How this son of a Muslim sheikh fell in love with Jesus

September 8, 2021 by Christopher Summers in Middle East

In Syria, it’s fair to say your family might be one of the most important things in your life.

 

Your family is a multi-generational force, tying you to your culture, your community and your religion. Communities comprise tightknit families who intermarry and keep traditions and ancient customs intact.

 

But if you leave your family in Syria? You’re nothing.

So, when Anwar* gave up his family because of his faith in Jesus, it meant more than a temporary loss of some loved ones. It meant he lost his identity, his history and the people and community that loved and raised him.

Because of Jesus, he lost everything and became a man without a history and without a people. But now?

“I have hope in Jesus,” he says.

It’s a simple sentiment, but it’s not an easy one.

Watch Anwar’s story

The son of a sheikh

Anwar grew up in the suburbs of a place in Syria we can’t name, because he’s still well-known there. His family was his parents along with two sisters and a brother. The place where he lived was a simple community of around 700 people, mostly made up of Alawites. (The Alawites are a branch of Islam—though some Muslims completely reject the idea that Alawites are Muslim.) Each Alawite community has a leader called a sheikh—a very strict follower of Alawite traditions who has duties in officiating prayers, funerals, marriages and religious judgment.

Anwar knows these traditions well—he is the son of his community’s sheikh. The weight of remembering his past shows as soon as he begins talking. Each painful recollection is a reminder of what he has lost.

“My childhood memories are very annoying to me,” he says. “I was excluded and didn’t have many friends, I would spend hours on my phone, but I was also very religious. I would pray with my dad and imitate his moves.”

He stares at the ground as he continues. It’s clear the memories remain heavy for him. “When I turned 15, I started asking my dad serious questions about the Alawite religion,” he remembers. “I was very curious about who Allah really was. Does he love me? And what should I do to please him? Unfortunately, my father wouldn’t answer me. He would tell me, ‘You’ll know more when you grow up.’”

Anwar was always told he needed to wait: wait for a certain age, wait until he memorized a certain prayer, wait until he followed a certain rule. That is, until waiting was no longer an answer for him.

The Alawite faith is very secretive. Women aren’t allowed to learn the secrets of the faith; only the men who go through a series of trainings when they reach a certain age. So, to answer his own questions, Anwar started watching documentaries about religions. One of the shows he watched was about Christianity.

An eternity-changing friendship

“I was sure that Christianity is a lie, and I was convinced that it is a wrong faith because to [Alawites], Christians are deluded,” he says. “They worship a human, not a God; they are infidels.”

Anwar was taught by his parents and community that he shouldn’t even be friends with a Christian.

“I wasn’t supposed to let any Christian enter my life,” he says. “[Christians] were said to have a way of convincing people to join their false religion; but as I grew up and went to college, I met a Christian girl.”

Anwar mocked this girl and made fun of her when she told him about the gospel— how Jesus died and rose from the dead to save humanity.

“I didn’t believe a word she said, especially when she told me that He is alive now and I can ask Him myself,” he says.

When Anwar was in college, the Syrian Civil War was raging around him. While his parents managed to postpone forced military service for his brother, Anwar was only able to avoid his military service because he was a student. But at that point, he was failing his classes and risked being expelled from college. His health, both physically and mentally, was deteriorating.

“I went through deep depression, and through it all, the Christian girl kept talking to me about Jesus, which made the pressure even greater,” he says. “At that point, I believed that Allah hated me, and I hated him for allowing all this to happen to me. I wanted to end my life.”

Anwar thought he had no future and no hope—but God had another idea. Anwar recalls: “My friend said: ‘Why not try to talk to Jesus and see what He has to tell you? If you want to end your life, then you have nothing to lose.’ So I thought to myself, if it doesn’t work, then I can still kill myself, so why not try this?

“She taught me how to pray, and I went into my room and I remember thinking that I was a crazy person for talking to myself. At first, nothing changed, but after a while I became addicted to knowing Jesus. I started watching videos, listening to worship songs and sermons. I completely forgot about suicide. One day, I was talking to Him, and I started crying. I poured my heart out to Him, and suddenly I wasn’t alone anymore. I have a friend: Jesus.”

“I fell in love with Jesus,” he says.

Anwar began reading the Gospel of John. He remembers how he felt God talking to him through the Bible, spiritual songs and sermons.

“Jesus is my best friend. I don’t talk to my family—I just talk to Him about everything.”

‘Don’t ever come back here’

Anwar’s newfound faith gave him such joy … but it was coupled with the fear of his family finding out the truth about his conversion.

“I had to leave the house because if they found out the truth, I would be in danger,” he says. “I could have been killed, kicked out of the house, deprived of my inheritance and disowned.”

