Life + Culture

New Glory in the Ancient City: Muslim Refugees Turning to Jesus

New Glory in the Ancient City

ATHENS, Greece — The spirit of Athens today lies at the crossroads between old and new. Everywhere you look are reminders of the epic grandeur this city once enjoyed. Even if you were to overlook the many monuments and ruins scattered throughout the city, the Acropolis looms large on the horizon, serving as a constant reminder that the world once revolved around this city.

The modern Athens, however, bears little resemblance to its ancient self. While teeming with life and energy, it sags under the burden of economic stagnation and wrestles with its current and most pressing crisis: what to do with the massive influx of refugees from the Middle East that are daily streaming into the city.

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Greece is unofficially a “Christian” country. Some estimate that nearly 97% of the population identifies with the Orthodox church. And yet for most Greeks, this is merely a cultural identification, not a religious one. The church is linked closely with the state, and most Greeks ignore the church at best, or (in a difficult economic time) resent it at worst. The tired cathedrals throughout the city serve as an appropriate metaphor for the “Christianity” of the city — ubiquitous, but lifeless.

And yet the kingdom of God is growing in Athens.

Finding the Treasure

The Spirit of God is on the move and proving once again that he uses the foolishness of the world to confound the wise. God has used this city’s greatest burden — the refugee crisis — to display his glory in magnificent ways. Every day Muslim refugees in Athens are finding Jesus to be their true Treasure.

Javad is an Iranian former Muslim pastoring in Athens. He first heard the gospel via satellite radio while living in Iran. He didn’t have a Bible, and he didn’t know any Christians. But when he came to Greece, a roommate asked him to come to an Iranian church with him. He didn’t even realize it was possible for “Iranian” and “church” to be put together! Because it was an entirely new concept, he accepted the invitation out of curiosity. There, in a small, nondescript room of a rented street corner, he heard the message of life and gladly surrendered to Christ.

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Javad is a remarkable evangelist. Every day he goes to the park, refugee camps, or coffee shops to share the gospel with Iranian and Afghan refugees. He told me that he knows of at least two-to-three Muslims who have trusted Christ nearly every day since he arrived in 2008. He works in a refugee center that provides food, clothing, and practical help to newly arrived refugees.

Through the ministry of this center alone, over two thousand Muslims (overwhelmingly Iranian and Afghan) have trusted Christ in the last eight years. In Javad’s church, approximately four hundred people have trusted Christ in the last few years, and nearly two thousand Farsi Bibles have been distributed to Iranian seekers.

Many of these new converts are only passing through the city of Athens on the way to other European cities, so an informal network of church plants has grown up. Former-Muslim converts have planted Farsi- and Urdu-speaking churches in Germany, France, the U.K., Sweden, the Netherlands, and more. A new wind from the Global South is changing the face of gospel-preaching Christianity in Europe.

And yet following Jesus is a costly decision for Muslims.

Counting the Cost

Javad told me, “When I came to faith, I knew I could never go back to my family or to Iran, but it’s worth it because I have Jesus.” This is a great problem for many Muslims. To come to Christ means to give up everything they know: their country, their family, their friends, and their way of life. And yet, as one former Muslim here in Athens told me, “When you have the Treasure, you will gladly leave family, friends, and country.”

These brothers and sisters know the truth of Jesus’s words, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).

After conversion to Christianity, many former Muslims experience persecution from their family and friends. They are ostracized, harassed, sometimes even attacked. These brothers and sisters know the truth of Jesus’s words,

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11–12)

Like the apostle Paul, many of these converts once persecuted Christians themselves. Javad was preaching in a park one afternoon and proclaimed, “Jesus is the Son of God.” A Muslim woman who was entirely veiled except for her eyes, cursed him loudly and intensely. A few weeks later, he was preaching again at church, and after the service a woman — with no veil — came up to him and said, “I heard you preach in the park a few weeks ago and cursed you, but now I have eyes to see that Jesus is the Son of God.” This woman is now part of a church plant in Germany and regularly shares her faith with Muslim refugees.

Spreading the Name

As I heard story after story of Muslim refugees coming to Christ, I couldn’t help but think of the many Muslim refugees who live in my city back in the United States. The story there is flipped — hardly any Muslims are converting to Christianity and the seed that Christians are sowing seems to fall only on hard ground.

One evening I asked Javad, “Why do you think so many Muslims are coming to Christ here in Athens? Is it that they feel more social freedom now that they’ve left their countries?” His answer rebuked me. “Well, perhaps they feel more freedom, but they are coming to faith because of the power of God to break their hearts.”

Here in Athens, a new glory is on display that exceeds even the grandeur of the ancient city. “The gospel . . . is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16) because “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The name of Jesus is spreading through Athens, and thousands of Muslims are finding him to be their greatest Treasure.

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