Sheiks legally import Bibles

It took a three-and-a-half year conversation, a thousand cups of tea and the building of trust to see Bibles brought into an Islamic country in the Arabian Peninsula.Greg Kernaghan, a writer for OM International, travelled through the Arabian Peninsula in November 2013. He discovered authentic hospitality, passionately committed Christians and a sense of good things to come. He observed and listened to the hearts of Christian workers who have invested decades in understanding and loving their Arab neighbours.

Greg writes this article from the perspective of the OM workers in the Middle East, their story and their dreams, in their own words, fastidiously avoiding using real names and places so that the story itself may be told widely.

For the last 30 years, people have smuggled Bibles into this Islamic country in the Arabian Peninsula in suitcases, been increasingly caught and deported and the Bibles destroyed. Six years ago, I decided that if I could make one contribution to the Gospel, I would import them legally.

I was a neighbour to some very powerful sheiks. As my Arabic steadily improved, I became more interesting to them. I would meet them regularly for conversation over tea. One of the sheiks, older than I am, invited me weekly to his house, as I was friends with his son and a cousin. They often asked my reason in living in the Arabian Peninsula. I operate a bona fide business providing services the locals cannot.

Love is patient

In conversation, as we talked about the Qur'an, I would mention the Injil (Gospel) and the position of the Bible in the Qur'an. It says that we should read the Torah, the Zabur (Psalms), the Injil—all of God’s books. So I challenged them to read the Injil, saying that we in fairness could not dialogue about them unless all of us have read them, as I would have an unfair advantage as the only one in our group to have done so. The Qur'an does not speak of only one volume; it is a multi-volume work. In my view, many Muslims have been disobedient to the Qur'an by not reading all of the volumes God has given us. In humility, as an outsider who has read all the books, I don’t want to enter into discussions until they also have read them.

All of a sudden they thought, He’s right—but he’s not right. And so they debated this amongst themselves. This process lasted, not one or two hours, but a year. Inevitably it comes back to tahreef –belief that the Christian Scriptures are corrupted. I did my research on this claim; I was in no rush but was patient for truth’s sake.

Over some months, I presented my study of the issue. This teaching, in fact, goes against the Qur'an; they can’t say that something is possible (corruption) when God says it is impossible. The Qur'an says that the Word of God cannot be changed. Who has the power over God to corrupt His Word? Eventually they admitted that, in order to be good Muslims, they not only had to read all the books but also had to remove this idea of tahreef from the discussion.

Challenging honour

Then it became an open discussion: Where can we get the Injil? I suggested they should just go the market and buy it. They were sceptical; maybe it was illegal. Why would the word of God be illegal? Nevertheless, I told them to go and find it.

Two weeks later they returned and said it wasn’t possible. Maybe no one wants to read it? This is haram, I said; it’s shameful that a country of Muslims doesn’t want to obey the Qur'an and read all the books. What kind of Islam are you practicing? They conceded that I was right, because I had already gone through a study of the Qur'an with them to lay the foundations for the Gospel. OK, they said, we have to read it and, since it’s not available, we need to find a way to make it available. I said that I had copies at home, which they could read; if they liked the translation, we could explore ways to get more. I gave a copy to the sheiks and his male relatives.

Over the next six months, they all read it cover to cover. Amazing conversations followed. We talked about Jesus, miracles, their misconceptions of Christians and how sometimes the behaviour of Christians didn’t align with the teachings of Jesus—not unlike how the behaviour of Muslims may not align with the teaching of the Qur'an.

One of my friends in the group read through the Injil, and Jesus appeared to him in a dream. He asked me many questions in private and then recounted his understanding of Jesus as Messiah. He became a follower of Jesus.

It took two years for these sheiks to realise that there were no Injils in the rest of the country, and that they had the moral and religious duty to make it available for all Muslims to read. There we were again, sitting around drinking tea while the sheiks argued amongst themselves as to whether it would be more profitable to print them in the country or import them. 

I said, “Brothers, let me help you.” They responded, “No, you can’t get involved; you’re a white foreigner and if people see you involved they’ll think it’s a missionary effort and have nothing to do with it, and you and we will get into trouble. This has to come 100 per cent from us.”

I said, “I understand. I won’t be actively involved in what is your religious duty. What I can do is talk to the publisher and get you the materials to print locally or, if you choose to import it, I will pay for the first container load. It will belong to you the moment it is loaded onto the ship.”

They agreed to try one shipment; if it sold well, they would consider printing it on demand inside the country.

God’s ways are not ours

So I arranged for 25,000 copies of the Gospels and the Book of Acts, a beautiful, high-quality version that would display beautifully and be respected. Using a cheap-looking version would cause deep offense. In this conservative country, the physical form of a holy book matters. It is unthinkable for a holy book to be a paperback!

So we sent the container on its way to the Arabian Peninsula. Meanwhile, there were attacks on foreigners inside the country and the man involved in importing the container wanted to back away from the deal. With no one claiming the container, it was locked up in storage. Two weeks of careful negotiations with various departments began to crack the bureaucratic wall. An understanding official agreed that technically it was legal but he wanted to avoid potential backlash if the info fell into the wrong hands. He too insisted that, as a white foreigner, I should be nowhere near the situation. We offered to regulate the rate of distribution, which was an acceptable compromise—we would very slowly trickle the Injils into the market.

Jesus is capable of speaking to people through various means, but the dominant manner in this culture is through Scripture. In spite of the negotiations to regulate distribution, the shipment was distributed within a week! Because the sheiks forbade me to get involved, they oversaw the distribution. Our group paid for the Injils and I brokered the deal, but the local sheiks imported them into their country, legally. We have received reports of them being sold in markets and bookstores throughout the country.

Our hope is that, in the future, there will be many thousands more printed inside this country. I’d like to think that I helped make it happen, but this was the work of local Muslim sheiks, partly motivated by financial gain, but also by a renewed sense of duty as Muslims to make the Injil available to people. It took a three-and-a-half year conversation, a thousand cups of tea and the building of trust. God is able.

This is just one article in a series that explores what God is doing in the Middle East. Click here for more articles in this series.

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