An Iranian Christian pastor who was born in Houston is urging U.S. Christians to put aside their fear of Muslims and to be emboldened to love and share the truth of Christ with them.
Afshin Ziafat leads Providence Church in Frisco, Texas, and he recently spoke at a forum that The Village Church Institute hosts twice a year. His aim was to help Christians understand the basics of Islam and learn how to engage Muslims with the Gospel.
He made it clear during the forum that he's not an Islamic scholar, but he grew up in an Islamic household and spent four years of his childhood in Iran, where his parents are from. After his conversion to Christianity during his senior year in high school in Houston, his father disowned him.
Ziafat, who travels to the Middle East to train Iranian pastors, laid out four basic beliefs that Muslims have about God, man, Jesus and salvation.
To Muslims, God is "holy transcendent" and "independent of creation," he explained.
"The relationship with God I experienced personally in Islam is not like the personal relationship with Jesus that we have in Christianity," he said.
The Muslim view of God is that God is a taskmaster and his followers are slaves. "Islam is about submission to Allah. He's given us his rules and we've got to submit," Ziafat said.
On the other hand, in Christianity, God is our father and we are his children, the Texas pastor noted.
While Christians believe that man is born sinful, Muslims do not believe in an inherent sin nature. "Man sins but they believe you're born sinless," Ziafat explained.
"Christianity teaches us we were actually born in sin. That is a whole different starting point," he noted.
"You've got to know that in the mind of a Muslim, there's not this inherent need of a savior. That's a foreign idea for them."
Muslims believe that Jesus was born of a virgin. They also believe he was sinless.
These are two of the greatest defenses of the deity of Christ, Ziafat noted, but Muslims do not believe Jesus was God. In Islam, Jesus was one of six major prophets, with Muhammad being the completer of the faith.
Regarding Jesus' death, the Quran states that Jesus was not crucified but only appeared to them as so.
There have been many interpretations of what that means but in the end, "they don't have a really good answer for the death and resurrection of Christ," the Texas pastor said.
There is no assurance of salvation in Islam. On Judgment Day, a person's good deeds and bad deeds are weighed on a scale and if the good outweighs the bad, then that person can go to heaven.
Essentially, salvation in Islam is works-based while in Christianity, it is grace-based.
The Texas pastor noted that Muslims are given five pillars of faith to live by. These include: creed (belief in one god, Allah, and that Muhammad is his prophet), praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan, giving 2 percent of one's income to the poor, and making a one-time pilgrimage to Mecca (if they have the means to).
"If I did those five pillars of faith to the best of my ability then maybe I'd get to heaven," he said of his Islamic upbringing. "I never had an assurance of my salvation."
Grace is something that Muslims have a hard time wrapping their minds around, he noted. When he tried to share the Gospel with his father, his father responded, "Christianity makes no sense. You just say a prayer and Jesus brushes all the sin under the carpet."
But that is not what Christianity teaches, Ziafat stressed. "In fact, I believe that's what the scale system teaches — just do a little bit more good and all the bad gets swept under the carpet.
"When you put your faith in Christ, every one of your sins is accounted for and paid for on the cross by Jesus … Every sin is paid for."
In the end, Ziafat believes that in Islam, the motive to live for God is fear, whereas in Christianity, the motive is love.
"What is lacking in Islam and most other religions is the unconditional love of God," he stressed. "That is what transforms lives."
So how can Christians share their faith with Muslims?
First, they can pray for their Muslim neighbors. That's exactly what his high school friends did for a year before he converted to Christianity and he has heard many other testimonies of Muslims turning to Christ through the power of prayer.
Second, Christians ought to serve and love Muslims.
"I don't have to tell you how much our culture is changing. The world is coming to us. This is a time for us to act," Ziafat urged. "Has the church forgotten what we're here for?"
"There are Muslims who are coming to our communities and they, just like me, feel like they're on another planet and they want somebody to help them, … to help them get assimilated, teach them English, serve them," he added. "They want to know that you care before they care about anything you know."
Weighing in on the refugee crisis and the travel restrictions the Trump administration has been enforcing, Ziafat said that while he understands the angst amid terrorist attacks and the need for protective measures, ultimately, safety is not his priority.
"Safety is important but as a Christian, safety cannot be the overriding, the primary motive of my life. There's something greater to me than saving my own life as a Christian," he said. "I've got to think about opportunity too. Have we forgotten why we're here?"
While many have asked whether Islam naturally leads to terrorism or whether it espouses violence, Ziafat emphasized that "Islam and terrorism is not synonymous."
The concept of jihad, he explained, is "primarily a spiritual struggle in the life of Muslims to do good versus bad. That's the way it's presented first."
While there are verses in the Quran that say to fight those who don't believe in Allah, those verses are used by radicals for mainly political purposes, the pastor noted.
Ziafat, however, said he wouldn't go as far as calling Islam a religion of peace. "I don't think there's peace in Islam, there's not peace with God ever because there's no forgiveness," he stated.
Dispelling fears, he went on to note that most Muslims you will see across the street are nominal and that those who are devout will be "more fanatical about the five pillars."
He encouraged Christians to build friendships with Muslims and to not be afraid of inviting them over. Also, Muslims do not expect others to know all their customs and culture.
"Muslims are the most hospitable, kind people you will ever meet," he assured. "Sometimes, we're so afraid of engaging their culture that we never end up doing it."
"I have a limited amount of time on this earth and more than ever, Muslims are coming across the street and we have the greatest news ever," he said.
"There is a unique opportunity to live out the Gospel. When they're expecting you to treat them like an enemy and you love them, you are probably doing the most Christian thing you could possibly do."