A Day In the Life of a Closed Muslim Nation
For many of us living in countries where there is religious freedom, the act of going to church and meeting other believers is a given. This is not the case for believers who live in closed Muslim countries, however. Using research as well as reports collected from Open Doors trainers and writers on the ground, we’ve pieced together stories to illustrate what life would be like for you if you were a Christian living in a Muslim controlled area in a closed Muslim country in Asia.
As you exit your three-story apartment building, you begin your short walk into town. As you approach, you’re immediately greeted by the familiar sounds and sights of your community. Brightly colored buildings–alternating between neon pinks, greens, teals, and yellows, grab your eye. Next, you notice the pops of gold peeking out from various places–the domes of mosques embedded throughout the neighborhoods.
As you continue walking, you see bicyclists and mopeds weaving through a steady stream of cars coming in and out of the city. Next, come the people. There’s a row of men talking and laughing as they lounge on a stone wall at the street’s edge. Residents are turning produce in their hands at the fruit stand and sipping cool drinks at the roadside cafés. Store owners and customers are bustling about shops, fruit stands, and fish markets.
In the distance, you can make out a narrow waterway congested with a mess of boats all trying to make their way to the resorts that dot the beaches.
Although on one hand, it seems like you’re taking in the elements of an average town anywhere on the globe, there are a few things that are missing. You haven’t, for example, passed a single church. You haven’t seen any crosses either–not on front doors or in gardens or hanging from rearview mirrors in cars. This, of course, is because Islam is the only religion allowed here. All other belief systems have been banned.
Carefully, without drawing too much attention to yourself, you abruptly turn down an alley and onto a back street to the building where your church gathers secretly.
As you approach, the door opens and you’re ushered in by a man who is clearly glad to see you. Smiling warmly, he extends his hand to shake yours. “Thank you so much for coming.” He says.
Even as you greet your host, you can feel the eyes of the small neighborhood watching you. Here, the community is small enough that it seems like everyone knows everyone. “Who are those people?” You hear a child whisper.
As you quickly step out of the public eye, your host whispers a brief warning. “Don’t say anything about the church. We’ve got an ‘outsider’ in the house.” Inside the room, you see there is a repairman who the building owner sent by unexpectedly to work on a leaky pipe. You greet him and casually chat with your host about the weather and the sights you’ve seen in the market that morning.
The door to the meeting room in the back is closed, deliberately blocking off the area from view of the repairman. This, you realize, is because an unfurnished room is one of the things that can prompt suspicion that the home is being used as a meeting place.
A few minutes later, the repairman leaves.
Twenty or thirty minutes more go by when another person arrives. The new guest is a resident who lives in the community with his family. After a lengthy delay, the man’s wife trickles in with their children. They have arrived separately in order to not attract attention.
Careful movements like these, you know, are critical for the secret church. After all, the “protection of religion” included in the country’s constitution only protects Islam in reality. According to the authorities, every citizen must be Muslim. Christians aren’t even officially recognized as existing in the country.
As a result of these conditions, then, it’s necessary for church members to avoid entering the venue in large groups or at the same time. Any exposure to the community or authorities would further shrink your group and damage the church’s survival in this community. And your group is already very small in number.
When everyone has entered, a couple dozen people squeeze into the unfurnished room. It is a tight fit, with people sitting shoulder to shoulder.
Once assembled, the host removes his stash of Christian materials from its hiding place in the floorboards. It is too risky to keep religious literature like this out in the open of course. In this country, it is illegal to possess Scriptures. Rules are so strict, in fact, that the Bible has not even been fully translated into the native language. Still, possessing even the few books of the Bible that have been translated is an offense punished by imprisonment. The government is even said to cause trouble for tourists trying to bring along their own personal copies of the Scriptures.
Despite being cramped in uncomfortable quarters, church members listen attentively for 2 to 3 hours as the host shares from Standing Strong through the Storm, an Open Doors’ seminar that teaches biblical perspectives on persecution.
At one point, a group member shares about the religious restrictions impacting him.
“Even coming to this training is a challenge for me. Sometimes my friends or colleagues ask me where I’m going. I can’t say that I’m going to church; I have to tell them something else. I always struggle with what to say.”
You and the others nod understandingly. It is difficult to gather with other believers without being noticed. And it is nearly impossible to pray together without being observed as well.
Another attender discusses the challenge of trying to evangelize. “Talking about Jesus to the locals is out of the question. If they report me, I will lose my job. They can deport me or charge me for bearing false witness. I knew a friend who was caught sharing the gospel. Before they deported him, they kept him in prison for a year.”
Again, the others nod. His story rings true for those in the room. You too have to be extremely careful not to be seen connecting with foreigners who are Christians. You cannot openly talk about your faith with community members either, for fear of being turned in and arrested. The only way to witness to others is to take risks, broaching spiritual conversations carefully with only one person at a time.
As the meeting comes to a close, the attendees express fresh resolve to follow Jesus. They pledge to pray against evil and love others–even their Muslim government and neighbors. And then someone closes in prayer.
“Thank you, God for this house group and for the ability to meet secretly together for 15 years now. This is a miracle in itself. We thank you for protecting your church so we can continue to bear witness in our country.”
As you leave, you reflect on the reasons you take risks to attend your church. There are many vulnerable people who share your country. And in addition to religious restrictions, some of your fellow residents feel trapped living in this small region with little freedom. There is great unhappiness and many people you know fill the voids they experience with drugs and crime. These people desperately need the message of Jesus.
As you make your way home through the streets, you reflect yourself that although there are no crosses or churches along the roadside, the church still exists. It exists inside the secret spaces, behind closed doors. And it exists inside the hearts of believers.
As you consider what it is like to live as a Christian in a closed Muslim country, please pray for those who face this reality daily. Pray God will give them wisdom as they live out their faith in such a threatening environment. Pray they will have increased access to the Scriptures. And pray they will be able to endure and be resilient in the face of persecution.