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Issue: "2008 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 13, 2008

In a virtual form of what others might describe as one-on-one discipleship, Botros says he moves some chats to private rooms where they can continue apart from other watchful Muslims: "People who are affected by the preaching come to our chat room and confess Christ. I let them say in detail what happened to them." Usually the conversations are typed rapid-fire in Arabic, but occasionally Botros and others use a mic. He's grown adept also at outing chat room insurgents. One recently became so angry with Botros' responses, the participant declared, "I want to kill you and I want to cut your neck, but I cannot find you."

Audience participation is a feature of the TV shows, too. Producers screen callers from around the world (using Skype and SMS numbers) and feed a select few into a queue for questions at the end of each show. Of about 1,500 call-ins each week, five or six get on the air. In the control room their names light up on an oversized screen: Emad from Lebanon, Aras from Germany, Farag from France, and others. If Botros can't answer a question he is quick to tell a caller, "Look it up on St. Google." To Western ears it sounds hokey, but to many in the Muslim world it's the first time a man of the cloth has given them permission to find answers themselves.

And he is remembered for it: "I pray for that man every day," a recent convert from Islam told me on the streets of Damascus when asked if he'd heard of Father Zakaria. His reaction is common: Among Muslims or Christians in the Arab world, Botros wins the kind of recognition Ed Sullivan had with Americans a generation ago.

Is your heart always in the Middle East?" I ask. "Yes," Botros replies, "in the Muslim world always." Botros grew up in a Christian family in Alexandria. Muslim attackers killed his older brother when he was a young teenager. "Instead of anger against Muslims, the Lord saved me from that. I had pity on them." In his last year of high school he had a Muslim teacher who regularly challenged him for worshipping "a dead God." Botros said he realized, "If I answered him from the Bible it would be no good. I had to read the Muslim books and the Quran itself." Throughout his university years, he said, he read all the teachings of Muhammad as a way to answer Muslim questions about Christianity.

"This is a problem for every Christian in Egypt: He faces a fight for his faith in the schools. So I started to write what I had learned about Islam and how to answer questions about Christianity. I wrote them in books and started to publish them, small books. These were apologetics, defending our faith," he said.

The books eventually led to deep discussions with leading Islamic scholars in Cairo, where he became an ordained Coptic priest in the 1950s. He learned that the scholars doubt some of their "official" teachings because no one can agree on which version of the Quran is authentic and which teachings are original. He began to learn more about what he calls "the ugly face of Islam," the contradictions between Muhammad's own life and his teachings, between Islam's earlier and later writings, and he began to speak about them. Twice authorities jailed him for preaching the gospel to Muslims, once in 1981 for one year, and again in 1989. A judge sentenced him to life in prison but ordered him released on the condition of forced exile: He had to leave Egypt and never return. By that time he had ministered in Cairo for over 30 years but moved to England with his wife, where he ministered in a Coptic church for 11 years before he said he "retired" to begin the television and internet ministry.

"What do you fear?" I ask.

"Fear? I fear nothing," says Botros. "My dictionary does not contain the word fear. I believe in God and I believe that the epistle of Ephesians says we are created in Jesus Christ for a plan, which was engaged from the early beginning. No one can cut it, and when it is completed no one can continue it."


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