On the Run in Mali–Former Muslim Clings to Jesus Amid Jihadist Persecution

July 25, 2018 by Brett Tarbell in Africa

Traditionally, the Muslims of Mali have practiced a form of Islam known for tolerance of other religions. Over the past few years, though, a more radical and militant form of Islam has made life increasingly difficult for Christians and other minorities in the west African country. While Mali is still technically a secular state, Islamic radicals took over a portion of the country in 2012, resulting in a dramatic cultural shift towards intolerance of the Christian faith in Mali (No. 37 on the World Watch List). For one Christian woman named Naomi, the agendas of both non-violent and violent Islamic groups have shaped much of her life. 

A Surprise Visit

Naomi remembers the day she heard the knock on her small apartment door.

As she slowly opened it, her body froze. Her two sisters stood before her, clutching their belongings, clearly presuming they could stay. But seeing her siblings was far from cause to rejoice. The familial ties had long since been severed.

Since she chose to follow Jesus many years ago, these women had caused nothing but pain and heartache in Naomi’s life.

Hardly comprehending what she was doing, she ushered them inside.

Naomi couldn’t hold back the painful memories of the past the three women shared. They were born into a devout Egyptian Muslim family in Mali. Their father had moved from Egypt to the Mali city of Timbuktu to spread Islam. When Naomi was 8, her father died, and the girls were adopted by their uncle. He enrolled them in an international Christian school, a common practice for Muslims who desired good educations for their children.

“I hated everything Christian, so no one worried that I would be influenced ‘negatively,’” Naomi remembers.

Drawn to the Heart of Christ

But as Naomi interacted with Christians at school, something changed. She found herself drawn to Christ, and at the age of 12, she professed Him as Lord.

Her life would never be the same.

Almost immediately, her family disowned her. When a local missionary family heard about Naomi’s situation, they took her into their home.

“They loved me like their own daughter,” says Naomi. “From them, I learned more about Christ and grew in my faith.”

Eventually, the missionaries had to return to their home country, leaving Naomi with no option but to ask her family to take her back. She remembers how each day, they cruelly harassed her for her faith.

‘Yes, Jesus Loves Me’

When she was 16, Naomi met a Christian man from Belgium and agreed to marry him.

“I hoped very much that this would be the beginning of new things,” she says. But the persecution continued.

“Whenever I went around town, people would call me a kafir (which means infidel). But for me, the hardest thing to handle was the rejection from my family. When they saw me, they would spit in my direction and curse the blood we shared.”

To cope with the pressure from her family, Naomi looked to the heart of Christ.

“In those days, the children’s hymn ‘Yes, Jesus Loves Me…the Bible tells me so’ meant so much to me,” she says with conviction. “I sang it constantly. My family would not give up on the pressure. But the more they pressured me, the more I found myself clinging to Jesus.”

A Turn for the Worst

As jihadist influence increased in Mali, so did the persecution of Christians—at great cost to Naomi and her two sons, Ibrahim and Youssouf.

“More than once, my family sent jihadists to my house to kill us (or at least intimidate us),” she says. “Their plans never worked. But one day, while my husband was on a business trip, he was gunned down. He was killed for his faith, and for marrying an ex-Muslim. His colleagues delivered the terrible news to me. I have no idea what happened to his body.”

After his death, Naomi, now a young widow, somehow managed to care for her two sons—alone. But in 2012, as Muslim jihadists used the political Tuareg Rebellion as an opportunity to wreak havoc, things took a turn for the worst. In the northern regions of Mali, jihadists began to kill people, destroy ancient shrines and hunt down Christians.

‘Jesus Help Us’

Knowing they would have nowhere to go, Naomi and her sons tried to weather the storm in Timbuktu. It would later prove to be a poor choice. One day, rebels belonging to the radical Islamic group Ansar al-Dine invaded their home and abducted Youssouf as Naomi and Ibrahim watched. Youssouf was only a teen at the time.

“Ibrahim, my second son, was terrified,” Naomi remembers. “He held on to me and kept whispering, ‘Jesus help us, Jesus help us.’

After the men left with Youssouf, the young mother prayed incessantly for his return.

“I was on my knees all the time, pleading for the Lord to protect my son,” she says. “Youssouf acted deaf and dumb in front of his abductors. They whipped him severely but released him after two days.”

Youssouf came home severely traumatized. Her other son, Ibrahim, was also terrified.

“I realized we could not stay in our home anymore,” she says. “We fled to Bamako [the capital of Mali].”

In Bamako, Naomi and the boys stayed for more than a year at an internally displaced persons camp belonging to a church. When the camp closed, she had nowhere to stay and no money to provide for her children.

“I felt like I was chaff in the wind,” she says.

A Roof Over Their Heads

Naomi and her boys faced an uncertain future. Provision came at “just the right time,” she says. Through Naomi’s local church, an Open Doors worker heard about this young mom with two sons and no place to live (Open Doors partners with indigenous churches to minister to persecuted believers). Open Doors stepped into Naomi’s life to provide rent money for a simple apartment.

“The help brought a huge sigh of relief,” she says.

Today, while Naomi is thankful for the roof over their heads, she continues to face constant pressure from her Muslim neighbors because of her faith.

“They laugh at me when I sing and pray,” she says.

And the pressure within her own home is even greater since her sisters came to stay with her. When things became too unstable in the north, they fled to Bamako and tracked down Naomi.

‘I have to show to love to my enemies’

On a recent visit to see Naomi, Open Doors partners were able to fellowship and pray with her. Naomi’s sisters did little to hide their enmity. She requests prayer to remain encouraged and stay the course under persecution. Open Doors is currently in the process of finding a viable business venture for Naomi that will help her provide for her family. She also requests prayer for her vocation and that her sisters would come to know the Jesus she found.

“I am a Christian,” Naomi says. “I have to show love even to the worst of my enemies. Who knows? I may draw them to Christ despite their attitude towards me. Christians are people who love their enemies—their haters—as brothers.

“That is how we can win them for the Kingdom.”

Praying With Naomi and Her Family

*representative image used for security reasons