I recently attended the funeral of an uncle who lived his entire life in the Pennsylvania Dutch country among the Mennonites and the Amish. Fifty years ago, however, my uncle and his young wife made the step, unusual at the time, to leave the Mennonites and join the local Methodist church in which his funeral was held.
By coincidence (although I don't really believe anything happens by coincidence), my young cousin is now the pastor of the Mennonite church my relatives left. He was asked by the family to deliver a eulogy. During his speech, he looked directly at our bereaved aunt and said the following:
"The Mennonite church has many strengths, but it also has weaknesses. Among our weaknesses has been a tendency to judge those who leave us. I know that you and your husband experienced pain by the way we treated you. I want to apologize for that, and ask your forgiveness for our judging you when you left our faith community many years ago."
"I ask your forgiveness...for judging you when you left our faith community." What incredibly powerful words. I couldn't help but compare them with the experiences of Muslims I have written about, such as Ibrahim, Youhanna, Ruba, and Wajdi, who were criticized, threatened, disowned, imprisoned, and tortured for their decision to leave Muhammad behind. And those are just the lucky ones who made it to America! They have certainly never heard the words from the Imams of their former "faith community", known in Arabic as the Ummah, that my aunt heard from the Mennonite pastor last week.
There is a reason for that. My cousin understood that the jugdment inflicted by the Mennonite church on those who left was an aberration of true Christianity. The message of the Prodigal Son, one of Jesus' most famous and enduring stories, is that you give people the freedom to make important decisions even when you disagree. The Mennonite church of my uncle's day had abandoned that message, as the broader church has at times throughout its 2000 year history, but the hope is that it will always return to its roots.
There is also a reason ex-Muslims never hear the words my aunt heard. The message of Muhammad was clear, "If anyone leaves Islam, kill them." As I discuss here, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi believes this punishment for Ridda, or apostasy, is to be applied today. The only condition, according to Dr. Qaradawi, is that the structure of an Islamic state must first be established in which the Hudud, or physical punishments of Islam, can be carried out.
Dr. Qaradawi recently addressed hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Cairo's Tahrir Square. As could be expected in his first public sermon in Egypt in 30 years, it was relatively low key. But make no mistake about it - the Egypt envisoned by Qaradawi is one in which the commands of Muhammad concerning those who leave Islam will be taken very seriously. If Qaradawi's dreams come true, it will be a long time before any of them ever hear what my aunt heard last week, "We want to apologize, and ask your forgiveness for judging you when you left our faith community."