they kiss the tombs of Shi’a saints, placing written prayers on them. Dead Imams are honoured so highly that prayers are offered to them in the hope of receiving an answer. I participated in these activities, often spending time weeping at the tomb of my father. Reciting repetitious prayers which had little meaning to me, I prayed for my father to forgive me and for him to be forgiven by merciful Allah.
A Restaurant Owner in Texas
In 1969, I came to America where I eventually married, had a son, and became owner and chef of a restaurant in Denton, Texas. Sadly, my wife and I divorced and I had the responsibility of single-handedly bringing up my son. Up until 1973, I had never had a spiritual conversation with a Christian. In Iran it was considered a sin to eat with one or to visit one in his home. If it was unavoidable, one had to wash one’s hands three times to cleanse oneself of a Christian handshake, or shower three times to cleanse oneself of the contamination of a Christian home.
An Unforgettable Dream
One night, as I slept, I dreamt that I was leafing through the pages of a notebook. The pages seemed to become alive. They were transformed into a living person who was larger than a mountain. When I saw his face, terror filled me. I was sure he was going to harm me. Fire flashed from his eyes. The heat in his eyes was attracting me but I could not approach him. As I beheld the brilliance and beauty of his countenance my fear subsided. No human language could explain or define such a scene of glory as I saw in that vivid dream.
An Unclean Book Could Explain My Dream?
Five years later, in 1979, I related the dream to my neighbour, Merv Waage. Merv was a lawyer and a dedicated Christian. I told him how the dream had always intrigued me. Did it have a meaning? Merv told me that my answer was in the Bible. Taken aback I laughed loudly. I did not want to even look at a Bible, never mind read it! Muslims call the Bible the ‘Injil’ (the Gospel). It belongs to Jesus Christ, or ‘Isa Massih’ as we call him: Jesus the Messiah. It is a book pertaining only to Christians. Could I possibly find the meaning of my dream in such an unclean book?
Would I Go To Hell If I Read the Bible?
Regardless, Merv marked the references in the Bible that he felt described my dream and gave me the Bible. I took the Bible to my office at the restaurant. At first I feared that if I opened the Bible I might go to hell. However, I took the challenge and read the passages in the book of Daniel, chapter ten, and in Revelation, chapter one – the places marked for me by Merv. After reading these verses four or five times I stood to my feet and said loudly, “It is Him! What the Bible describes is all I saw!”
I believed the person I had seen was Jesus Christ in His glory, as others who had seen Him described him. I closed the Bible and began weeping. I could not explain my feelings. A great calm and stillness came over me. All the sounds and voices in the restaurant around me seemed to be miles away, as the reality of this revelation hit home. Still in shock, I wiped the tears away from my eyes and walked out of my office. As one of my employees passed by, I turned around, grabbed him and asked him, “Do you believe in Christ?” This employee was a fellow Muslim. I urgently repeated the question again. The employee replied, “Yes, we respect the prophets.” At this answer, I began shaking him and said, “No! No! Do you believe in the Christ?’’ The employee answered, “Yes, we believe that he lived.”
Could It Really Be Jesus – the Christ?
My mind reeled from the conflict between everything I had been taught to believe, versus this apparent eternal truth. I left my dazed employee in the restaurant and took a drive in my car. I continued to weep periodically for the rest of the day while still being filled with a deep peace. Although God had invaded my life in such an extraordinary way, in the long term I remained unchanged for the most part. I was mentally conscious that God had touched me and that I had ‘seen’ Jesus Christ, but I still did not believe in Him. I somehow pushed aside the memory of that day. From time to time it returned to haunt me. How could I forget the beauty of Christ? My friend Merv thought I had become a believer and I was happy for him to believe that – but it wasn’t true.
Pretending I Was a Christian
After years of persistent pleading, Merv finally managed to persuade me to attend a church meeting. The preacher invited me to tell the congregation of my vision. I decided to pretend that I was a Christian. The fateful Sunday in October 1983 arrived. All of these people were expecting me to talk about their leader whom I did not know! I told them that my life had totally changed and a list of other things I knew they wanted to hear me say. I told them that I believed that Jesus was my Saviour, but it was all lies.
