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 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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