“Ex-Muslim” preaches the Gospel

When Hazem Farraj was 15, he became a Christian. But as a Palestinian Muslim living in East Jerusalem, he couldn’t tell anyone, especially his father.

“For almost three years I was an underground believer,” Farraj told The Media Line during a visit to Jerusalem. “I would go to the local mosque and to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and pray Islamically but in my heart I was praying to Jesus.”

Today Farraj, 27, is very public. He lives in California and hosts “Reflections,” a Christian TV show in English and Arabic. He is grateful for everything in his life, he says, but he has also made sacrifices for his faith.

Farraj was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1984. Like many immigrants, his father insisted the children speak Arabic at home. An observant Muslim, he worked hard to teach his children about Islam.

When Farraj was 12, his father moved the family back to Beit Hanina, a middle-class East Jerusalem suburb. The large family of 13 siblings studied Islam and many of them became more committed Muslims.

“Islam says to pray five time daily – I only prayed four times because I was too lazy to get up for the early morning prayer,” Farraj recounts. “Do the prayers. Memorize the verses from the Qur’an. Go to Islamic class and the mosque. It was all just actions to me. The deeper I got into Islam the more depressing it was for me.”

Farraj decided the solution was to convert some Christians to Islam. He approached his upstairs neighbors, Christians, and they began a discussion that lasted more than a year and a half.

“I said to them, “What if I told you that God can answer your prayers in the name of Allah,” he recalls. “Now he wasn’t answering my prayers but I needed something to hold onto. They told me things I was searching for like 'Cast your worries upon Jesus who cares for you' and 'God so loved Hazem that He gave His only son for him.'”

When Farraj was 15, he attended an East Jerusalem church with these neighbors. He does not want to name the church, fearing it could become a target of attacks.

“I sat in the last pew in the back corner and I saw something I had never seen,” he recalls with a wistful smile. “I saw a guy named Steve singing with a guitar and smiling as if he knew Jesus. I saw people at the altar raising their hands and loving God and it made me mad because I wanted it to be the God of the Qur’an.”

He fled to a downstairs room, where he lay a piece of carpet on the floor and prayed facing Mecca in Saudi Arabia, according to Islamic rules. Nothing happened. He went back upstairs to the church, and, he says, became a Christian.

“I started to pray in the name of Jesus and something happened on the inside that transformed me,” he remembers.

Soon afterwards, the second intifada or Palestinian uprising broke out and his father moved the family back to the US. Farraj continued to practice as an underground Christian. Finally, just before his 18th birthday he told his father that he had become a Christian. His father cut off all contact with him, and Farraj has not seen him since.

The pain hurts even 10 years later.

“You don’t ever get over it, you just get through it,” he says. “It has left me wounded even today.”

He also has no relationship with his stepmother or his siblings.

At age 18 he followed his former neighbors to Alabama, where they had moved.

“I slept for six months and when I wasn’t sleeping I was eating – I weighed 225 pounds and I was so depressed,” he recalls. “Then one day I came across a Christian TV station and there was this preacher. This voice inside me – I believe it was the voice of God – said 'I’ve called you to this.' I knew it meant that I was called to tell people about Jesus and to help them come to prayer.”

His TV show “Reflections,” reaches millions of viewers around the world.

Farraj says there are “many” underground Christians in Arab countries today, and that he gets emails thanking him from around the Arab world. He also gets death threats.

David Parsons, the media director of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, says there are “hundreds” if not “thousands” of underground Christians in the West Bank.

“There’s a lot of upheaval in the Arab and Muslim world right now,” Parsons told The Media Line. “Some are saying 'Islam is the answer,' but there are a lot of Muslims who know they tried it for hundreds of years and it’s not the answer. As a Christian I would attribute it to the movement of the Holy Spirit. People are looking for different answers.”

Parsons says the International Christian Embassy has opened branches in “several north African countries.”

