At Large

A Black Sheep in the Hamas Family

The son of a Hamas leader has converted to Christianity.

By 9.18.08

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Few media in the U.S. beyond evangelical Christian blogs have taken much interest. But a prominent Israeli newspaper has reported that the son of Hamas leader Sheikh Hassan Yousef has become a Christian and apparently now resides in California with church friends.

A Palestinian news agency has reported on the conversion and quoted family members who strongly deny it, though they admit he is in California.

The left-of-center Israeli newspaper Haaretz broke the story on July 31 with a lengthy interview with the Hamas leader's son, who is named Masab. It included a photo of the 30-year-old man with short dark hair and glasses. He is sitting cross legged, wearing a striped pull-over shirt and jeans, his moustache razor thin, and his face otherwise clean-shaven. Masab's critique of Hamas, which his father helped to found, is stark. So he is understandably somber.

"I know that I'm endangering my life and am even liable to lose my father, but I hope that he'll understand this and that God will give him and my family the patience and willingness to open their eyes to Jesus and to Christianity," Masab told Haaretz. "Maybe one day I'll be able to return to Palestine and to Ramallah together with Jesus, in the Kingdom of God."

Masab previously had helped his father conduct Hamas work, and the Haaretz reporter writes that he had met Masab in that capacity years ago as a preamble to interviewing the father. Masab had then struck the Israeli reporter as surprisingly Western in appearance for the scion of an Islamist movement. It turns out that Masab's conversion to Christianity was nearly concurrent with that first meeting with the reporter, though Masab professes that he was never a Hamas enthusiast.

"At first I really admired the organization, mainly because I admired my father so much," Masab recalls of Hamas. But he says he saw the "true face" of Hamas after being imprisoned by Israel with other Hamas supporters at age 18. "It's a negative organization. As simple as that. A fundamentally bad organization. I sat in Megiddo Prison and suddenly I understood who the real Hamas was. Their leaders in prison received better conditions, such as the best food, as well as more family visits and towels for the shower. These people have no morals, they have no integrity. But they aren't as stupid as Fatah, which steals in broad daylight in front of everyone and is immediately suspected of corruption. [Hamas people] receive money in dishonest ways, invest it in secret places, and outwardly maintain a simple lifestyle. Sooner or later they will use this money and screw the people."

Masab warmly describes his father as a moderate within Hamas and a "nice, friendly man." But he derides his father's Hamas colleagues are "evil." After Masab left prison he "lost the faith I had in those who ostensibly represented Islam." He believes that his conversion to Christianity will "shake Islam from the roots," since he was raised on the "tenets of extremist Islam" and has now denounced it. "Although I was never a terrorist, I was a part of them, surrounded by them all the time."

Having been introduced to Christianity eight years ago in Jerusalem, Masab began reading the Bible on his own and is now clearly an enthusiastic evangelical Christian. "There is only one way to Paradise," he told the Israeli newspaper. "The way of Jesus who sacrificed himself on the cross for all of us." Masab reports he never told his father of his conversion, who presumably will learn of it through media reports.

Masab assured the Israeli reporter of his friendly attitude towards Israel. "I respect Israel and admire it as a country. I'm opposed to a policy of killing civilians, or using them as a means to an end, and I understand that Israel has a right to defend itself. The Palestinians, if they don't have an enemy to fight, will fight each other." He warned: "You Jews should be aware: You will never, but never have peace with Hamas. Islam, as the ideology that guides them, will not allow them to achieve a peace agreement with the Jews. They believe that tradition says that the Prophet Mohammed fought against the Jews and that therefore they must continue to fight them to the death."

Unemployed, Masab depends on his California church friends for his sustenance, while spending his time at prayer meetings and surfing. He hopes to become a writer and found an international organization for Christian outreach to the Middle East to teach about forgiveness. "Many people will hate me for this interview, but I'm telling them that I love all of them, even those who hate me. I invite all the people, including the terrorists among them, to open their hearts and believe."

Almost immediately after the Israeli newspaper interview with Masab appeared, the Palestinian news agency Ma'an reported his family's insistence that Masab was still a Muslim. They reportedly are weighing litigation against Haaretz. Ma'an also noted that some Hamas supporters are accusing Palestinian media that acknowledged Masab's conversion story as "mouthpieces" for Hamas' rival, Fatah. They also have condemned Palestinian media for reliance on "Hebrew newspapers." Ma'an itself apparently was accused of partiality to Fatah, which its editor denied. The Ma'an report about Masab called his father a "moderate" within Hamas and noted that he has returned to prison.

In some "talkback" comments posted on the Haaretz website, someone professing to be Masab wrote that his family was publicly denying his conversion so as to defend the family honor. Comments critical of Masab alleged that he was simply seeking financial gain in the U.S. by professing Christianity. Another warned that Masab had better change his name and facial identity for his own safety. On August 19, Masab was interviewed by Al-Hayat TV in Cyprus about his conversion, which should remove most doubts about his authenticity.

Whatever Masab's fate, he seems slated to be heard from again, both in the U.S. and in the Middle East.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.