What happens when an elderly Coptic priest takes to the airwaves and the internet to confront Islam?
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At 28 minutes before air time, an assistant is lint-rolling Father Zakaria Botros' cassock, polishing the pectoral cross he wears over it and giving the dark circles beneath his eyes a last smudge of makeup from a cosmetics sponge. The studio lights are on, the clock is running, and assistants are checking a pair of teleprompters. Two full glasses of water, one for Botros and one for his guest, stand ready at opposite ends of the table where the men will sit.
At 20 minutes before air time Botros, his guest, and crew pause to pray. It is 9 p.m. on a Thursday evening in Cairo, 10 p.m. in Riyadh, and 10:30 in Tehran. Botros, an Egyptian, will host the live show about to be broadcast via Cyprus-based satellite channel Al-Hayat, which will last 90 minutes and may have an audience of up to 60 million viewers across the Arab world and beyond-from the Middle East to Europe to North America to Australia. And most of the viewers who sit down to watch the televised ruminations of a 75-year-old Christian will be Muslims.
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.
When Al Jazeera began broadcasting about a decade ago as the only independent channel in the Middle East, the Qatar-based news station opened a door to the free flow of information no Arab dictator could close. Until about 2000, state-sponsored news broadcasts and censorship were the norm (satellite dishes remain illegal in Iran, and were banned until the early 2000s in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere). As more Arabs could own televisions and the programming grew, all it took to outsmart the censors was a tuner and a set.
What followed was a burst of Arabic-language programming. Islamic teachers of every type leapt to the airwaves, hoping to expand the teaching of the mosque-once reserved for Friday prayer services and male-only audiences-to 24/7 preaching and propaganda piped directly into the Muslim living room. Botros is turning their campaign on its head. By culling from what's now a bloated archive of televised remarks from the Islamic world's leading sheikhs and imams, he has found a potent way to expose the war within Islam, including raging debates between reformers and traditionalists, and to force Muslims who for generations took its teaching at face value to examine it at its roots.
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. Islamic hadiths (the sayings and actions of Muhammad) say she was 6 years old when married and 9 when the marriage was consummated (and reportedly returned to play with her toys afterward). Yet many scholars-and a controversial new novel about Aisha, The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones that was dropped from Random House's list because of Muslim threats-have tried to paper over the obvious morality issue of child marriage with assertions that Aisha was 14 or even 18. What's at stake, it becomes clear as the episode unfolds, is whether the Quran and the hadiths can be both true and exemplary.
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.'"
Others this year have joined Botros in prominently questioning the teachings of Islam. In July the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a leader in the radical Palestinian group Hamas, gave his first public interview declaring that he had become a Christian and renouncing Hamas. "I reexamined the Quran and the principles of the faith and found how it is mistaken and misleading. The Muslims borrowed rituals and traditions from all the surrounding religions," he said. In November Germany's first professor of Islamic theology, Muhammad Sven Kalisch, surprised colleagues by declaring that his research had led him to conclude that Muhammad probably never existed. "The more I read, the historical person at the root of the whole thing became more and more improbable," he said.
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.
So besides the weekly program, Thursdays find him seated with his laptop to sign into the "Truth Talk" chat room. He quickly clicks through his admin passcode and finds hundreds of attenders already signed in online. When username "Father Zakaria" shows up, they begin to ask him questions about Islam and Christianity, all behind the safety of their screen names. Botros will spend six straight hours this way, answering questions and having conversations while anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 chat room guests show up.
In a virtual form of what others might describe as one-on-one discipleship, Botros says he moves some chats to private rooms where they can continue apart from other watchful Muslims: "People who are affected by the preaching come to our chat room and confess Christ. I let them say in detail what happened to them." Usually the conversations are typed rapid-fire in Arabic, but occasionally Botros and others use a mic. He's grown adept also at outing chat room insurgents. One recently became so angry with Botros' responses, the participant declared, "I want to kill you and I want to cut your neck, but I cannot find you."
Audience participation is a feature of the TV shows, too. Producers screen callers from around the world (using Skype and SMS numbers) and feed a select few into a queue for questions at the end of each show. Of about 1,500 call-ins each week, five or six get on the air. In the control room their names light up on an oversized screen: Emad from Lebanon, Aras from Germany, Farag from France, and others. If Botros can't answer a question he is quick to tell a caller, "Look it up on St. Google." To Western ears it sounds hokey, but to many in the Muslim world it's the first time a man of the cloth has given them permission to find answers themselves.
And he is remembered for it: "I pray for that man every day," a recent convert from Islam told me on the streets of Damascus when asked if he'd heard of Father Zakaria. His reaction is common: Among Muslims or Christians in the Arab world, Botros wins the kind of recognition Ed Sullivan had with Americans a generation ago.
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.
The books eventually led to deep discussions with leading Islamic scholars in Cairo, where he became an ordained Coptic priest in the 1950s. He learned that the scholars doubt some of their "official" teachings because no one can agree on which version of the Quran is authentic and which teachings are original. He began to learn more about what he calls "the ugly face of Islam," the contradictions between Muhammad's own life and his teachings, between Islam's earlier and later writings, and he began to speak about them. 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."
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