WASHINGTON – When Taysir Saada served as a trained assassin for Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization in the late 1960s, he admits he hated Christians.
If he found a home belonging to followers of Jesus, he would sometimes throw a grenade inside and shoot it up with bursts of machine-gun fire.
He has no idea how many people were killed and wounded in such attacks.
Today a non-uniformed Saada, now known as Tass, patrols the dangerous Hamas-dominated streets of the Gaza Strip – no longer hunting down Christians or bearing arms; the Palestinian-American has traded in his automatic weapons and grenades for the Bible, humanitarian service and apologies to Arab Christians he once persecuted.
His transition from Islamic terrorist to Christian missionary is recounted in a new book, "Once An Arafat Man: The True Story of How a PLO Sniper Found a New Life."
Saada has returned to his roots, having been born in Gaza shortly after the 1948 war.
His family had left a comfortable and prosperous life in Jaffa before the war, heeding calls from Arab leaders to clear the area for the "liberation" forces of the Arab armies who were coming to destroy the new state of Israel. Tired of the refugee life in Gaza, his family uprooted themselves again and made a new home for themselves in Saudi Arabia.
The Saada family did well for itself in their new country, but the youngest child, who never knew his former homeland, grew up with a burning desire to return and fight for the Arab pride that had been stripped away by three successive defeats in 1948, 1956 and 1967.
Without his family's knowledge or consent, Saada traveled to Syria to sign up to fight for his childhood hero, Arafat.
Quickly welcomed into a training camp in Jordan, Saada became a sniper and participated in the pitch battle of Karameh, outside of Jericho – a battle that made headlines around the world and served as a recruiting tool for Arafat and Fatah when Israeli forces found themselves in a daylong standoff with thousands of Palestinian guerrillas.
Saada's role, which still causes him anguish, was to pick off Israeli soldiers with his sniper rifle.
Thirty-four years later, just six months before Arafat died, Saada had an opportunity to evangelize his former boss, telling him about the God of love, peace and forgiveness he had come to know, comparing man's life-giving Creator with the deadly destruction wrought in his former life.
"Do you know how God created man?" he recalls asking Arafat.
"Yes," he said. "From the dust."
"That's right," replied Saada, Arafat's former pupil in terrorism and his one-time chauffeur. "But do you know how?"
"How?" asked the father of modern terrorism.
"He got down and scooped up the earth and shaped it into the form of a man, says the Bible," Saada explained. "Then he bowed down and breathed life into his nostrils. When I think about that, I ask myself how we could take the lives of so many men."
Saada said Arafat welcomed his old student back toward the end of his life and gave him plenty of time to talk in his bombed-out Ramallah headquarters fully knowing of his conversion to Christianity. Shortly after this visit, an Egyptian pastor and friend of Saada also had an opportunity to visit with Arafat who said the terrorist leader "prayed the sinner's prayer" with him, converting to Christianity.
"Do you think he understood what was going on?" Saada asked.
"Yes, absolutely," replied the pastor. "He was very clear. And we were alone in the room, just the two of us."
Months later, on Nov. 11, 2004, Arafat succumbed in a Paris hospital.
"When I saw that he had actually died, my heart broke," says Saada. "I didn't think about all that had gone astray under his leadership. I didn't think about all the graft and misrepresentation in which he had indulged. I only thought about the man himself, now facing eternity. This was my teenage hero, the courageous leader who had dared to call the Palestinian people toward their destiny. He was the man I would willingly have died to protect. Now he was nothing but another human being standing before an awesome God, giving answers to penetrating questions. I don't know what he said in that final court. I could only hope that in the recent months he had come to terms with the Lord of all the earth."
"Once An Arafat Man: The True Story of How a PLO Sniper Found a New Life" takes you from the squalid Gaza refugee camp in 1951 to the Fatah guerrilla camp training to the feverish battles and through Saada's journey to America where he was pleasantly surprised to find opportunity, prosperity, a wife, a family and a spiritual rebirth – a rebirth that brought him right back to where it all started.