Did Arafat convert to Christianity before he died?

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Pope John Paul II shake hands in 2001 (PA)

Did Yasser Arafat convert to Christianity before he died? This question is raised by an article in the Daily Telegraph, and it is one to which the answer is almost certainly ‘No.’ But that it can be asked at all is very interesting.

If one reads the account given by the Protestant evangelist RT Kendall, what happened between him and Arafat is quite in keeping with what one would expect of a certain type of Muslim. Mr Arafat was moved to tears by Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, and prayed with Mr Kendall, but all this is evidence not of Christianity, but of syncretism, which is very widespread amongst Muslims.

Syncretism is the practice by which one adds to one’s own religion elements one likes from other religions. Some religions are naturally syncretistic, while others, notably Christianity and Judaism, are anti-syncretistic. If one reads the Old Testament, one finds that it is a long history of religious reformers rooting out what they considered pagan practices that compromised the purity of the religion of the One True God. If one reads between the lines, one can see that the Jews of old, while worshipping the One True God, also liked to hedge their bets a little too.

For someone like Arafat, devotion to Jesus would come naturally; after all, Arafat would have pointed out, Jesus is a prophet in the Koran, which also mentions his mother Mary; and the God of the Christians and the God of the Muslims is the same. The first statement is true, but it is also important to qualify it with the statement that the Koran, written six centuries after the time of Jesus, can tell us nothing of value about him (though it may tell us a lot about what people believed in seventh century Arabia.) As for the second statement, that needs heavy qualification too, of the type that I have not the space to make.

Arafat went to Mass once a year (which is more than quite a few Catholics) at Christmas, and he was always careful to cultivate good relations with the Holy See. This was of course political, but could very well have been built on a natural liking for Catholics and Catholic things.

Arafat’s wife, Suha, who was many decades his junior, was born a Catholic and converted to Islam to marry Arafat. The Muslims like to believe that one can convert from Christianity without denying Christ, but of course this is not true. The marriage was an unusual one, in that the couple spent most of their time apart, though they did have a daughter. Mrs Arafat’s conversion may have been in name only, and there are rumours that she still attends Mass. You cannot be both a Muslim and a Catholic, but there are certain Muslims who might see this as possible. There are, historically, many Christians who have converted to Islam by reciting the formula of conversion, with their fingers firmly crossed behind their backs. These people then continue at home to be “secret Christians”.

I once asked a priest who was working in Israel, ministering to a Hebrew-speaking congregation as well as an Arabic-speaking one, whether it was possible to convert Muslims to Christianity. His answer took me by surprise: “Yes,” he said, “Provided they are religious.” I took this to mean that cultural Muslims are very loath to do anything that might compromise their culture (and in this category I would put Arafat.) However, the relatively few Muslims who are seekers after God, might well be open to conversion.

This really is the key to all evangelisation: inculturation. In certain territories, missionaries have succeeded in planting Christianity by assuring converts that they do not have to deny their culture or their history in order to be baptised. Indeed, faith in Christ is the summation of all that is good in their culture and their history. But it is important to note the difference between inculturation (a good thing) and syncretism (a bad thing): the latter would make no attempt to bring people to explicit faith in Christ, but tell them they were fine as they were.

It is perfectly true that there is a figure called Issa in the Koran who is identified with Jesus, and whose mother is called Mariam; but this is no substitute for the Christian faith.

As for Arafat, did he believe? He never struck me as being particularly religious, but who knows? The Lord works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. He may even have worked through Mel Gibson’s film.


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