The open, but agnostic journalist Duncan Evans meets evangelical Middle Eastern pastor Nabil Zakhary

A storm hangs over the city as the train pulls out from Redfern Station. Sydney’s Inner West rolls by, a damp and dense collection of workers’ cottages, terraced houses, apartment blocks and corner shops. Built into the fabric is the odd small-stone Catholic church or wooden Protestant hall, populated by the elderly and a dwindling number of teenagers and university students who still attend to the faith of their ancestors. But these structures seem akin to decayed mausoleums, housing ancient splendours unremarked upon by the majority. Millennials are eager for spiritual exploration, just so long as it doesn’t involve doctrine or moral imposition. Australia’s most cosmopolitan city seems, at least initially, a burgeoning testament to the secular dream of a pleasant and easy going life untrammelled by religious conviction. But as the train moves westwards out of the cramped interior and into the sprawled-out suburban vistas of the west, a different image develops.

Deep in the suburbs of Granville, the sartorial and culinary impressions are suddenly Middle Eastern. There’s even the odd burka here and there. Soon the train pulls past the Auburn Gallipoli mosque, a heap of curves as imperious as the most imposing stone church, and then slows to meet Toongabbie Station.

A block from the station is a house of worship altogether more modest; the red-brick Arabic Evangelical Presbyterian Church, ministered to by Pastor Nabil Zakhary.

Nabil has olive skin, a round face and spider-black hair shot through with streaks of grey. He earns his bread in preaching and it’s difficult to consider a voice better suited to the purpose. It’s low and sonorous and has about it a sense of control and authority. Nabil’s office is a small room framed by wood with a red and green carpet. A cross on the wall, family photos, Bibles and a mass of religious literature, some of it in Arabic, some in English, make it seem more like a personal study than the headquarters of a fervent theological enterprise. Low-Church Protestants don’t truck with opulence. They mean to convert the world, but with frayed Bibles and a tie and a coat rather than incense and ceremony. There is something faintly pathetic about this missionary zeal. The Christian faith is in recession. Its wave once covered the shores of the world, but the wave has receded. It’s been receding since the advent of Charles Darwin and now, in 2021, the wave has rolled back out into some distant horizon, still there, but extracted from immediate consciousness, leaving men like Nabil standing on an empty beach. Fools for Christ.

An inner hunger

Nabil’s story begins in Egypt, where he was raised by traditional Christian parents in the city of Sohag. On the fecund banks of the Nile, Nabil was brought up “in a God-fearing home”. By Nabil’s account, his parents participated in the daily routines expected by Christianity, but didn’t burn with God in the way born again evangelicals do. Nabil wasn’t satisfied with the simple conventions of observant Christianity. “When it came to spiritual things, I didn’t know where I stand…who am I, why am I here, where am I headed to?”

To satiate his hunger, he “experimented” with Coptic Orthodoxy. He began attending Mass and was soon baptised Coptic and, for a while, “got into the mysticism thing”. But, in time, an old, humming dissatisfaction returned. “I didn’t find it really getting me where I wanted to be, in terms of personal relationship with God.” At the age of 20, he left Coptic Orthodoxy. Aged 22, he moved to Australia with his Syrian wife, Najah.

One January evening in 1985, Najah, herself a committed Christian, invited her husband to a local evangelical church in the western suburbs of Sydney. Hearing “a very gifted man of God speak” was a revelation for Nabil. But revelation is a process rather than one single, blinding moment, he says. Not so much a strip of lightning on a black sky than a low hum that slowly ramps up and amplifies in the mind and the soul until it occupies every point of one’s being.

The low hum had begun for Nabil back in Egypt when he happened across an itinerant evangelical preacher. As Nabil recalls it, the preacher stood before his listeners and asked a simple question: “If you die today, where are you going? Now that you know the gospel, take a stand. Don’t just keep thinking and pondering and researching and shuffling. The gospel answers your questions, solves the question of eternity once and for all.” At these words, Nabil felt the hum amplify. “It really did something in my heart.”

Receiving divine revelation

How exactly does God reveal himself? The conversion experience seems partly abstracted from reason; something both sensory and ratiocinatively. Language can only take one so far. In inadequate language, then, here is some intimation of the conversion process.

God is a God of love and infinite wisdom who reveals himself, at least initially, in the creation we experience through sensory perception. The feel of cool water in a rushing river; the melancholy sway and creak of a tree blowing in the wind; the sublime terror of a mountain, or a dark blue ocean wave pummelling towards you as tall as a skyscraper and as loud as an orchestra. These experiences constitute natural revelation, the most common precursor to divine revelation. Natural revelation should encourage recognition of a teleological element in the universe; to make us realise that some kind of God is out there. All religions possess some form of this revelation.

