Rome (AsiaNews) - A few days ago, the website of Notre Dame de Kabylie posted a tape in which a former Muslim, Mohammed Christophe Bilek, talked about his conversion to Christianity. The original broadcast, which focused on the persecution of Christians, first appeared in 'Dieu Merci' (Thank God), a show that deals with religion on Direct 8, a French TV channel.
Mohammed Christophe Bilek was born in Algeria in 1950 and has lived in France since 1961. He is the author of two books: Un algérien pas très catholique (A not very Catholic Algerian), published by Cerf (1999) and Saint Augustin raconté à ma fille (Saint Augustine as told to my daughter), published by Éditions Qabel (2011). In the 1990s, he founded the Notre Dame de Kabylie (in French), a website devoted to evangelisation among Muslims and Muslim-Christian dialogue.
In the video, Bilek highlights the risk Muslim converts face when accused of apostasy, an offence that can be punished by death. Nevertheless, he insists on the importance of baptism, the encounter with Jesus Christ and affiliation with the Church.
His views go against those of priests and bishops in Muslim countries, who prefer to dissuade or even deny baptism to Muslims who want to convert out of fear for the consequences they and Christian communities might face.
Is baptising banned?
A few weeks ago, a bishop in an Arab country in the Middle East told me that police threatened to close one of his communities because members had advertised a Christian-Muslim meeting on dialogue. Police were concerned that this might be the first step towards so-called proselytising and apostasy. "If this is the reaction to a meeting on dialogue, imagine what it would be if we had a conversion," an embittered bishop said.
It is no wonder then that the prelate is against conversions and baptisms for only this seems to be the way to preserve the little freedom of worship that exists in the country in question.
In places like Morocco, and until recently Algeria, the situation is such that dioceses were instructed not to baptise Muslims who want to convert to Catholicism because "local laws ban it."
Fr Samir Khalil remembers that a few years ago, he met a Muslim whose request for baptism was rejected for 13 years. Baptism, he was told, would bring him a lot of trouble, force him to emigrate to avoid being executed for apostasy, and endanger the priest performing the baptism. And yet, for all this time, the would-be convert studied the Gospels and the catechism on his own and led a life of prayers.
In Egypt, the Christian clergy also tends to avoid baptising Muslims; only a few priests have done so in secret. Speaking to AsiaNews, a religious who has been in Egypt for decades, said that baptising at any cost "is against the Second Vatican Council because the Council said that non-Christians can also find salvation outside the Church." Implicitly, this means that baptism is unnecessary and that people find salvation according to their circumstances.
This is not the place to start a theological debate about the faith in Christ and the salvation of non-Christians. Suffices it to say, that both Dominus Iesus and the Doctrinal note on some aspects of evangelization reiterate the importance of a 'visible' and socially relevant affiliation to Christ and the Church.
What is more, baptism is a life-changing experience, one that alters the convert's perception of life. Changes occur in the here and now, not in some future 'eternal' life after death. For this reason, offering others the baptism is not a superficial deed but a gift of life and hope in the present. Being baptised or not being baptised are not equivalent.
Christians' 'solar' God vs the Qur'an's 'lunar' God
Faith changes the present in a profound and meaningful way. On Notre Dame de Kabylie, Mohammed Christophe explains his conversion by stressing his new understanding of God.
"If the God of the Qur'an is the same as that of the Christians, why did I, Mohammed, become Christophe," he asked himself. "Having lived in Islam, practiced its precepts among people who are still Muslim (his family still is), I continue to be dazzled by the discovery of the Gospel," he said by way of answer.
"The light that comes from the Gospel suggests a comparison, one based on a certain premise. Anyone who wants to talk about the God of Islam must refer to Qur'an. If we replace the word 'God' with 'light', the light of the Qur'an is lunar, that of the Gospel is solar."
"Whether God is one, i.e. the creator, whatever the name we might have given him, is something I can accept. If we stuck to this premise, it would not be necessary to leave Islam and become Christian."
"Yet, Jesus came to reveal, first to the Jews, then to all men, that 'God is your Father, that God loves you and wants you with Him to give you His life!' Upon such words, I do not hesitate one moment. I accept the offer, not once, but twice. I know that the Qur'an makes an offer in which I may deserve (but that is not certain) a carnal and materialist heaven (Sura 38, 50-52) that reminds me more of ads for vacation spots to idle away the time under the tropical sun than of the certainty of 'knowing' my God and Lord."
What about the images we have of Christ and Mohammed? Two quotes say it all for Mohammed Christophe. In one case, Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep," whilst in the other, Mohammed is told "O Prophet! We have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou hast paid their dowers; and those whom thy right hand possesses" (Sura 33, 50)."
"Let us be serious. It is one thing to say 'there is but one God for all;' it is another to say that He is interested in me, insignificant worm, to the extent that he 'deifies' me in Jesus. [. . .] Such revelation was my calling."
Jesus, man's freedom without submission
Mohammed Christophe also speaks about apostasy and the possibility of death that comes from following him.
Christ says, "Are you ready to follow me and leave everything for me? When one realises what Jesus asks, out of love, we can see how difficult it is to follow him. It is also one thing to say 'yes' with one's lips; it is another to leave everything behind for Him.
"For those of us who come from Islam, this means breaking with one's past, family and community as well as one's moral or spiritual certainties."
"I say it is much easier to remain a Muslim, not take a stance (since we have the same God). There are many easy excuses not to make the break, not to accept this transformation, not to die in oneself and not to follow Christ. Conversion is demanding and cannot be done without his help."
"This is what the rich youth in the Gospel could not do, because, at least at the start, one must freely agree. Jesus does not impose on me any "submission" but only the freedom to love him."
"This is an important difference. Does God create us as free men or slaves? Depending on our answer, God is not the same. In one case, I risk the punishment reserved for apostates or unbelievers; in the other, I am the prodigal son expected by his father, who calls all his servants as soon he sees him on the horizon."
"Leaving Islam is dangerous. It is done at the risk of one's life. Thus, dear brothers and sisters in the West, welcome and help those who do it."
"I insist. I am not talking about the God of the Muslims but of the God of the Qur'an. Muslims are my brothers; perhaps one day, they may be my brothers and sisters in Christ."
"Since the 1990s, this has not only been a hope but it has also been a reality that has made me rejoice and praise the Lord. Alleluia! Jesus has come to save all men, Muslims included."