Persecuted … but not abandoned

April 22, 2020 by Christopher Summers in Presence magazine

We can only have a short meeting with Islèm. She’s expected home from school soon. Because Islèm is a woman, in this North African country’s strict Islamic society, it would be odd for her to be alone for long.

 

But there’s another reason the 22-year-old college student is taking a risk as she speaks to our Open Doors team. It’s a reason no one knows about, not even her family.

 

She’s become a follower of Jesus.

As we talk, she checks her phone constantly to make sure she still has time to safely get home. Her faith is a secret, and if her father discovers it she’s not sure what he’ll do.

“He is a nice man, but from time to time he shows his other face,” she says. “You never know how he will react when I say that I am a Christian. For him, it is strange and impossible to accept.”

Islèm has managed to keep her conversion a secret since she first began to follow Jesus in  November 2013. But her road to faith has been hardly smooth.

Saying ‘thank you’ to God

featured in presence magazineBecoming a follower of Jesus wasn’t anything Islèm expected when she was a child. She was raised like almost every other girl in her country—a good, dutiful Muslim. “It was a surprise for me,” she remembers. “I had never thought before of becoming a Christian or becoming a daughter of God.” Although she’s clearly nervous to be talking with the Open Doors team, she feels comfortable enough to tell her story, especially since her pastor is sitting in the same room during our conversation.

Islèm’s father is a strict Muslim, and her mother follows the example of her husband—but not so closely that Islèm isn’t able to confide in her. In fact, Islèm’s mother is one of the only people who knows about Islèm’s faith.

Islèm made the choice to cover her hair, as every devout Islamic girl does, at a young age. She believed in God and in the stories told to her, as does every child who is raised in a religious family. But doubts about her faith came to Islèm in unexpected ways.

“It began when I still was in primary school,” she says. “I was watching a movie in which there was a woman always praying to God—to Jesus. She was asking a lot of things. But she also turned to God to thank Him because He did something for her. That was a little strange for me because in Islam, we always ask God to give us something, but we have never thought of thanking Him for something.”

That moment was a catalyst for a journey Islèm never could have seen coming. “My search started at that moment, despite my father being a [strict, conservative Muslim]; he was always praying, always reading the Quran, and leaving the house to serve God,” she remembers. “I wore the hijab, prayed and read the Quran, but that night I felt something was different and I had concerns. I did as this woman [in the movie] did: I prayed, and I thanked God.”

And then she started searching for answers.

‘I thought I might become the first [Christian] in North Africa’

Searching looks different now than it has in previous generations. In the past, Islèm might have gone to the library, in search of books or texts that could help her think through her questions. Or maybe she would have asked a teacher, or an imam, or another wise adult for advice and counsel.

But for Islèm, a normal teenager? She pulled out her phone.

“I searched on the internet, on Facebook and on YouTube,” she says. “I tried to find people speaking about Jesus. I wanted to know more about the relationship between God and me. I was not a Christian, but I believed that there was someone named Jesus. I tried to find out who Jesus was. I wanted to know why this woman was praying to Him and was thanking Him. Who was Jesus, actually? I was not satisfied with what I found. So, I gave up my research after about a month.”

But she didn’t give up the search completely. “I had friends in Syria who were Christians, and I tried to communicate with them; at that time, it was a bit like a fight between them and me, because I was a Muslim trying to know more about Jesus,” Islèm says. “I tried to tell them about Islam, and it led to confusion, and they ended their contact with me. On Facebook I did some research as well. To tell you the truth, at that time I thought there were no Christians in North Africa. I thought I was the first person who might become a Christian in North Africa.”

In the part of North Africa where Islèm lives, there are very few Christians, especially compared to the surrounding cultural dominance of Islam. Revealing a public faith in Jesus can result in persecution, ranging from discrimination to violent attack. So in most countries in the region, the Christians keep a low profile.

This might explain her assumption about being the only person who was questioning the dominant faith—she didn’t know any Christians were around. “I did not meet any Christians before this search, and I did not know if there were Christians in our region,” she says. “For me Christians were just the people living abroad, in the U.S., in France, in Italy. We had a negative opinion of Christianity—as Muslims, we always said that Christians do all kinds of bad things. We also said that their book [the Bible] was not precise or accurate since it was written by human beings and not by God.”

Looking for peace in the midst of chaos

As Islèm’s search for truth continued, her home life was falling apart. Her parents were fighting constantly, and the stress of her family’s struggles and being a teenager who had so much uncertainty took its toll.

“In 2013, there were many problems between my mother and my father,” she remembers. “My father left the house a lot and he was not nice to my mother; he was aggressive. I started smoking and became violent myself. I even tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of medicine and cutting my wrists. Psychologically, I was a mess; all I could think about was dying. To be honest, I don’t know how I survived. I did not want anything.”

During this tumultuous time, she was admitted to the hospital with a kidney infection, and the doctors made her rest and remain there. She spent two months there without seeing her family.

“When I was at the hospital,” she remembers, “there was a window and one night I asked God: ‘Why me? You had my mother deliver me as a baby and You let me live this life. It is not normal. Why did You create me? To get hurt, to lead such a life? If you are God, show how glorious You are, who You are. Either I die or if you have something for me, then show it to me.

“The following day the doctor said I could leave the hospital. The first thing I said to my mother was that she should get a divorce because my father treated her so badly. She did so, and when I left the hospital we moved to my grandparents’ house. I removed my veil because I wanted to have a fresh start with my mother.”

And with that fresh start, Islèm resumed her search for the truth about God. “The first thing I did when I came home was to use my smartphone and go on Facebook,” she says. “While I was on the landing page, I saw a page called ‘Christians in [my country].’ It was strange for me. I clicked on it and then stopped. I switched off my phone. I switched it on once more and again, on Facebook, the same page appeared in front of my eyes. Maybe that was something, maybe it was a sign. I clicked on it and sent a message. I was curious what would happen.”

