Beirut (AsiaNews) This is an ordinary story but one that speaks of the fascination for Christ among people of every age, culture and nation. At the centre of the tale is a young Muslim, its author, Fr Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Jesuit who teaches History of Arab Culture and Islamic Studies at Beirut's Université de Saint-Joseph.
One day Muhammad told me he wanted to talk to me. Since many students are looking for a subject for their dissertation, I thought that must be the reason. But instead, it was not that: Muhammad wanted to learn about Christianity, in particular the Gospel.
Since I didn't know him, I was on my guard. What if he had been sent him by some Islamic group trying to test me. [. . .]
But the young man really seemed bent on finding out more about the Gospel and since he insisted I gave him a pocket-size version.
A few days later, Muhammad rang the bell. He told me he had read some pages and was really taken by them. He said Christ really appeared to be "a man of peace", someone open to everyone, someone opposed to violence.
We talked about it. I told him to write on one side of a notebook those verses that struck him and on the other those that puzzled him or seemed unclear. And so we decided to meet every week to exchange ideas about the different parts of the Gospel.
Months went by till one day Muhammad asked me: "And so when do we talk about Baptism?" I told him that this meant going through catechesis. I also told him that I'll think about it.
I talked to other priests who have greater experience with this and they told me to speak to the bishop who, in turn, told me that he would meet the young man when things were further along.
Because my frequent travels prevented me from seeing Muhammad on a regular basis, I spoke to a lay friend, a man with four kids who is a volunteer in a parish church, who agreed to accompany the young man as he received the catechesis. I would still provide him spiritual guidance. [. . .]
My catechist friend introduced Muhammad to other Christians to give him a better idea of the Christian community. One of the problems with converts is that they feel like social and cultural outsiders to the Christian community. Muhammad was appreciative but still a bit standoffish.
I asked him one day if he had any problems with his neighbours since he lived in a largely Muslim environment. "Sometimes. Once, an acquaintance found the Gospel in my room. Since then I keep it in a place where it can't be easily found."
He is being watched too because he let out some critical comments about Islam.
I told him to be prudent when he speaks but he said that he was making their right choice as far faith was concerned and was not prepared to be silent about it even if he had to suffer consequences for it.
Muhammad comes from a practicing Muslin family but like "many other students" he does not pray five times a day. He would like to change neighbourhood so as to be free to pray and practice his faith but can't afford to do it.
My catechist friend told him to start mentioning what he was doing to his relatives. Since he couldn't go and visit them, he talked to them on the phone. It was a catastrophe. He was really sad the next day when he came to see me.
My catechist friend had told him to be cautious and discrete about his new faith. He had told him to continue living like a Muslim but with Christ in his heart. But Muhammad objected to that. "I can't go back now!" he had said. He probably knows he can't go back to his family.
On Christmas Night he told me: "At last, I want to go to church". An hour before midnight he went inside, the vast nave still except for the sounds of Christmas carols floating in the background.
Eventually, people started slowly making their way into the building. He sat near the crèche and that is where he had his first mass.
"In all my life I have never felt so close to God as today!" he said.
I am convinced that Muhammad really sought this out, a desire swelling from the bottom of his heart. And he found it in Christ. Now he is waiting for Easter Night, the night when he takes the last steps.
*PIME Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions