Saturday, October 26, 2013
Israel saved me
Reverend Mulinda from Uganda and his friend Majed El Shafie from Egypt both converted to Christianity from Islam, and paid a heavy price for sticking to their beliefs. Today they fight against anti-Semitism and advocate human rights and a love for Israel.
v. Omar Mulinda (left) and Majed El Shafie
|Photo credit: Uri Lenz
These two men should never have met, but today they are close friends. They were born in two different countries at different ends of the world, but their life stories are very similar, and today, they both advocate a love for Israel.
On December 24, 2011, Christmas Eve, Rev. Omar Mulinda addressed a congregation of 300 Christians at one of Uganda's biggest churches. Mulinda is highly regarded as an impressive orator, and thousands come to hear his sermons.
Preparations were well underway to celebrate Christmas the following day, but the anticipation and joy were soon replaced with sadness when, as Mulinda recounts: "I left the church early. I was about to enter my vehicle and drive home when someone pretending to be a member of the congregation approached me and said: 'Reverend, can you help me?' I turned around, and I saw another person standing next to him, and there was a third man who closed in on me from behind whom I could not see. I realized that this was an ambush so I turned back to get into my car, but then they poured a bucket full of acid on my head. It was terrible."
Unfortunately for the 41-year-old Mulinda, this attack was not the end of the persecution against him, which ultimately made him a famous reverend in Uganda.
Mulinda was the 52nd of 54 children (!) in a highly respected Muslim family. His mother was the daughter of the great imam. He was brought up Muslim and was slated to become a clergyman. "We were taught not to associate with or become friendly with Christians or Jews," he says. But in 1990, when he was 18 years old, Mulinda met a man who preached about reading the Bible and a love for Israel. This man introduced him to the New Testament.
Born again in Israel
"I decided that this was the truth, but I could not convert to Christianity then. I would not have survived. I would have had to part ways with my, rich, respected extended family, which viewed Islam as its very foundation. But in my heart, I knew the truth," he says.
In 1993, Mulinda mustered up the courage and secretly converted to Christianity. But his secret was not kept for long -- on his very first day at church, as he was exiting the building after prayer, some of his Muslim friends spotted him and reported him to the Muslim community. At that moment, Mulinda's personal version of hell began. At first it was just his family, which renounced him. Then it was violent persecution, which peaked with the acid attack on that fateful Christmas Eve.
"I felt a fire burning inside me," he says. "With my last remaining strength I tried to flee to my office at the church, but as I was running my attackers flung more acid on my back -- in an effort to kill me. I tripped, but I managed to get to my office while they yelled out 'Allahu akbar'. That is when I realized that these men were Muslim terrorists."
Two days later, a letter was left at the church, saying "We are sorry to learn that you are still alive. We wanted you to die, but Allah will give us the strength to complete the task." The letter listed four reasons for the act of terror: 1. Omar converted to Christianity; 2. He is promoting a love for Israel; 3. He preaches against Muslims (they claim); 4. He dared question Shariah law as it appears in the constitution of the Republic of Uganda.
It is important to clarify: There is an overwhelming Christian majority in Uganda (84 percent of the population is Christian), and a Muslim minority (12% of the population). But in the past, the republic was a Muslim state, under the rule of the Muslim despot Idi Amin. Today, the constitution in Uganda respects the laws of the religious minority, even though the Sunni Muslims in the country continue to demand that Shariah law will be the only law in the land.
Mulinda, who has become a leading figure among Christians in his country, has tried to combat this effort and even formulated a petition and addressed the Ugandan parliament on the topic. "My argument is that, as a Christian, I oppose the abuse of people and the violation of human rights. If Shariah law is implemented, there will be much hatred toward Israel, and every Muslim who converted will be executed by law."
Let's go back to that nightmarish night: Mulinda was rushed to the hospital, suffering from third degree burns. His face was completely disfigured and his upper body twisted and deformed. "If you survive," a doctor who examined him said, "you will have to be transferred to a better hospital that will be better equipped to care for you."
Mulinda almost didn't get the opportunity to receive better care. The day after he was hospitalized, a terrorist impersonating a doctor made his way to Mulinda's bed, carrying a syringe filled with poison. Luckily, Mulinda's friends from church were there to stop the assassin in time.
The next day, Mulinda was flown to India, but there, too, the danger did not let up. There was a large community of Muslim immigrants from Uganda there. Several days later, his Christian and Jewish friends joined forces and made it possible for him to be taken to Israel. On Jan. 5, 2012, Mulinda was admitted to Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv.
This saved his life. "I came to Israel in bad shape," he recalls. "I couldn't swallow, I couldn't speak and I couldn't move my head or neck. My body was rotting -- I lost my nose and my mouth was dripping downward. In Israel, the doctors did an amazing job rehabilitating me with many skin grafts and facial reconstruction. Everything you see now is only thanks to the Israeli doctors."
