A pioneer story from Lebanon: The role of the Book of Mormon in Ghassan Bikhazi’s conversion

‘When I got the Book of Mormon, I couldn’t stop reading it. ... I knew it was true’

Ghassan Bikhazi was at his cousins’ apartment in Beirut, Lebanon, in the late 1960s when two representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knocked on the door. 

After they gave their introduction, young Ghassan Bikhazi — a Lebanese Greek Orthodox Christian — slammed the door in their faces. He and his cousins laughed, but he felt bad for how he treated them. So he ran out the door, chased after the young men and invited them in.

They shared the story of Joseph Smith’s First Vision and left a copy of the Book of Mormon with the cousins. Ghassan Bikhazi was intrigued. Seeing that his cousins weren’t interested, he borrowed it and took it home.

“When I got the Book of Mormon, I couldn’t stop reading it. I could not. I did it in two and a half days, night and day, reading. I knew it was true, and I knew I needed my own copy,” Ghassan Bikhazi recalled.

The 25-year-old was baptized in Beirut on July 19, 1969 — 54 years ago last month.

Ghassan Bikhazi in a white shirt, dark hair, mustache and glasses, smiles outside with buildings behind him.
Ghassan Bikhazi is pictured in Lebanon in 1965. He was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on July 19, 1969. | Provided by Lori Meldrum

Joining the Church of Jesus Christ was a decision that took immense courage as Ghassan Bikhazi would ultimately leave Lebanon never to return or see his parents again. He was one of few Arabic-speaking members at the time, and there were many social and political implications that made it difficult to stay. 

“It was really hard. When you’re Greek Orthodox, you love your church, you love your family. And I knew how I would turn my back on them, in a way,” said Ghassan Bikhazi, who resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his wife, Cristi. 

Looking back, the 79-year-old can see how the Lord has taken care of him. “He has been with me in everything, even in the hard times.”

The power of the Book of Mormon

The Sunday after he finished the Book of Mormon for the first time, Ghassan Bikhazi went to Church to find the missionaries and request his own copy. When he knocked on the door of the humble home in Beirut where Church meetings were held, he discovered they were in the middle of a testimony meeting. 

Ghassan Bikhazi felt compelled to stand before the small congregation. He testified that the Book of Mormon, the stick of Ephraim, and the Bible, the stick of Judah, combine to make up the truth. “And we as a Church put them together for the whole world,” he said, reflecting on the day he shared that testimony.

He explained more about why the Book of Mormon was such a powerful tool in his conversion: “It is international, the message for the Jews and the gentiles, that Jesus is the Christ. This is very, very important because in the Middle East, we have all these kinds of factions going against each other. The Book of Mormon can help anyone understand how much Jesus loves everybody — Muslims, Jews, Christians, all nationalities. …

“The Book of Mormon helped me love my neighbor who is a Muslim or a Jew,” he said. “I had never had that before. I was always afraid of them. It’s the love of Jesus for everyone — that’s what is important. We sympathize with everyone. 

“That’s what I feel, that the Book of Mormon is international. It’s not directed only to the American people — it’s to everyone.”

Finding strength in the gospel

Four years after he was baptized, Ghassan Bikhazi traveled to Munich, Germany, to attend the Church’s first Europe Area conference in August 1973. President Harold B. Lee, 11th President of the Church, presided over the historic gathering of nearly 13,000 Latter-day Saints. While there, Ghassan received his patriarchal blessing from Elder Eldred G. Smith, the Church patriarch.

“Coming from Lebanon and going to Germany and seeing all these members of the Church, it gives you strength,” Ghassan Bikhazi said. “That’s what happened.”

After the conference, Ghassan Bikhazi received his endowment in the Swiss Temple, accompanied by a full-time missionary named Fred Axelgard. The two remain friends today.

“I remember the glow about him as he talked about receiving his patriarchal blessing from Patriarch Smith,” said Axelgard, who served in the German-speaking Swiss Mission from 1973 to 1975 and is a senior fellow at the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University. 

“He had a funny way about him, just making you feel like a million bucks, but making it funny at the same time. I feel a real kinship to him for his faith and his openness,” Axelgard added.

Filled with strength from being in the house of the Lord and associating with fellow Church members, Ghassan Bikhazi returned to Lebanon. He served in the Beirut branch presidency. 

As civil war erupted in Lebanon in 1975, he moved to the United States. He attended BYU, where he met his wife, Cristi.

A legacy for his family

Ghassan Bikhazi described meeting Cristi as “the best thing that ever happened to me.” They were in the same ward at Brigham Young University. Cristi grew up in California and served as a full-time missionary in Oklahoma. He was impressed with her singing voice; she was impressed by his comments in Sunday School. They were married in the Provo Utah Temple in 1977.

“I knew that he knew the gospel,” Cristi Bikhazi said.

Though they came from two different cultures and backgrounds, “the Church bridges that gap of cultures,” she said. “It gives you that solid foundation that you have in common, even though so many things are different. … Like he says, it’s for everyone and it makes everyone better. It makes us all better.”

Ghassan Bikhazi bends down to take a picture  with his young daughter, who is standing, outside near a tree.
Ghassan Bikhazi is pictured with his daughter Nadia in 1985. | Provided by Lori Meldrum

Ghassan and Cristi Bikhazi are the parents of four children, including daughters Lori Meldrum and Nadia Englund, who are members of The Tabernacle Choir on Temple Square. They also have 13 grandchildren.

One thing Meldrum has learned from her father is the importance of loving and respecting people whose beliefs and values are different from her own. She also said his love for the Lord and his example of bravery and sacrifice has helped her have courage in hard times.

“I think my dad feels just like an ordinary story, but to me and my family, it’s really a special story. ... We all want to be good and follow in our father’s footsteps, to love others and serve them, and to share our testimonies and not be afraid,” Meldrum said.

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