CCN PHOTO | DEBORAH GYAPONG
Pastor Wagdi Iskander says to pray for our Muslim friends.
Pastor Wagdi Iskander faced the death sentence not long after becoming a Christian in his native Sudan. Since escaping prison, he has devoted his life to sharing the Gospel with Muslims.
Iskander was a keynote speaker at the Feb. 2 Learn, Pray and Act Conference at Ottawa's Metropolitan Bible Church, co-sponsored by Voice of the Martyrs to raise awareness of the plight of persecuted Christians.
The son of a Bedouin camel trader, Iskander had memorized the entire Koran by the age of six. The tribe's religious leader warned him to "beware of Christians. Burn them before they burn you," the leader said.
When he went to university in Khartoum, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood and soon became a leader, participating in their violent efforts to protect Islam from corrupting influences.
A Christian student would tell him about Jesus, but Iskander responded by beating up the student several times.
When the student brought in a preacher, the Muslim Brotherhood issued threats and warnings to cancel the event.
When that didn't work, the Brotherhood held an emergency meeting. There, it decided the Christian who witnessed to Iskander would have to be killed. Iskander was singled out for the task and he reluctantly agreed. After midnight, he went with two accomplices. In the dark room, he beat the man lying in bed with a heavy stick. "I could feel his bones crushing."
The next day, Iskander learned he had beaten the wrong man, who was left a paraplegic, something he regrets.
After university, he worked for a French company as an accountant. At a reception where he met a man from Saudi Arabia, alcohol was served and he inadvertently touched the glass, though he did not drink it.
The Saudi drank it and Iskander left highly offended since it is a big sin to drink or even touch alcohol in Islam. He told his cousin who "literally jumped away," and told him, "You're unclean."
The next day at the mosque, his name was brought up in conjunction with western influences corrupting youth with alcohol. "That afternoon I was beaten up by 800 people," he said.
He then was forbidden to go to the mosque, touch a Koran or pray for 40 days, until he did various purification rituals. Angry at being driven from a religious life, Iskander persisted in deliberately touching alcohol. He began to sample things like the theatre. He stopped dressing like a religious Muslim and shaved his beard.
He then ran into the Christian friend he had tried to kill. The man asked him why he had changed.
"I am looking for forgiveness," Iskander told him. "There is only one person who can forgive you," the man said. "Jesus."
Iskander attended a prayer meeting and was amazed to hear people praying that God would help them love and forgiving people who had wronged them. His reaction was to tell them his Muslim Brotherhood could help them to get revenge.
A man opened the Bible to the Sermon on the Mount and read him the part about loving one's enemies. Iskander was given a Bible and took it home to read.
"How does a Christian practise this book?" he asked himself. "It is easy to hate. It's hard to love, to be holy."
At a revival meeting, a friend led him to meet an elderly woman who was sitting with a blanket over her legs. She was from the same tribe as him.
Years earlier, as a 14-year-old, she helped a Christian doctor as a nurse. She began to tell members of the tribe stories about Jesus. Her tribe decided to burn her alive. She was rescued by the doctor who took care of her and eventually married her.
She lifted the blanket and showed Iskander the burned flesh sticking to her bones. "I am willing to be burned for Jesus."
Iskander thought to himself, "If a woman can do it, why is it a man like me cannot do it?" He went to his Christian friend and said, "I am ready to become a Christian." He was asked to kneel down, close his eyes, and ask Jesus to forgive him and come into his heart.
When he opened his eyes, he experienced a "great peace in my heart." Since that moment in 1982, that peace has never left, he said.
Authorities arrested Iskander because conversion from Islam is a crime. He refused to renounce his new faith however, and was sent to jail.
He met two other Muslim converts in the court and they prayed to be put into the same cell. God answered that prayer and together they studied the Bible. Iskander watched both men die as they were hanged in the public square on Fridays, a week apart. Each one said as his last words, "Jesus, here I come!"
Just before Iskander was to be executed, Libya declared war on Sudan and bombed the area where the prison was located, damaging the prison.
He escaped and ran to the home of the woman with the burned legs. He made his way to Canada in 1988 as a refugee fleeing religious persecution.
Iskander became a pastor and has since baptized more than 700 former Muslims and spread the Gospel in two dozen countries. He has pastored Arabic-language churches in Edmonton and Calgary. He also founded Al Hyatt Ministries which supports and trains former Muslim believers.
Patience, listening and friendship work far better than debating or challenging either the Koran or Mohammed, he said. He urged Christians to pray for their Muslim friends and tell them stories from the Bible about God's forgiveness and love.