But Nabil maintains that natural revelation is not enough to secure eternity. It acts only as a signpost or candle in the night towards divine revelation, the crucial part of the conversion process. Divine revelation consists of two processes; the supernatural intervention of God into a person’s soul, and the willing acceptance of that intervention on the part of the soul. God revealed himself in totality 2,000 years ago in Jesus Christ, and through Christ we can know God not as a sublime, pantheistic teleological force, but as one deeply embedded in the human experience; the creator of all experience, who wants us to be a part of him, and not just a part of the world.

Faith in Christ. Faith in the cross. Faith in the resurrection. It is faith first, and then revelation. Faith first means you can’t demand proof before you sign up. It isn’t a standard transaction in which both parties circle around the other and nose out how to proceed based on limited information. If you want to know God, you must step off the wire with the faith that God will be there below you to catch your fall.

As Nabil tells it, his voice rising slightly: “God reveals himself to us first through faith…without faith you cannot please God. You have to believe in him first, you have to believe that he is there, that he is a good God, a loving God…and then from that point on he will reveal himself to you like an ocean that covers the land.” Nabil loves to quote Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him” (KJV). We hear the knock, open the door and, in so doing, our response completes the conversion process as we let Jesus in, beg repentance and enter the kingdom.

But what does it mean exactly when God knocks on the door? How does that metaphor translate into actual experience? Is it a feeling or experience similar to natural revelation? Does your chest suddenly and without notice heave with a godly presence, and does a conversation, abstracted from language, begin between your own soul and the divine? Nabil answers that these special moments of revelation, when God is knocking on the door of your soul, are indescribable.

“We’ll never hit the mark with human language with conversion because it’s spiritual work. It’s not mechanical work. It’s not something you can describe in instructions…” This is the decisive moment of anyone’s life, says Nabil, the moment of complete surrender and repentance, “handing it all over to Jesus”. The feeling is an inexpressible one. You can’t think your way into Christianity, it seems. A core part of the conversion experience is more of a conviction than a reasoning process, a deep sense of a regeneration experience.

“We are quickened by God’s Holy Spirit to recognise our need for the saviour Jesus, who by his perfect life and atoning death and resurrection has reconciled us back to God the Father. This is a profound revelation, when we realise that we’ve broken God’s perfect laws and hence deserve his judgement, which is hell and death and eternal separation from God. But in his grace he decides to take that punishment upon his only begotten Son, Jesus, who was willing to redeem us,” Nabil says.

My first meeting with Nabil is drawing to a close. The storm outside has eased into a soft rain that patters against the wet car park. Before I leave, I ask him this: the conversion experience must be so extraordinarily powerful that it’s a flame that doesn’t burn out in any way? So it allows someone, say in Cairo, to operate knowing that they could be butchered… “Yes,” Nabil cuts in. “Once you are connected with eternity, the temporal becomes less important. Because you begin to realise that you are actually an eternal being…”

Suffering and persecution

It’s another rainy day as I arrive for the Sunday service. A visiting preacher, dressed in a humble suit, stands at the pulpit sermonising in Arabic. A large wooden cross, lit up around the edges with a soft yellow glare, hangs in the centre of the room. The general sartorial style is smart but humble. The men are in cheap suits or sweaters and the women in jeans or dresses. It’s all very Protestant.

Nabil now stands up before the congregation, who for the last few minutes have been producing declarations of “Amen”, rocking forwards and backwards in the pews, shaking and nodding their heads and raising their hands to the roof and the sky beyond it. Some faces are flushed with the odd mixture of pain and joy that seems to typify the physical expression of men or women in the midst of a religious moment.

Nabil stands at the pulpit, his hands clasped together and his eyes closed. His deep voice sounds out the early notes of a song and the congregation joins him on their feet. The song begins low and gentle, but soon swells and gathers like an ocean wave. As the song unfolds, the outside world, with its perennial cruelty and political stupidity, is temporarily obliterated and made irrelevant; replaced by a beautiful melody suspended in the air by a harmony of voices. Piercing through the song, cutting through like splintering glass, Nabil calls out in strands of English: “To you, Lord Jesus, we give ourselves! You are the way and the light, we offer ourselves to you, O, Lord!”

All too soon, the glow subsides and the voices soften. The drummers have stopped and all that remains are the faint notes of the electric keyboard and Nabil’s final shards of prayer.

After the service, the congregation gathers for a shared lunch. Nabil’s congregation gives the impression of sincere friendliness. There is jealously and competition in all forms of social interaction, and Christians are not exempt from the more frivolous but brutal aspects of the human condition. They plot and gossip and lie like everyone else. But as we line up for lunch, one feels an inkling of what life could be like if callous judgement and the misplaced egos were extinguished from reality.