In the country where Islèm lives, Christians are hesitant to trust someone immediately, even if the new contact claims to be a believer. Trusting the wrong person could lead to trouble with the authorities or with extremist groups. “The people I talked to on that [Christian] page saw my profile where all my posts were related to Islam and they thought I was from ISIS,” she says. “But later, they understood; once they connected me with the pastor, all went well.”

Slowly, some of the people in the Facebook group began to trust her enough to meet her in person. “One day, a girl [from the Facebook group] came with her brother to me to give me a Bible; she was sent by the pastor,” Islèm remembers. “She thought she would just give me the Bible and leave. But for me, it was a new thing to meet with Christians, so I didn’t want her to leave. I had many questions. I wanted to know if they were more like me because I was young, just 15 at that point. I asked this girl where she and her brother were going. She said they were going to church. I asked them if I could come with them, and she said yes.

“I went to church and it was great. I went to the Bible study group with them and that was the first time I read the Bible and the pastor, who was explaining the verses, showed me how to touch and hold the Bible. On that day, the pastor was teaching on John 14:6: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ While he explained the passage, I felt as if he was answering the questions I had when I was at the hospital. On that day, November 8, 2013, I became a believer. I spoke with the pastor and he and his wife prayed for me. Two days later, on Sunday, I went to church again. And two years later, I was baptized, on December 15, 2015.”

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A gift of community

Islèm was so happy on the day she decided to follow Jesus. Her long search was, at last, finished.

But because of where she lives, her decision was not quite as simple as that.

“The people from the church were scared because I was a minor and they did not know about the situation in my family,” she says. “They knew nothing about me, and I knew nothing about them. But you know it was as if we had known each other forever. When I got home, I said I would wait and each time I would see the pastor and his wife, I would tell them what I had read. Each time I went home, I would read the Bible. To me, reading the Bible was similar to eating; it was a need. I wanted to read more and more. I was really happy, I felt at ease.”

As a young woman in an Islamic society, Islèm is completely dependent on her family and community. So while Islèm’s new faith in Christ made her feel peaceful and happy, it also put her in danger. Her conversion from Islam meant that if it was discovered she was following Jesus, her relationships, her freedom and even her life could be in danger.

“In my family, my uncle felt something was changing, and he came with his wife to speak to me,” Islèm remembers. “They spoke to me in a strict manner—they knew I was talking to Christians. My family still thinks I am a Muslim. Only my mother knows I am a Christian, and she accepts it. My father does not know anything about it.

“I tried twice to have a conversation with my father. In the first, we were speaking about the name of the son of Abraham that he tried to sacrifice. He said to me that God asked Abraham to kill Ishmael. I denied that. He then raised a knife, saying: ‘You must believe it is Ishmael.’ I thought that if I said something more, he would have killed me.

“The second time was when we were watching TV, and there was a program about a Muslim school that was teaching the Quran to small children. I was against this idea, so I tried to talk about it, and I told him that I was against the kind of [hardline Muslim] people who teach the Quran to young children. He told me to leave the house.”

It’s clear that Islèm loves her father, but these stories are troubling. She seems to realize this. “He is a nice man, but from time to time he shows his other face,” she says, smiling. “You never know how he will react when I say that I am a Christian. For him, it is strange and impossible to accept.”

Growing in faith, standing for Christ

In North Africa where Islèm lives, leaving Islam is seen as a betrayal to family and tribe so any expression of faith must be done in secrecy and isolation. New believers often feel like they’re the only one following Jesus.

Through her relationships with the people from her new church and the community she found with other believers, Islèm quickly grew in her faith. “I started to learn more about Jesus; I attended several Bible study groups in the church and I have a special relationship with the family of the pastor and with his wife, who I speak to a lot,” Islèm says. “She gives me advice and tries to help me to grow, to change and to learn the basic principles of Christianity. There are also the training seminars organized by the church for Christians [supported by Open Doors]. I also spend time in personal prayers at home and time reading and trying to understand what God expects of me.”

Through these things, God is working mightily in Islèm’s life. “Jesus is like oxygen, because without oxygen you cannot breathe,” she says. “If Jesus was not in my life, I would not be here today, I would not be alive. I would not have resumed my studies, would not have led a normal life. Before I knew Jesus, I had two choices: either this life, or die. It is as if I was taken from the trash can and was cleaned. I have changed and, despite some difficulties in my current life, I cannot leave Jesus. No matter what happens in my life, I can’t leave Jesus.”

Islèm had the good fortune that she did not stay alone as a new believer, despite this being something that usually happens to Muslims in this region who find Jesus. What if she didn’t have the support of the pastor and his wife and the other members of the church? “I am sure that even if I would have stayed alone, God would not have forsaken me,” she says. “But in the Bible, we are told that we need to be a united community, we Christians should be of the Body. If there were no Christians here, I would go elsewhere to find some, even though I have no other Christians around me, in my family or among my friends. I only see them at the church or when I ask for a meeting.”

Living as a Christian with a Muslim background in North Africa isn’t easy. “But it is worth it,” Islèm declares. “I thank God for it, to know the truth and to know who God really is. I am lucky to have a special relationship with God, but when I see my family, I feel bad. I love my family, I love my dad. I would like them to know Jesus. Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship. It is difficult to explain to others. It is not a religion where you are obliged to pray each day. We have a special relationship with God. Of course, it is worth it. Others should also get to know Jesus. Maybe it would lead to many problems in their life, but when they die, they will get eternal life.”

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Presence. To subscribe to Presenceclick here

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