Former Muslim Who Converted to Christianity Takes His Message Across Texas and Beyond

By RECECCA HOEFFNER Texan News Service

Earlier this year Afshin Ziafat strode up to the pulpit at First Baptist Church in Stephenville. His face was clean-shaven. He wore a sport coat and spoke English without an accent.

Ziafat knows the surprise that ripples through an audience whenever he speaks about his conversion from Islam to Christianity. He joked about the stereotypes he encounters - and that he shatters whenever people hear his Middle Eastern name.

"Before September 11, people could walk right up to the gate at the airport with a sign that had my name on it," Ziafat told a crowd gathered for a college retreat. "When I said, 'I'm Afshin,' they're always amazed. They're like 'you're Afshin?' Well, you kinda look like us.' "

"Yes, I am human," the evangelist added with a laugh. "All right, let's work on my name. Think of the hair product 'Afro Sheen.' Take the 'r-o' out, and you've got my name."

Ziafat brought a message of hope and faith to Stephenville students and residents. Now he is taking his evangelic tour across Texas and beyond at a time when relations between Muslims and Christians remain strained due to conflict in the Middle East.

Ziafat knows those conflicts all too well. He rejected his Muslim upbringing and converted to Christianity, risking disownment from his father, retaliation from extremist members of the Muslim community and lingering prejudice about his heritage.

Born in Houston to Iranian parents. Ziafat's father, a doctor, was a devout Muslim and expected his children to be. When Ziafat was 2, the family moved back to Iran and lived there until the late 1970s. Then came the Islamic revolution. When Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah of Iran, Ziatat's father rushed the family out of the country before the Iranian hostage crisis.

Arriving back in Houston at age 6, Ziafat entered the first grade. Even though he was a native Houstonian, he spoke Farsi and very little English. Prejudice and persecution against Iranians made adjusting to American life even more difficult.

"When people found out we were Iranian, we had rocks thrown through our windows and our tires slashed," Ziafat recalled in a solemn tone of voice. "My brother and I were kicked off the soccer team. We were threatened to get beat up."

The only positive American influence in his life was a tutor who taught the boy English by reading him books every day after school. When Ziafat entered the second grade, she handed him a small New Testament Bible. "You won't understand this book now," she told him, "but I want you to hang on to it and read it later in your life."

Ziafat hid the Bible in his bedroom. He grew up a Muslim.

While in high school, though, Ziafat said he became "fascinated" by the story and teachings of Jesus Christ. "Every night I would read that Bible underneath the covers with a flashlight so my parents wouldn't figure out what I was doing if they happened to walk in," Ziafat recalled. "Every day at school this annoying Christian kid would come and talk to me about Jesus. I'd debate with him on the side of Islam. At night I'd go home and read more about Jesus."

A few weeks later Ziafat was invited to attend a crusade. He still remembers that day when he converted to Christianity - Sept. 28, 1989.

On the way home, though, what he'd done smacked him in the face. Ziafat's father was a prominent Muslim in Houston - president of the Islamic Medical Society and chairman of the Iranian Islamic Center's board. Ziafat adored him and didn't want to disappoint his father. So he covered up his conversion for more than a year.

"I would hide my church clothes in my car on Saturday night and go change at a restaurant on Sunday morning before I went to church," Ziafat said. "I would hide my Bible and intercept mail from the church I was attending."

Ziafat's father eventually spotted the Bible and confronted his son. When Ziafat confessed he had become a Christian, his father's word scalded him like boiling water: "Then you can no longer be my son."

"Everything in me wanted to say, 'Forget it, I'm a Muslim,'" Ziafat said. Instead, he told him, "Dad, if I have to choose between you and Jesus, I choose Jesus. And if I have to choose between my earthly father and my heavenly Father, I choose my heavenly Father."

Ziafat went on to attend the University of Texas at Austin, where he roomed with a Christian student who also was from a Muslim family and also had hidden his faith from his father. Ziafat and his father eventually reconciled on the condition that he become a doctor like his dad.

But Ziafat decided to go into the Christian ministry instead. He knew he had to break the news to his father. "My hand was shaking the whole time," he recalled. His father called Ziafat's decision the "biggest stain" on his life.

Ziafat received his masters of divinity degree from Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth. His church paid for his first semester's tuition. When he got to seminary a check for $100 was waiting for him from an anonymous donor and he was a given a free place to live for four years.

After he graduated, Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano asked him to join the staff as the pastor's assistant. Ziafat preached at the church a few times to an audience of around 20,000 and discovered his calling to evangelism.

Now living in Houston again, Ziafat devotes himself to a nationwide speaking ministry and continues to be affiliated with Prestonwood as one of its missionary partners. This spring and summer he will address churches, retreats and evangelist events. He's also a regular speaker to groups in Huntsville and The Woodlands.

For Ziafat, life has come full circle. He travels to Iran several times a year to work with an organization called Elam Ministries that trains Iranians to strengthen existing Christian churches and establish new ones in the Muslim country. He said he is convinced other Muslims like him will be drawn to Jesus and the Christian religion and its message of faith even in the midst of persecution.

"My story is not about a man's faithfulness to God - I went in kicking and screaming," Ziafat said. "My story is about God's faithfulness to a man."

For Ziafat's speaking schedule, visit his website at www.afshinziafat.com.

The Texan News Service is a project of Tarleton State University's journalism program . The Empire-Tribune is working with TSU on the project as part of an effort to promote journalism efforts at the university.