St. Paul and ISIS

Imagine if the leader of ISIS converted to Christianity.  That would be a long-shot, right? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a notorious leader of the savage group known as ISIS. He is the most wanted, feared and hated man in the world. In no right mind would anyone expect for this man to convert to Christianity. His group exists for one mission in mind: to establish a Third Caliphate and convert the world to Islam. There are no bystanders. Their basic ideology is unambiguously communicated in blood: convert or die.

Though we are shocked and in awe of the atrocities, we cannot forget one important thing: our first and best missionary, author of thirteen epistles and half of the New Testament, was a mass persecutor and a person who held to the same ideology we are shocked by: convert or die.

St. Paul was like the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in so many ways. Baghdadi is extremely well educated, having multiple graduate degrees in Islamic Studies, law, and education. Paul too, was a preeminent student of law, having studied at the feet of the distinguished rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Not just a student, he was a master of the law as a Pharisee. He said he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” with more cause to brag about himself than any other (Phil. 3:5).

At one point in time, Paul believed his cause on earth to kill Christians was God-given, a “zeal for persecution” as he says, he was happy to capture, try, condemn, jail and kill Christians at will(Phil. 3:6). So imbued with this zeal, the Bible says that his very breath was filled with murder (Acts 9:1).

Because his heart was truly after the heart of God, no matter what he thought that God wanted, he was able to be used by God. Then, without warning and without restraint he was thrown from his steed. A six foot fall from his horse to the hot desert sand, there was nobody more shocked, confused and compelled at the power of Jesus Christ than he was in that moment.

We can use this as an example to be inspired to pray for the same thing: for the hearts and minds of those jihadis to change, to turn to the true God, and convert to Christ.

Many have prayed for this. It has been a most difficult thing to pray because what we know has happened deserves justice. However, we must also remember that none of us deserves God’s grace. It’s not natural to us. It’s a free and gratuitous gift from God.

Scholars of the Church St. Therese of Lesieux and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O.P. remind us of this most poignant thing; that God’s grace for salvation is not given to everyone, but God gives each person enough grace to pray, which requires a change of heart. We can and should pray for this and see it as a cross we carry in obedience and cooperation with Christ’s grace.

It appears for now that this prayer is being answered in such a degree, that of the hundreds who have joined the jihadis are now wishing they had not joined at all, according to reports, and wishing to return home to their former residences. The main group of these are those from Brittain. I’m hopeful that these reports are true and accurate.

If and when this happens I’d expect everyone to be skeptical. That’s how they treated St. Paul as well (Acts 9:21). This is reasonable but what we have to do is trust God with our prayers.

No matter the probability of the event, we must pray for it to happen. Nothing is impossible for God; Nothing!

I have said this before and it still applies here: we can never understand and know the hearts and actions of others to the degree that God does. Second, and this is really first, we will never and can never understand the mercy and peace of God.

Editor’s note: To assist our brothers and sisters in Christ, please consider donating to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association to provide material aid and assistance in this dark hour. Also please keep in your prayers all those who are facing persecution. 

Shaun McAfee


Shaun McAfee was raised Protestant but at 24, he experienced a profound conversion to the Catholic Church with the writings of James Cardinal Gibbons and modern apologists. He is the author of Filling Our Father’s House (Sophia Institute Press) among other books, and holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology. As a profession, Shaun is a veteran and warranted Contracting Officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and has served in Afghanistan and other overseas locations. He devotes his time to teaching theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, is the founder and editor of, co-owner of En Route Books and Media, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and lives in Omaha, NE.

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  • ColdStanding

    Doctors of the Church St. Therese of Lesieux and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O.P. remind us of this most poignant thing

    Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange is not a doctor of the Church. Should be, but has not been declared so. He hasn’t even been declared blessed.

    That said, thanks for reminding us of the need to pray for our enemies.

  • mollysdad

    Another thing about Islam is that the blood of those it martyrs is not the seed of the Church.

    The Church normally grows and flourishes in spite of persecution, or even because of it. Not if the persecutior is Islam.

    Islam is the one force on earth which is capable of annihilating the people of God. For this evil to triumph it is sufficient that God does nothing.

  • Shaun McAfee

    AH! I think you’re right. I had “discovered” this only weeks ago and accepted it, cause well, the person who told me knows more than me. “Trust but verify!” Thanks for the correction!

  • I think the comparison with St. Paul falls short. While Saul did persecute Christians, it seems to be on an individual, case by case basis, not a mass slaughtering as ISIS is doing. And it’s not clear if Saul personally killed anyone. He seems to have been more of a coordinator, which i’m not excusing. The comparison seems a little forced to me.

  • Amateur Brain Surgeon

    If Abu converted his now brother muslims would be constrained to kill him whereas there was no such doctrine in Judaism – sure, they’d throw you out of the temple but not decapitate you if you converted

  • Shaun McAfee

    I like your comment, thank you for it. You’re right: its not a direct comparisson, few things really are espcially in inter-religious dialogue. What you point out, that it’s not entirely clear that Paul used his own hands to kill Christians, is same debate that sprung from this with my mentor and, as chance would have it, my boss. The word “Death” in Acts 22:4 literally means “to execute.” But you might be right cause it’s not entirely clear whether or not Paul persecuted in order that some might be killed, or that the Body of Christ would be killed, or if he is indeed saying he participated in it directly.