Symbolically speaking, the man who insisted on preaching love for Israel (and had even visited Israel several times), received his life back on its soil. "My soul has been spiritually linked to this place for decades, and now, my body is as well," Mulinda says humorously.
Upon his recovery, Mulinda resumed preaching to Christian communities around the world. He became an icon in his native land -- a symbol of the Christian battle against the state and against extremism. However, despite the massive support, he cannot return to his native country. The hot weather there could damage his delicate facial skin, regardless of the fact that his ideology could get him killed. He is a martyr.
Deep in the ground
Majed El Shafie, 36, was born in Cairo to a family with a legal orientation: his father and brothers worked as lawyers and his uncle was a Supreme Court justice in Egypt. His childhood was accompanied by a giant library filled with books on human rights, justice and freedom. He drew his information from these books, and when he grew up he set out to study law at the University of Alexandria.
El Shafie was ready to become a lawyer, but "during my first year of law school, the persecution of the Christian minority that I saw shocked me," he says. "There was a law in Egypt making it against the law to build new churches or to renovate old churches. Somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 Christian activists are in prison for no reason."
El Shafie decided to study the persecution of Christians, thinking that "no one persecutes another unless they are afraid of the truth that they hold." At first he was assisted by a close Christian friend, who handed him a copy of the Bible and promised: "you will find all the answers in this book." El Shafie began reading, and when he finished the first story -- about Adam and Eve -- he recognized the fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam. "Under Islam," he explains, "Eve would have been murdered for her actions -- under the concept of 'an eye for eye'. But in the Bible, God sends a message of forgiveness and reconciliation."
"In the Bible, I found a message of sacrifice, and today I preach about the difference between the faiths," he goes on to say. "There are 300-400 differences between Islam and Christianity. I believe that the god of Islam sent people out to die in his name, while the god of Christianity was willing to die for the sake of his people."
From here on out, El Shafie's story resembles Mulinda's in many respects. He founded a human rights organization, which grew rapidly to 24,000 members. They built churches in secret -- carving them into mountains and grave sites -- in direct violation of Egyptian law but out of a strong belief in freedom of worship.
On Aug. 15, 1998, soldiers and officers raided El Shafie's office and arrested him. His personal version of hell began shortly afterward. In El Shafie's case, this hell had a name: Abu Zaabal prison. In the prison there was an active "torture compound" that included abuse around the clock, interspersed with short breaks comprised entirely of anticipation for the next round of abuse. A doctor on the premises ensures that the prisoner does not lose consciousness, so that every second of pain is fully experienced.
And El Shafie certainly felt pain. His head was shaved on the first day and shoved into a bucket of frozen water, only to be removed and immediately shoved into a bucket of scalding water. "I told them that I enjoyed the water, the hot and the cold, after not having showered in a while. I also said that the shaved head suits me," he describes his efforts to be tough and disguise his suffering while refusing to reveal the identities of the members of his organization.
The following day he was hung upside down. Interrogators beat him and extinguished lit cigarettes on his skin. This time he had to be dragged back to his cell. In the days that followed, his nails were torn off, he sustained electric shocks, his body was cut and his cuts were covered with salt and lemon juice.
"I was in the torture compound for seven nights, which felt to me like 700 years. But I learned one thing: don't let your enemy see that you are afraid or in pain," he says.
El Shafie was released to his home under house arrest (with a letter concluding that he was mentally ill), after which he was tried in a military court and sentenced to death. He was allowed to spend only four days at home before he was to be returned to prison, where his sentence would be carried out. Despite the vigilant watch over him, El Shafie managed to escape with the help of his friends from the organization. He knew that his life would be spared only if he left Egypt.
He also knew that his life would be in danger in any of the Arab-Muslim countries. Therefore, despite his negative preconceptions, he decided to flee to Israel. It was the summer of 1998 when he hid in Sinai and planned his big escape, which he describes in detail: "I stole a jet ski and waited for the sun to set. I made my way closer to the Israeli and Egyptian coast guard ships, and it was clear to me that the only way was to cross between them. That way, they would not open fire at me for fear of shooting the other side's ships. It was a mess, but I managed to get all the way to the Princess Hotel beach."
The Israel Defense Forces and the police waited for him on the beach. "I was happy to see them," he recalls.
He was taken into custody and put in a detention center in Beersheba. Egypt sent its ambassador to extradite him. Meanwhile, El Shafie appealed to the U.N. to examine his story. The International Christian Embassy also provided him with assistance. After 15 months in a Beersheba prison (where he learned Hebrew), he was recognized as the first political refugee to come out of Egypt in 70 years.
