LA JOLLA, Calif. When a volunteer from the United Kingdom met a young Middle Eastern man in Jerusalem's old city and invited him to a Bible study, he had no idea he was talking to the son of a key figure in the Hamas terrorist organization.
And while the volunteer surely hoped Masab Yousef would hear the Gospel and accept Christ, he had no clue how that invitation and Yousef's decision for Christ four years later would eventually reverberate throughout the Middle East and perhaps even the world.
"These guys were just going out and asking people to come for the Bible study," Yousef told Baptist Press. "I didn't even understand his English. He was talking to me by signals and I understood the invitation from his signals."
But in 2000, Yousef, who now prefers to be known as "Joseph," was an open-minded 22-year-old Muslim, clean-shaven and dressed in jeans instead of the traditional garb of Palestinian Arabs. Despite his preference for Western ways, Joseph was the eldest son of Hassan Yousef, a prominent lawmaker in the Palestinian parliament, and as such the heir-apparent to his father's position of influence in Palestinian circles.
That simple, almost anonymous invitation to visit a Bible study eventually transformed Joseph's life, and now he is sending shock waves throughout the Middle East as he publicly declares his faith in Christ. He may be the best-known Muslim to ever publicly announce his decision to follow Jesus.
"Sometimes we don't know the importance when we go out to invite people to come to Bible study," Joseph said. "Sometimes we think this is wasting time. This guy had no idea who I was.
"They studied the Bible with me and figured out who I was only five months later," Joseph added. "They got to know me and even got to know my father. He invited them to our house and they had no idea that he was one of the top leaders of the Hamas organization."
Joseph said he agreed to attend the Bible study because he was curious.
"I didn't have enough knowledge about Christianity. I was open-minded," he said. "I never had in my mind in that moment that I would go this far, to become a believer. I had studied history and thought this would be a good chance to study, to meet new international people and see what they are saying. It was definitely not about Christianity."
Joseph's story is a powerful reminder that followers of Jesus Christ should share the Gospel freely and never miss an opportunity to invite a stranger to church, said Matt Smith, the pastor of Barabbas Road Church in La Jolla, Calif., which is hosting Joseph as he announces his faith in Christ to the world.
"He was invited to a Bible study to me this is profound," Smith said. "Some guy didn't know who Joseph was. This guy was just a normal Christian. He wasn't an apologist. He wasn't a specialist. He was just a normal Christian who invited someone to a Bible study.
"In the Bible study, they didn't try to argue," Smith added. "They just shared the love of Christ, and he went home and read his Bible. This is such a testimony to all us Christians that we need to present everyone with the simple Gospel. This is a call for everyone to stand out."
Smith, 29, leads a young congregation in one of the most affluent and highly educated cities in the United States. Smith said the church, which launched in February 2008 and now draws about 75 people to weekend services, knows that the truth of the Gospel and the power of loving service to others can penetrate even the hardest, most skeptical heart.
"When he was exposed to the Word of God, the Holy Spirit did a work on him and look what happened," Smith said.
Joseph came to the United States because his decision to follow Jesus meant losing his life in Ramallah on the West Bank. As the son of a senior Hamas leader, he has been unable to find work in America and depends on the generosity of Barabbas Road members to get by.
"Just to stop and think for a minute about announcing your Christianity; you feel sick immediately because it's crazy," Joseph said. "You're not just saying goodbye to a religion, to a tradition. You are saying goodbye to a culture, to a civilization, if you can call it that. Even the process of taking your skin off your bones might be easier than saying goodbye to your mother and to everybody, especially when you are a well-known figure in your society and everybody has high expectations that one day in the future you will be one of the leaders.
"Suddenly you are starting from scratch and canceling everything you have in society," Joseph explained. "But when it started, I was ready for any circumstances. I thought about the worst conditions that could happen as consequences after my announcement. But and I tell you this is a miracle, this is how God works you carry the cross and rely on Him completely and He takes care of everything.
"This may be the first case that a well-known Muslim just goes to the public and says, 'I am a Christian,'" Joseph said. "Many Muslim sheiks, many Muslim imams may be converted to Christianity but they keep that a secret. They didn't announce it because it is very embarrassing for them and for their families. They were afraid for their lives.
"But I decided to declare Jesus in front of the world, so He declares me in front of the Father," Joseph said. "That was the main reason. I am going to be just worshiping God in a very special way by doing this.
"When Jesus says 'carry your cross and follow me,' it wasn't to put a cross on your shirt and keep walking the street."
The power that transformed his heart and gives him the courage to publicly declare his faith in Jesus is the only hope for an end to the violence that plagues the Middle East, Joseph said.
"I have met politicians. I have met presidents and prime ministers. I have met all the leaders of that region," Joseph said. "None of them have a magical solution for this issue. They are leading people but they don't know where they are going.
"Even if they have a way out of this endless circle of violence between the two nations, none of them have the courage to do it," he added. "Both sides have many parties and every party has its own agenda. There are no strong leaders in that region who can make brave decisions."
The real path to peace in the Middle East, Joseph said, is the same path the only path a human heart can follow to find deep, lasting peace.
"Jesus is not going to give them a political solution, but He has changed me and He can change those people to a better people. He can teach them how to forgive, how to love," Joseph said. "Everybody on both sides is hurt not only Israelis, not only Palestinians. If we can teach them how to forgive and move on and love their enemies, for the next two generations, we can build a new leadership for both sides to be able to live together.
"Now, as it is, there is no hope for them but Jesus. It's that simple."