    I point then to the genocidal persons of the 20th century, like Pol Pot of Cambodia, the religious of the Janjaweed in Darfur, the Junta Generals of Burma, and others. They have not pulled triggers or swung axes but they are still responsbile for their temporal power, which they have and had chosen to use for acts of genocide. Truly, we cannot disagree on this point.

    I don’t think Saul persecuted individuals, either, becuse in several places (including Corinthians 15:9: “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God”; Galatians 1:13: “You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it”; Philippians 3:5–6: “as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church”;) … making him *at least* a mass persecutor of the whole Body of Christ.

    Great comment though, Manny. Thanks for the discussion.

  • Shaun McAfee

    Good points Matt. Similar to others I’ve received. See my reply to Manny below. Thanks for the good-natured dialogue.

  • jenny

    Wow, this opened my eyes…..thank you for writing this.

  • You’re welcome.

  • Shaun McAfee

    you are most welcome!

  • Holly Williams

    I think the whole point of this article is that we must pray for our enemies that they would be converted. Nothing is impossible with God. God can convert Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi just as easily as He converted Saint Paul. Jesus tells us to love our enemies and we love them at least partly by praying for their conversion.

  • Shaun McAfee

    Thank you, Holly. You got it perfectly.

  • I enjoyed this, thank you for writing it. We must pray for the conversion of the ISIS Terrorists.

  • Patrick

    Oh yeah I agree, ISIS definitely needs to be stopped and the people of Islam definitely need to be converted. We have to help people convert to the true Catholic faith.

  • Thanks Shaun, I just received a position teaching in a Catholic High School. On 9-11, for the first time since the horrible day, I was fortunate enough to pray aloud with my students for those lost, those left behind, and those protecting our future both law enforcement and military (Thank you for your service). On 9/12, as hard as it was, I suggested we pray for or enemies using the Gospel of Luke as my Power Point slide and a prayer I wrote mentioning Saint Paul in a manner similar to yours.

    I think many here are correct in saying we cannot compare Saint Paul to ISIL: different religions, deferent ideologies, different levels perhaps of persecution. I wonder though if the tools available to ISIS today had been available to Saul then, would he have used them? I don’t know. It’s just one of many questions I don’t have the ability to answer.

    I also wonder if we have the propensity to always think the evil happening to us, the evil we see in our represent world, is the WORST evil? Early Christian persecution was pretty bad too. Have we lessened the pain of our ancestors through hundreds of years of separation? Again, I don’t have answers to this. It’s not my job to answer though. It’s my job to PRAY.

    One last thing about the comparison of Saint Paul to ISIS/ISIL or whoever the worst of the worst will be in the future, is that it is not so much a comparison of Saint Paul to ISIS, but a comparison of man’s free will and God’s power and ability then and now. God has the same almighty power and ability now as He had then.

    By saying ISIS and Saul are different, are we questioning the ability of God to convert ISIS? Yes, they are different, but God is the same then, now, and forever. Saul just used his free will to accept. God did the rest.

    Our Lord has the power and ability to convert even the darkest of souls (whether we are talking Saul level or ISIS level of darkness is a moot point). God also has the power and ability to let man continue to choose free will to block His desire for their conversion. Where we, in our human weakness, would step in and force our free will upon others to end the killings, God allows mankind to make its own decisions (including those who choose to kill and those who choose to go on as though it’s not happening. The degree of evil is, not exactly trivial but I am searching for a better word, for reasons I don’t often understand.

    We must continue to pray for these souls in ISIS and elsewhere, that they, like Saint Paul, have a conversion of free will so that our almighty, all powerful, and ALL GOOD God converts their hearts, minds, and souls.

    It is not in the people that the comparison between Saint Paul and ISIS belongs but in the power of God and that is just a Strong today as it was thousands of years ago.

    PS I hope this wasn’t too long of a comment! Thanks for letting me speak. 🙂


    Abu Bakr al Baghdadi or Simon Elliott or rather Eliott Shimon has two Jewish parents. His false name: Ibrahim ibn Awad ibn Ibrahim Al Al Badri Arradoui Hoseini.This information originates reportedly from two sources, one from Snowden who is in Russia because his life and liberty are in danger for reporting the crimes of the American government and the other sources is from Egy-press, If this is some kind of non Muslim infiltration of Islam, they are doing a very good job of turning the world against Muslims with the help of our Catholic press. Why is ISIS massacring Muslims if they are Muslim?

    Why did the NATO support the terrorists of Libya who had already terrorized Iraq? Why did they support terrorists and terrorism against the Libyan people? Why are we supporting terrorists against the Syrian people? Why are the crimes of ISIS suddenly so bad when they are no different to what was OK to support in Libya and Syria? Why is Assad such a bad evil guy who needs to be deposed and why are Saudi with their repressive form of Islam the good guys and our allies?

    Are ISIS and their terrorism being used as false justification for the bombing and invasion of Syria and Iran? Will US UK really get rid of ISIS when it is the US UK IZ & their ally Saudi, who arm train and fund them to begin with? Why does ISIS have the very latest weaponry from IZ & US? Why are the terrorists who wage terrorism against the people of Syria having medical care in IZ but the Syrian children do not? Are ISIS part of our military strategy, a fake reason to war against the actual nations of Syria and Iran on the unlikely and sheer pretext of sorting out our own mercenaries?

  • Shaun McAfee

    It was a fine comment, thanks for it and congratulations on your new position. I think people read a little too into my comparison. It’s a sound one for its purpose: pray for them. Like I said in another reply, no comparison is perfect. Thanks for your insight.