Facing The Reality of My Sins and Hell
That night at bedtime, my distress banished any sleep I had hoped for. Thoughts of hatred, loneliness, helplessness and even death filled my mind. I did not even retire to bed, but instead lay on the floor. In my distress I finally cried out in my native Persian tongue, “God!” At that moment a fear of hell came before my mind. I had never fully believed in hell up to that moment. “What is He going to do to me now? What an evil person I am.” I realised I was a lost sinner, helpless to save myself and dependent entirely on Christ, His death and resurrection, for my sins to be forgiven. I cried out to heaven from the depths of my soul, “Forgive me, God!”
When I awoke the following morning, I knew a peace greater than I had experienced when I first read about Christ in the Bible. As I spoke with my son, Alex, that morning, he asked me, “Daddy, what’s the matter with you? You’re so quiet. You look calm. You’re not screaming or impatient or mad at me.’’ It was as if a light turned on in my mind. ‘‘Jesus did it,” I said.
Alex asked, “How?”
“I asked Him,” I replied.
Alex responded, “Why didn’t you ask Him before?”
“I didn’t know Him before,” was all I could say.
Soon the magnitude of the effect of my conversion dawned upon me. I knew that this was not just a ‘social change’ brought about by my own will. I was a different person. I knew I had been born again but I was unsure of how to relate to Christians in light of my Muslim upbringing. I had much to learn. At first I struggled to balance my cultural heritage with my new spiritual life. However, as I immersed myself in the Bible and submitted to the Lordship of Christ daily all doubt and uncertainty left me. Joy flooded my heart.
As of 2003, I am 67 years old. I have come a long way from the time and place when I hated all Christians. My chief desire for the future lies in pursuing the spiritual goals that the Lord Jesus has set out for me in His word. I know that nothing can happen to me unless God allows it. The time may come when I will be martyred for Christ. But for the Christian there is no more death. In a sense, I have already died and entered into a spiritual union with the Lord Jesus. He lives forever, never to die again, and He has become my life. The Lord Jesus said that in order for a person to enter God’s kingdom he must be born again. In other words, he must die to his old life and let the Spirit of God give him a new life – spiritual life (John 3:3). He also said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6). Only Jesus Christ can give freedom from the power of Satan.
Here is What I Learned from the Bible:
I learned from the Bible that all men are dead in their sins and are enemies of God, but that Jesus Christ came to earth, not to make bad people good, but to make dead people live. Sincerity alone cannot gain us acceptance with God. One can practice religious customs in all seriousness and with true dedication, while all the time being spiritually dead. Religion without Christ is meaningless (Romans 6:23, John 10:10). Jesus said that we must repent of our sins (confess our guilt and turn from sin with our whole heart) and believe in Him for salvation. He also said that if any man would follow Him he must deny himself and take up his cross. To a true Christian, following Christ’s teachings and doing His will become more important than anything else. His Spirit gives us love for all men and enables us to speak the truth to others who do not know Him. Jesus said that if we confess Him as Lord before men He would not be ashamed to confess us before His Father in heaven (Luke 12:8, Mark 8: 38).
My prayer is that you will come to know the peace and joy that I have found in having the guilt of my sin removed by the mercy and forgiveness of God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Salvation for an individual is not given at the subjective whim of Allah. It is based on the just payment for sin by Jesus Christ on the cross. In Islam sin is not paid for, it is weighed on a balance scale. However, in the Bible we read: ‘‘There is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all’’ (I Tim 2:5-6). Jesus was more than just a messenger from God. Much, much more. On the cross Jesus became the sacrifice for sin. He paid a debt He did not owe, because we owe a debt of sin that we could not pay for in a million years of good works. Good works cannot cancel sin. The Bible states quite clearly that we are all born in sin:
‘‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me’’ (Psalm 51:5).
Furthermore, we are helpless to save ourselves:
‘‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast’’ (Eph 2:8).
But the wonderful truth is that through turning from sin and believing in Christ we can receive the free gift of everlasting life:
‘‘For the wages of sin are death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’’ (Rom 6:23). May it be so in your experience too.