Like Hitler's speeches
These two impressive freedom fighters -- Mulinda and El Shafie -- are members of the Evangelist movement. They are also members of the International Christian Embassy, giving hope to people like them despite the horrors they have been through. They know that they will always be in danger, but they never cease to love Israel or to harshly criticize radical Islam.
"The extreme Muslims preach hate for Israel and they succeed in making even non-Muslims hate Israel with the lies they invent as part of their anti-Israel ideology," Mulinda says.
"Anti-Semitism is very prevalent in Uganda's universities. They don't know Israel, they just learn to hate it. The wise thing to do is to bring people to Israel to get to know the country, and then they will love it too. That is the lesson -- every minister needs to visit here," he describes the mission that he works every day to fulfill.
Mulinda further explains, with much passion, that "a true Christian has to love Israel spiritually, above all. It is his duty to love Israel in principle. We love other peoples as well, but Israel is a key nation because it is mentioned in the Bible and in every country in the world with prominence and respect."
"Israel is the birthplace of Christianity. What we call Christianity today is actually Jewish history, and that is why I am very connected to the Jewish people," he says. "When I converted to Christianity, I read the Bible and I began to become friends with Israel thanks to the book and thanks to the God of Israel. It is a wonderful book. It tied me to Israel and linked my soul with this place. The Bible made me visit here again and again."
El Shafie adds that "my love for Israel is on a spiritual level of faith, and on a personal level. From a personal perspective, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. It houses Jews, Muslims, Druze, Christians, secular and religious people, and everyone lives free. There are democratic elections and there is freedom of the press and human rights are honored. The leaders are equals under the law and if they stray -- they are punished. From a spiritual perspective, as Christians, we share the Old Testament, the holy Bible, and we share the same values and principles."
El Shafie explains that the Jews and the Christians need to unite against radical Islam. "We have a common enemy and a common struggle. For many years, the Jews and the Christians failed to understand the significance of the friendship between them, until now. Today, the Evangelist movement is the best defense attorney that the Jewish people have in the world. Israel needs to understand that it can't wage this battle alone. The only way to win is to stand together, not to stand only with your community. When we fight together for the rights of every persecuted minority, we can win."
El Shafie argues that an alliance between Judaism and Christianity is essential to combat anti-Semitism. "After the Holocaust there was the slogan 'never again' but I am not entirely convinced that this is true today. If we are not careful, the Holocaust could happen again, especially in Europe where anti-Semitism is on the rise as Islam spreads alongside the extreme Right."
"The old anti-Semitism urged people to 'hate the Jews, kill the Jews' and the new anti-Semitism is not against Jews just for politically correct reasons, but it urges 'hate Israel, destroy Israel.' Take Hitler's speeches, replace the word Jews with the word Israel and you have the same thing. I want to stress that it is important to visit Israel but there are two things that must not be touched: Israel's right to exist and Israel's right to defend itself. If you touch one of these two things, that is new anti-Semitism, while all the rest falls under freedom of expression."
Respect all faiths
El Shafie is also one of the most prominent human rights activists in Canada. He regularly visits Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other countries where Christians are persecuted. He has very harsh criticism for Islam, and his criticism of Western media, which misinterprets the reality in the Arab world, is no less harsh.
"The term 'Arab Spring' that became prevalent in the media is utter nonsense. It was an especially cold and bloody winter for any minority that is not Muslim. Last year, more than 165,000 Christians were tortured simply because of their faith, and between 200 and 300 million Christians around the world are victims of persecution, discrimination or abuse," El Shafie says.
As for the Western expectation that the fall of a few dictators in Arab countries would bring about the rise of democracy, El Shafie says that "in practice, extremely radical Muslims, the Muslim Brotherhood, have taken over the Arab countries -- Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and it could happen in Syria as well. I am against dictatorships, but the problem is that when you topple a dictatorship it creates a political vacuum and the extreme Islamists take advantage of it."
"Take Egypt for example. Some 30 to 40% of the population are illiterate. So even if you change the constitution, they won't know what they are voting for. In Gaza, too, people are given freedom and independence and they vote for the terror organization Hamas. The same is true in Iran -- they got rid of the Shah and got Khomeini. There is only one conclusion: Democracy without education is dead. Education is like oxygen."
Mulinda and El Shafie will continue to fight with determination against anti-Semitism within the Christian community, and they will continue to try to bring Christians and Jews closer together. "In every religion there are extremists -- people who oppose freedom," the Egyptian hero explains. "Therefore, democracy has to be founded on two basic principles: separation of religion and state, and freedom of religion. When Jews pray in a synagogue and Muslims pray in a mosque and Christians pray in a church, everything is fine and dandy. The problem begins when one of them claims that their religion is better than the others, and that everyone must follow them. All faiths must be respected."