"My dictionary does not contain the word 'fear'"
Father Zakaria Botros has just been named World Magazine's 2008 "Daniel of the Year," something of a Christian equivalent to Time Magazine's "Man of the Year." I first wrote about the elusive Fr Zakaria here. The unedited World Magazine article is long but well worth the read, as it has many details -- such as the fact that each of Botros' weekly episodes are watched by nearly 60 million Arabic-speakers, the vast majority of which are Muslim.
"2008 Daniel of the Year Award," by Mindy Belz for World Magazine, December 13:
Botros has been hosting Truth Talk since 2003. The weekly show grew out of an internet chat room attended by thousands where the Coptic priest engaged Muslims on the inherent contradictions of their own religion and found that he was leading many to faith in Jesus Christ. As the geographic scope of the show has grown, so has its reach into the lives of Muslims. It is broadcast in Arabic, and this year began also to be translated for Turkish audiences and into Farsi to be aired in Iran.
Father Zakaria, as he is known to millions, has won his enormous following not by borrowing from the toolbox of the televangelist. For someone whose ecclesiastical tradition began in a.d. 100, his tools are decidedly 21st century: satellite uplinks, Wi-Fi connectivity, a late-edition Vaio laptop that is with him at all times, and a trusted reference tool he refers to as "St. Google." He can spend 14-hour days on research for each show, and for this episode emailed the final script to producers at 4:30 a.m.
The result is less a preaching ministry and more like battlefield strategy. It's the late-in-life culmination of a conscious decision, Botros says, to move away from apologetics and toward what he calls polemics: "My program is to attack Islam, not to attack Muslims but to save them because they are deceived. As I love Muslims, I hate Islam."
Such conviction earns Botros a heady following—and serious enemies. Jihadist groups have reportedly posted a death threat worth $60 million against him. This year his name and photo appeared on an al-Qaeda website, seeking retribution for his teachings, which often depict Muhammad as less of a prophet and more of a womanizer. For his fearless determination in the face of his enemies, for his willingness to label Islam a false religion in a year when many Christian leaders have overreached in their quest for common ground with its worshippers, Zakaria Botros is WORLD's 2008 Daniel of the Year.[...]
One recent episode of Truth Talk, aired Nov. 21, cut to 20 separate clips, most of Cairo's respected Al-Azhar University Sheikh Khaled El-Gendy, to debate the age of Aisha when she became Muhammad's second wife...
In one clip El-Gendy argues that "the Quran is enough" and the hadiths on Aisha aren't needed. Another scholar cites a recent magazine article claiming she was a teenage wife. As Islamic authorities shout at one another onscreen, Botros calmly asks, "Are these holy books or not?" "If you are explaining her age based on a magazine article, what's your reference?"
On the set Botros alternates between a jovial Captain Kangaroo persona and a finger-pointing, cloaked authority figure who sets his face toward the camera and declares, "Everyone should question all these discrepancies." But Botros says he's not looking to leave Muslim viewers with only questions: He begins and ends each episode with prayer, he sometimes reads from the Bible, and he almost always brings on a guest who is introduced as a Muslim convert to Christianity.
In another recent episode titled "Was Muhammad a messenger from God or Satan?" Botros recites the characteristics of a false prophet by Sunni scholar Ibn Taymiyya, then lays down his book, looks into the screen, and says each of the characteristics cited by Taymiyya apply to Muhammad. He quotes Matthew 7 and asks viewers, "Does this sound like a real prophet to you? Remember: 'Ye shall know them by their fruits.'"
Botros told me in our first interview, "When I started to preach this way many or most Christians refused the style. They were afraid. For 14 centuries we [as Middle East Christians] are under the threat of the sword of Islam. So they were afraid and told me, 'They will kill us! They will destroy our houses!' But after I preached the gospel and spoke in this manner for years now, many of them now say, 'We are no longer ashamed of our religion when Muslims attack us.'"[...]
At the same time, emphasis on Muslim-Christian interfaith dialogue has grown. Last month King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia hosted a UN interfaith dialogue in New York, which was preceded by similar meetings in Madrid and at Yale, as well as a dialogue that included discussion of theological distinctives at the Vatican.
Botros believes such rapprochement can succeed only for a short time. But he says his methods won't work unless the motive is "nothing else but love." Despite his confrontational style, he says: "I am not against Muslims although I am against Islam as a false religion. I don't want to disgrace Muslims but to expose Islam. My ultimate intention is to glorify God and to save people, especially Muslims. Muslims are victims. Muhammad deceived them as he himself was deceived by Satan. Muslims believe that Muhammad is the best prophet, that the Quran is the only proper book from God, and Islam is the only religion from God. Muslims are in bad need to be saved from these false beliefs."
Botros is fairly sure he'd be dead by now if it weren't for the virtual universe in which he operates. Were he to make these kinds of statements on a street in almost any Islamic-dominated country, he would be hauled into court on charges of insulting Islam, where a guilty verdict could lead to his being killed. His broadcasts are aired from an undisclosed studio and he is strict about keeping his whereabouts out of public light. More positively, he discovered as he neared his 70s that with some tech-savvy, he could reach Muslims with Christian teaching in a way not possible in nearly 50 previous years as an active priest.[...]
Is your heart always in the Middle East?" I ask. "Yes," Botros replies, "in the Muslim world always." Botros grew up in a Christian family in Alexandria. Muslim attackers killed his older brother when he was a young teenager. "Instead of anger against Muslims, the Lord saved me from that. I had pity on them." In his last year of high school he had a Muslim teacher who regularly challenged him for worshipping "a dead God." Botros said he realized, "If I answered him from the Bible it would be no good. I had to read the Muslim books and the Quran itself." Throughout his university years, he said, he read all the teachings of Muhammad as a way to answer Muslim questions about Christianity.
"This is a problem for every Christian in Egypt: He faces a fight for his faith in the schools. So I started to write what I had learned about Islam and how to answer questions about Christianity. I wrote them in books and started to publish them, small books. These were apologetics, defending our faith," he said...
Twice authorities jailed him for preaching the gospel to Muslims, once in 1981 for one year, and again in 1989. A judge sentenced him to life in prison but ordered him released on the condition of forced exile: He had to leave Egypt and never return. By that time he had ministered in Cairo for over 30 years but moved to England with his wife, where he ministered in a Coptic church for 11 years before he said he "retired" to begin the television and internet ministry.
"What do you fear?" I ask.
"Fear? I fear nothing," says Botros. "My dictionary does not contain the word fear. I believe in God and I believe that the epistle of Ephesians says we are created in Jesus Christ for a plan, which was engaged from the early beginning. No one can cut it, and when it is completed no one can continue it."