"It was a very open, very tolerant society," he said. When he would have dinner at a Christian friend's house, the family would hold hands and pray, in the name of God, rather than in Jesus' name, so as not to exclude him.
As a teen, he was a devout Muslim, praying five times a day. But he envied his Christian friend's faith; they would talk for hours about religion. "We were obsessed with it," Shamsi-Basha said. "His whole life revolved around grace and freedom. Mine was the law. In Islam, every sin is counted against you, and every good deed is counted for you, and you weigh them out. Love is not in the picture. In Christianity, love is the picture. I never understood the grace of Christianity until I became a Christian. It's hard to understand grace when you come from the law. Love is mentioned in the Quran a few times. Fear is mentioned a lot. I didn't want a God of fear. I wanted a God of love.""
Shamsi-Basha said his curiosity about religion got him in trouble.
"I asked a lot of questions about Christians," he said. In eighth grade religion class, he got in trouble with the teacher for posing a troublesome question: "Did God make man, or did man make God?"
The teacher paddled him, then the principal paddled him and sent him home with a note.
His father was more understanding. "That's an interesting question," he told his son. Then he told him, "It's a lot easier to live knowing that God made man."
Shamsi-Basha said he replied to his father, "I don't want just easier to live."
His father encouraged him to explore spiritually.
Shamsi-Basha said he began writing the book as a series of letters to his father in heaven. "I never told him that I converted," Shamsi-Basha said. "I regret that. I was afraid his pride would be shattered."
He rarely discusses his conversion to Christianity with his Muslim family, although they are all aware of it. "I just choose to let them see it in me," he said. "My mom knows. She's fine with it."
The book was not meant as a knock on the faith he was raised in, he said.
"It doesn't say anything bad about Islam," he said. "All I'm preaching is peace and love. Christianity is all about love."
Shamsi-Basha grew up 45 minutes from the Israeli border, a fact that weighed heavily in Syrian society. "I grew up being told to hate the Jews every day," he said. "We had to go out in the street and shout, 'Death to the Jews.' It took me 10 years to come to love them. I love the Israelites of the Bible. I don't love the Israeli government. They're not doing it right, and the Palestinians are not doing it right. Both sides are doing horrific things to the other. When you grow up in a refugee tent and all you know is cloth walls, what are you going to do? Any human suffering caused by another human is wrong. We were told that they took our land. But wasn't it their land before it was our land? Nobody really knows whose land it was. We are all on this tiny ball hurtling through space and we're really here to love God and feel his love for us, instead of hate each other."
Shamsi-Basha met a Christian publisher, Michael Gaydosh, the founder of Solid Ground Christian Books, and told him about being from Damascus, and becoming fascinated with the Apostle Paul, to the point of converting from Islam to Christianity.
"Now the road to Damascus is my life," Shamsi-Basha said. Gaydosh was fascinated by the story.
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