Anwar couldn’t utter the word “Jesus” in front of his family—and the pressure he felt was unrelenting, especially since he used to hear stories about people who converted and were slaughtered, attacked or imprisoned.

“I remember when my friend took me to church for the first time in the city,” he recalls. “I didn’t hear the sermon or the songs—I was preoccupied by the fear of someone recognizing me and telling my family.”

But word soon got out. People discovered Anwar—the son of a sheikh—was attending a church, and the news spread like wildfire. Eventually, the truth reached his parents. As he remembers this moment, Anwar sighs and pauses for few seconds. Then he continues.

“I heard that my mother had a nervous breakdown, and I called my siblings, but no one answered. After a few hours, my sister called, and she was crying. She said: ‘Don’t ever come back here; my mother is in the hospital because of you. You are no longer my brother. Wasn’t your faith enough for you? You have no honor.’”

Around the same time, Anwar was invited by his Christian friend to a conference with the church. He had a choice to make: Should he return home and confront the situation with his family … or ignore the problems at home and prioritize the conference to grow in his new faith?

Eventually, he decided to go to the conference. “I’m remembering very hurtful details. How could my family do this to me?” Anwar says, wiping silent tears with shaky hands. “I turned off my phone and went to the conference, and it was the best couple of days of my life. I experienced the Lord in an unprecedented way. I listened to Him and felt His presence and forgot everything. I was cheerful when I came back.”

But when he returned to the house where he was staying—which was owned by his parents—his room had been cleaned out and his bags packed. His brother called him and asked him to leave the house immediately. Anwar had no place to go.

New hope and new life

Anwar teaches English to youth at the Center of Hope where he works and ministers. He says his favorite part of his job is the opportunity to talk to children about Jesus.

Anwar contacted his friend who called the church, one of the local churches Open Doors partners with in Syria. Through this church, Open Doors helped Anwar rent the room where he currently lives. For the first time, he is alone with no family to lean on. He knew it was time to trust the Lord and put into practice what he had learned in his new faith.

Eventually, Anwar got a job at the church-run Center of Hope. Now, Anwar teaches English to fifth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students.

“[The Center of Hope] helped me in my hardest conditions,” he says. “This was a new hope for me, a new start and new opportunity for the future.”

Anwar says his favorite part of his job is the opportunity to talk to children about Jesus. They pray together at the beginning of every day.

“Children don’t just need a teacher; they need someone who has a relationship with God and can influence them positively,” he says. He is very grateful for this opportunity to be part of this community.

“The Center of Hope gave me a new beginning in my life,” he says. “After my old family became like strangers to me, I had nothing to belong to. I was alone. Now, I’ve met a new family in the church; they compensated me for the things I’ve lost. We laugh together, we share our thoughts and time with each other. If it wasn’t for the Center, I don’t know what I would do. I think I would be homeless, hungry and alone.”

It’s obvious how Anwar’s feelings change as he speaks of his new life. He breathes easier, his eyes shine, and he is more relaxed.

“Jesus is everything to me,” he says. “When I had no one, He was with me: my Brother, my Companion, my Best friend. I talk to Him all the time, I rely on Him. Jesus truly saved my life.

When things go wrong, I escape to Jesus. I know He has a good plan for my life. He gave me a new family. I feel safe here.”

So much has happened in Anwar’s life. His journey from the skeptical son of a sheikh to a hopeful follower of Jesus is nothing short of inspiring. He has gone from being hated by man to being loved by His heavenly Father; from being neglected to being embraced; from existing in the dark to living in the brightest light. And he’s gone from being a man without a home and family to being a part of Christ’s body, with family all over the world.

Anwar continues to pray for his family and friends, that they will experience the freedom and purpose he found in following Jesus, and that they will know Christ as the one who died to carry the punishment of our sins and their sins.

“I still pray for a miracle for my family,” Anwar shares, “to reconnect intimately with my family like before, but where I am now reconciles me to my loss.”

Anwar says that if he could go back in time, he would have found and trusted Jesus sooner in his life.

“I don’t want to live a second without Jesus, and I say to all the people who are going through the same circumstances: Have courage and trust the Lord—because it’s worth it; it’s really worth everything.”

 

Step into the lives of Christians rejected for following Jesus

When you support Open Doors, you become part of the incredible transformation in people’s lives and the church in Syria and Iraq. Years of war have made life difficult in places like Syria. Even worse, believers like Anwar, who left Islam to follow Jesus, are rejected by their families and persecuted. Across the globe, many of your brothers and sisters suffer similar consequences for choosing Christ. Stand with them now—your gift today can provide: • emergency aid like food, money and clothing • persecution preparedness training • trauma counseling • discipleship training and materials

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