For Christians in Palestine, life is a Catch-22. Caught in the middle of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, their Christian faith makes them minorities within the Muslim-majority Palestinian Territories (No. 36 on Open Doors’ World Watch List). And their Arab ethnicity results in numerous restrictions on the Israeli side. Overall, Palestinian society deems conversion from Islam to Christianity unacceptable.
And the degree of Christian persecution believers face in the Palestinian Territories depends on their tradition and heritage. Converts from Islam to Christianity bear the brunt of the persecution; they are rejected by their communities and families. And historical churches turn away converts for fear of repercussions from the Muslim majority. In this account, Palestinian believer Nadia* shares how she gained eternal life the day she nearly died–the day that eventually led to her becoming a leader in a network of believers in Christianity in Palestine from Muslim backgrounds.
“I’D RATHER GO TO HELL.”
As a Muslim teenager growing up in Israel, Nadia* felt an instinctive longing to live closer to God. But she didn’t know how to find Him.
“I was raised in a Muslim family, [but] we were not very religious,” Nadia says. “We didn’t pray or go to the mosque. We just observed Ramadan and celebrated the main feasts.”
By the time she was 22, Nadia knew she wanted more. When one of her friends started living as a fundamentalist Muslim, wearing a hijab and following the Islamic rules and regulations to the letter, Nadia began to be interested in Islam.
“My friend was very positive about it,” she said. “I always had my doubts; I never liked the idea of women having to cover themselves while the men are allowed to have four wives. But it seemed to work for her, so I decided to try it. I began reading the Quran, mainly focusing on the position of women.”
Nadia did not like what she read. She recounts reading a verse that said husbands could beat their wives. It made her so angry she decided she did not want to know God if He instructed men to treat women that way. She slammed shut the Quran and never opened it again.
“This whole experience just left me angry at God,” Nadia said. “I shouted at Him: ‘All the people I know want to go to Heaven. But if this is really your story, I’d rather go to hell.’ I wanted so much more from God than what I read about him in the Quran.”
A NEw Introduction
Nadia gave up on God. However, she was soon to discover He had not given up on her. A few months later at work, she overheard two Christian colleagues discussing the nature of God and how loving He is.
“I laughed out loud when he said that,” Nadia said. “I said, ‘God can be many things, but certainly not loving and caring. He is just crazy and awful.’”
In the following weeks, one of those Christian colleagues started sharing verses in the Bible focused on God’s love. The coworker wanted to know how Nadia came to believe that God was awful. Nadia refused to defend the Quran and could not come up with a good response to her colleague’s arguments.
After several conversations, she decided there was “at least some truth” to the Christian message of salvation but dismissed the possibility of becoming a believer herself. Like many Palestinians from Muslim families, converting to Christianity could cost her friends, family members, and even her life.
“I knew that in my family, changing your religion just wasn’t an option,” she said. “Even though they were not active Muslims, I was convinced that they would kill me or hurt me if I became a Christian. That would be seen as bringing shame onto the whole family.”
Rather than pay so high a price, Nadia stopped talking to her coworker and closed her heart completely to God.
“I didn’t want to discuss it anymore,” she said.
Fighting for Life
Nadia lived that way, she says, content to just be. Until the summer August day that changed her life.
While she was swimming with friends, a strong current caught her and dragged her down. The young woman knew she was drowning.
“I realized, ‘This is the end. My life is over now,’” she says. “I thought about my Christian colleague, the only person I knew who was sure he was going to heaven. I also realized the place where I was going to, the place that I had chosen. Hell.
“Right at that moment, I felt a hand dragging me out of the water. Lifeguards had shown up. They told me this was a very dangerous part of the sea with treacherous currents.”
As Nadia lay in bed recovering, she thought of her Christian coworker. She called and asked him for a Bible, telling him she wanted to read it on her own. She started with Matthew.
“The words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount touched me deeply,” she says. “Compared to the teachings of Mohammed, Christ is so different, so full of love.”