The lunch is a buffet of Arabic dishes served on plastic plates with plastic knives and forks. Before leaving, I speak at length with a Lebanese man. We talk of the civil war in Lebanon. People don’t realise how good things are in Australia, he comments.

The next day I find Nabil in his office. The reports coming out of the Middle East these past few years are troubling, for Christians and for anyone remotely concerned about religious freedom: “Egyptian Gunman Kill Three Outside Church In Cairo Suburb” (Reuters, October 2013), “Islamic State Beheads Egyptian Christians in Libya” (LA Times, February 2015), “Palm Sunday Bombings of Egyptian Coptic Churches Kill 44” (Reuters, April 2017), “Gunmen in Egypt Attack Bus Carrying Christians, Killing at Least 8 and Wounding 13” (Washington Post, November 2018).

I ask Nabil about a part of his mission; spreading the gospel in the Middle East. A difficult thing to do. In the part of the world where it all began, Christianity is a largely underground operation. Nonetheless: “There are no barriers in the face of the media which is now open-air, whether through the net or through the broadcast,” says Nabil. “So, anyone who has access to media will have access to the gospel, basically.”

How should Christians handle the battering of persecution they are presently experiencing? What are we to make of reports about the possible extermination of Christianity in the biblical lands? Nabil is optimistic that this will not occur. It’s an optimism that is built out of his faith, and one that, while a testament to the hope and warmth of deep faith, also seems indulgent when viewed through realist spectacles uninflected by any particular conviction and instead focused on stark political realities.

Nabil is stubbornly sure that his God will prevail. It’s the logical position for a man who believes the things he does. God controls all things and directs all things to justice. Persecution must then be a form of mysterious grace. “There’s a verse in the Bible, 2 Timothy 2:9, which says the word of God cannot be contained. He will find a way to penetrate people’s hearts, he will find a way to make himself known. So yes, churches might be attacked and may be eliminated from some parts, in terms of buildings, but in terms of the kingdom of God, Jesus said, it is in you, is in your heart, rather than in a building. So you can destroy my building, you can destroy my home, but you cannot destroy my soul, my faith in Jesus, who is in my heart.”

In Nabil’s conception, any suffering Christians experience serves only to amplify Christianity. “You look at the history of the early Church. It was full of suffering for Christians, and every time the suffering increases, some amazing blessing comes out of it. Almost like the Gospels burst out of suffering.”

Granted, but there’s still the problem of suicide bombing and men in black balaclavas decapitating people. Perhaps you’ve seen this image before. A line of men, dressed in orange jumpsuits, kneel on a beach, while another line of men, clad in black, stand over them, with knives in their palms.

Are Christians ever justified in taking up arms against an aggressor? Nabil firmly opposes such a reaction: “Jesus never actually advised it. In fact, on the contrary, when Peter raised up his sword to defend Jesus, he said: ‘Put back your sword. This is not my fight. I didn’t come to fight physically. My fight is spiritual war against the evil forces, not against humans.’ And in that sense, humans are instruments in the hand of the enemy, which is the devil…the things like the Crusades are absolutely a distortion of the Christian truth. We are never to actually hold arms against our enemies. And we know that God defends us as Christians, and when he does defend us he does a much better job than we can… ourselves.”

This position is the only legitimate one in a liberal democracy where everyone is guaranteed police protection. But what about Syria and Iraq? There’s no police protection for Christians in that vast expanse stretching from Aleppo to Baghdad. Or for anyone else, for that matter. Muslims, Christians, other religious minorities. Everyone is on the chopping block because there’s no functional state any more. The borders have disappeared, like sand picked up in a gust of wind. There’s only an ocean of blood, a product of all the fire and madness engulfing the region.

And if a man comes to burn down your house and massacre your family, then what should a good Christian do? Nabil pauses, his fingers are on his lips, and he’s rocking gently in his chair. In a soft voice he answers: “I haven’t heard of a case so far of a true Christian holding arms and shooting people even in defence. I’m saying a born-again Christian, who has experienced the love of God and has got Jesus in his heart in that sense, will actually hold arms and shoot, even in defence? No…” he says softly. “I don’t think so.”

Nabil seems distant now. He’s gazing out of the window. He says with a quiet fervour: “The God of the Bible is the God of heaven and earth. And he has revealed himself time and time again to be the saviour, the one who has the upper hand. He will deliver you.” He pauses, and his face contracts slightly. He looks to the cross on the wall. His lips shake, his eyes fill with water and, in a broken voice, declares: “He’s a loving God…”