Farraj says his recent trip to Jerusalem was to recharge his own batteries and to meet underground Christians.

“I love Jerusalem,” he said with a grin. “I’m here to enjoy the spirituality of Jerusalem and to encourage the believers. I thought I was the only ex-Muslim in the world, but they’re really everywhere.”

Reflections at the New Year

On behalf of the State of Israel, it is my honor to commend this community for all the magnificent work you have done with and on behalf of the Israeli people during this most painful year. Your outpouring of love and support constitutes a source of invaluable encouragement to us. Through your words and deeds, you have directly touched the lives of those Israelis most in need: the ones who have suffered from terrorism, who have lost loved ones and who need us now more than ever.

Now, as we approach Rosh Hashana, we cling to a vision of a better life and a more promising future, for it is no exaggeration to say that the year just passed has been perhaps the most tormenting we have faced since the establishment of our state in 1948. As of this writing, 611 innocent people have been murdered during the ongoing campaign of Palestinian terrorism. At the same time, of course, the past year will be remembered for the fact that the onslaught of hatred and destruction landed on America’s shores. Within hours of the attacks on Sept. 11, the United States revealed its full power and glory, its determination and strength. The reaction of the American people became a lesson to anyone who doubted the resolve of a free people to combat terrorism until it is defeated.

During this year, we also witnessed in horror the slaying of five Americans at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as well as the Israeli Americans murdered at LAX on the Fourth of July. It is hard to ignore the explosion in the number, prominence and perceived legitimacy of anti-Jewish acts perpetrated in locations within Europe and the Arab world in recent times. These frightening events must call each of us to attention, and remind us just how connected we truly are.

While Israel has long had an overwhelmingly positive and strengthening effect upon Jewish communities in the Diaspora, we must acknowledge that, at times, the consequences of our conflict in the Middle East can adversely affect Jews elsewhere. This linkage places a heavy responsibility upon Israel, and highlights the extent to which Diaspora Jewry has a moral right to intervene in Israeli concerns. I would argue that not only is there a moral right, but a moral obligation for the Diaspora to intercede in Israeli life. If your communities can be drawn into our disputes, and if we expect you to take a public stand on Israel’s behalf in the United States, how could we legitimately tell you not to play an active role among us?

A fundamental aspect of such a role must be the commitment to spend time with us in Israel. As we make resolutions for the upcoming year, I would humbly urge you to come to Israel on regular visits, and urge your communities to do the same. Especially now, there should not be a single Jew who has not experienced firsthand the wonders of the Western Wall, the power of Masada, the mysticism of Tzfat or the beauty of Eilat. We are all uplifted when you spend time at our world-class universities, our institutes of art, science and research. We need to see you with us. We need to know that we are not alone.

The obstacles we now face can easily overwhelm us with a sense of pessimism; yet Rosh Hashana should mark a moment when we reflect with pride upon Israel’s accomplishments and breathtaking successes, which we must never take for granted. Sixty years ago, Jews desperately seeking to escape from Europe had nowhere to go. Now, with our own state, our people have been able to come home en masse.

In the early days of statehood, we were struggling to tame the deserts of the Negev and the swamps of the Galilee. Who could have foreseen that in the year 2002, Israel would have moved to conquering outer space with satellites and astronauts, establishing ourselves as pioneers of cyberspace and as global leaders of the most cutting-edge technologies known to mankind?

In all of its complexity and uncertainty, Israel is, in its totality, our home. It is the only home where Jews can defend themselves, by themselves. We truly have a wonderful land, an amazing country and, in the upcoming year, may we merit the courage to protect our security and our freedom; may we find the creativity to persist in the greatest struggle of all: the struggle for peace. I conclude with our people’s ancient prayer of peace: "Give peace, goodness and blessing, life, grace, loving-kindness and mercy to us and to all Your people in Israel."

May each of us and all Israel be inscribed and sealed for a good year.