Still, Nadia struggled with the idea of becoming a believer. If she accepted Christ, she could lose everyone she loved. Her coworker suggested she ask God to take away her doubts.
“So I sat in my room and told Him everything,” she recalls. “I said, ‘If you are the God of Islam, I will follow you and wear a hijab, even though I don’t like it. But if you are the God of the Bible, I will also follow you, even when I don’t know how. Just tell me what you want me to do and I will do it.’”
“GOD, SAVE ME.”
Alone in her room, Nadia raised up her hands in the same way she did when she was drowning.
“I said, ‘God, save me.’ Then I started to talk out loud. Now I know this was the Holy Spirit within me. I started confessing. I kept repeating out loud: ‘Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.’ I kept repeating that for maybe 10 minutes.”
In that moment, she says, she felt a deep sense of peace and acceptance fill her.
“That was in August 1995,” Nadia said. “Since then, I have followed Jesus.”
At first, she hid her newfound faith, afraid of being cast out of her family … or worse. After a few months, her mother discovered her secret, followed by her sister and brother-in-law. To Nadia’s relief, they didn’t shun her. Instead, they told her to keep silent about Christ.
“They were helping me to hide my faith because it would hurt them and the whole family if [my conversion] became public,” she says.
Six years later, her father found out. The shock, Nadia believes, caused his heart attack.
“He was in intensive care for few days because he just couldn’t stand the shame that this news would bring upon him and his family,” she said. “He forced me to leave the house, leave my community, and build a new life elsewhere.”
Today, Nadia is one of the leaders in a network of Palestinian believers from Muslim backgrounds. Her mother was so touched by the change in her daughter’s life that she also accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior. Her father is still a Muslim but is finally speaking to Nadia again after years of complete silence.
“I now have a good relationship with him,” she says. “He is getting older, and his health is not improving. Just the other day, I asked him, ‘Dad, please don’t yell, but just tell me – Can I bring someone to pray for you?’ He thought about it for a moment and then kindly refused. I keep praying for him.”
Open Doors supports Nadia and believers like her in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Through Open Doors’ Christian leadership training, Nadia has grown in her faith over the years.
“Open Doors helped us for many years, for example, by organizing family conferences for believers with a Muslim background,” Nadia says. “Many of us struggle with our family after they abandon us – financially, but also socially. Open Doors has been supporting me practically in the days most difficult for me, but also spiritually. You always ask, ‘Can we pray for you?’ And when we send you our prayer requests, we know you will pray for us.
“Open Doors is a huge source of encouragement to me and many other believers here. We couldn’t have survived without you. Thank you for your support, your prayers, and the wisdom you bring to our community of believers from a Muslim background.”
* Name changed for security reasons
Praying With Nadia and Palestinian Believers from Muslim Backgrounds
Nadia has shared with our ministry partners some of the prayer requests on her heart:
- Pray for opportunities for Muslim women converts to grow in their faith. Many women cannot be part of the body of Christ because they are not allowed to travel from their houses. Pray for them to find ways to be discipled by mature believers.
- Pray for teachers who want to share the gospel. Pray for their safety and for opportunities for them to reach their students with the gospel, even though the law forbids it. Often in Israel, teen girls come to faith through the witnessing of teachers and other students. But Israeli law forbids teachers from talking to students under 18 about the gospel. In the West Bank, evangelizing is forbidden for all ages by law; it’s not accepted by society. Pray for the gospel to find its way into people’s lives, regardless of legal and social barriers.
- Pray for trust among believers, regardless of former religious beliefs. Frequently, existing Christian churches in Muslim-dominated regions find it difficult to be open to believers from a Muslim background. Pray for the churches to be open and trust these new believers who are in desperate need of community and acceptance from fellow Christians.
- Pray for wisdom for Palestinian believers as they balance their commitments to their faith, their families, and their communities. Many live two different lives. Many women must worship Christ in secret or only when they encounter other believers. In front of their extended families, they feel forced to live as Muslims who don’t practice Islam fully. Pray for women to be encouraged in their faith.
*representative name and photo used for security reasons