http://www.kentucky.com/mld/kentucky/li ... 849121.htm
Ex-Muslim tells how he became Christian
By Andy Olsen
SPECIAL TO THE HERALD-LEADER
He knew it was a crazy thing to do for a man who not long before had been training Muslim militants in Iran. But Daniel Shayesteh was angry, and he was hunting someone.
So the former Iranian revolutionary stepped into a Christian church in Istanbul, Turkey, looking for his business partner, an occasional worshiper there who had just fled town with Shayesteh's money.
Shayesteh never found him, and he never got his money back. Instead, he said, he found a new life of freedom and love -- one that now takes him around the world making impassioned arguments for the power of Christ to bring peace to the Middle East and release Muslims from the bondage of what he calls a religion "full of anger."
Muslim converts to Christianity are few and far between, especially from the ranks of militant extremists. Islam is a religion that itself seeks converts. And in many Islamic countries, a Muslim who leaves the faith for another faces persecution or even the death penalty.
But Shayesteh, 50, is one of a handful of former Muslims working to mobilize the Western church to make converts of Muslims living next door and overseas. He recently visited churches and schools in Lexington as part of a tour with the Crescent Project, an Indianapolis-based organization devoted to reaching Muslims for Christ.
The movement emphasizes acts of kindness, or "lifestyle evangelism," over outright proselytism. Underlying it is the belief that culturally appropriate gestures, such as inviting Muslims to your house for dinner, say more about Christ's love than preaching to them.
"When you go to a Muslim and you say, 'I love you and I just want to say you're welcome to this country,' they're taken aback," said Ron Zargarian, the Iranian-born director of national outreach for the Crescent Project. "They say, 'What do you mean? You're an American?'"
'Our main goal ... was to destroy America'
Shayesteh's message is based on his experiences growing up in northern Iran, where he memorized the entire Quran in Arabic at age 9 and became known as a religious zealot. At a stop last week at Lexington Christian Academy, he said he helped overthrow the Shah of Iran in 1979 and bring to power the Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's Islamic Revolution.
"Our main goal really was to destroy America," Shayesteh told students during a chapel service. We believed "we have to destroy Christianity and we have to kill Jews, we have to take Islam everywhere and we have to push and force other people to become Muslims."
He described helping launch the Revolutionary Army, training youth at military camps to use weapons and wage jihad -- youth who would eventually go and fight in Palestine against Israel. At one point he projected a photograph showing his wife, Mary, wandering the woods with a machine gun as a young Iranian woman.
"Do not worry," he said to loud laughter from the audience. "I do not allow her to bring her gun today."
Shayesteh's life changed dramatically when he joined the opposition against the authoritarian Khomeini shortly into the revolution, and won election to Parliament. He was repeatedly beaten for his opposition, and one night an armed group showed up at his house, abducted him and took him to prison, where he lived in what he called "a toilet" and was sentenced to death.
Four of his friends on Death Row with him were executed. But Shayesteh escaped prison with the help of some friends in the Iranian government, and fled to Turkey. It was in Istanbul where he went to church, expecting to find "the most immoral people in the world," he said. "But I was shocked -- these people were so nice."
Christianity might have brought peace to Shayesteh's life, but it hasn't made it safe. A central theme in his message is that true Islam -- which he says rejects most moderate Muslims in America -- promotes hatred and division.
His outspokenness has brought death threats in America and in Australia, where he and his family live. He is often called a liar. And travel to many Muslim nations is not an option for him or his wife and children, who now are all Christians, for fear of being arrested or killed.
But Shayesteh said that not all Muslims reject his ministry. Many Western Muslims, frustrated by the oppression and poverty in some of their home countries, are encouraged by his message, even to the point of becoming Christians.
"They are not blind," he said. "They are open to the message and values of other countries."
Hearing his story 'makes it more real'
Shayesteh's story also encourages young American Christians who are thinking about becoming missionaries in Islamic cultures, where winning converts is a tough job with very slow progress.
"It makes it more real when you can hear someone's story and see that he lived the lifestyle and see how he was saved from it," said Johnny Walker, 25, who hopes to go to a Muslim nation as a missionary. He heard Shayesteh speak twice at Lexington's First Alliance Church.
Shayesteh acknowledges that most moderate Muslims do live peaceful lives and are not bent on destroying America. But he insists they are either ignorant about what the Quran really teaches or they ignore it, just as many Christians do not follow the teachings of the Bible.
In fact, Shayesteh contends that one of the most powerful tools against radical Muslims today is educating Muslims and non-Muslims alike about the real teachings of the Quran. When people challenge his assertions, he fires back with a barrage of verses to make his point.
He is also careful to point out that, for all his concerns about the Quran, he deeply cares for all Muslims and his family and friends still in Iran -- some of whom he still keeps in touch with. He tells audiences the message of Christ is the only thing that can stop the bloodshed among his people.
"I do not hate Muslims, because I was once living the lie," Shayesteh said. "I do not hate Osama bin Laden. Give me half an hour with bin Laden, and I will change his life."
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