Your faith or your children–father faces impossible choice in North Africa
Imagine finding Jesus and not being able to talk about it. And then knowing you were the only Christian in your area and everyone around you, including your family, was hostile to your newfound faith–to the point of violent attack and abandonment. Then imagine finding a community of people who also followed Jesus–a group you never knew existed. This is the beginning of Ibrahim’s faith journey in Algeria. While his and his family’s story is still being written, Ibrahim and Pastor Muslih show us how God is working in North Africa.
“Daddy, daddy, please renounce your Christian faith, and return to Islam, so you can, for always, be our father.”
It is the cry of a confused seven-year-old Algerian child. And they are the words Ibrahim, a young man in his 30s, will forever remember. The day he almost died and was forced to choose between his children and Jesus.
A Secret Faith
Several years ago, Ibrahim began struggling with the Muslim religion he had been raised in—the same one almost all Algerians follow. Living far south in the country, deep in the Sahara Desert, Ibrahim never met non-Muslims. Until one day—the first time he heard about a man named Jesus.
“I met this man who told me about Jesus,” he remembers. “He had my full attention. Later, he took me to meet with Pastor Muslih* and two years ago I came to faith in Jesus.” Pastor Muslih works and lives in a town in south Algeria, far from where Ibrahim lived at the time.
To those around him, Ibrahim’s newfound faith remained a secret. He visited the mosque and continued to say Islamic prayers, making sure to not speak a word about the change in his life.
“I didn’t make my faith known to my wife, nor to my children, I was too afraid they would take away my children,” he says. Pastor Muslih explains that coming to faith in Jesus in Algeria can have large and negative consequences for converts.
“Indeed, they can lose their wife and their children,” he says. “Sometimes families force couples to divorce when one of them becomes a Christian. The converts lose their children because the children automatically stay with the Muslim parent. When conversion from Islam to Christianity becomes public, they are in for big pressure. Often, people literally must flee their homes and villages.”
Ibrahim knows these consequences firsthand.
“After being a believer for some time, I felt I had to be open about my faith, to confess my conversion to my family,” Ibrahim says. “I contacted Pastor Muslih and told him that I wanted to speak up. He promised me he would pray for me.”
The first one Ibrahim told was his father.
“My father just stared at me and kept silent for about 15 minutes,” he says. “He said nothing, did not respond at all. Then he rose from his chair and gathered all my brothers and sisters.”
Ibrahim wasn’t prepared for what happened next. His brothers came at him, fists swinging and shouting, “You will renounce your faith.’” His parents threatened to take away his wife and children.
The violent scene unfolded in front of his young children. In desperate shrieks, they begged their father to deny Jesus.
“It was so hard to hear them say that I was about to lose my family, everything,” Ibrahim says, remembering the attack. “But I couldn’t renounce Jesus, I couldn’t renounce my faith. I said to my children, ‘I love you, I love you, but I love Jesus more.’”
His family threw him out of the house onto the streets.
A Surprising Call
Eventually, Ibrahim found refuge in the home of Pastor Muslih, many miles from his home and family. The pastor wasn’t surprised to hear about his family’s violent response.
“Last year we had seven people from our region who needed a safe place to stay,” he says.
“We listened to him, we prayed a lot with him. I am very determined about this: believers shouldn’t make compromises. Yes, it is dangerous to become a Christian in our country, but we should trust the Lord when we speak out as Christians. This often means that new believers have to flee.”
Over the next three months, Ibrahim spent time with Christians and learned about the Bible and what it means to live as a Christian. Then unexpectedly, his father called one day.
“Take back your wife and children, but leave the house,” his father told him.
Still amazed, Ibrahim smiles. “They are now with me. I was able to rent a house somewhere else, and I found work; I am so happy that they live with me again.”
The children are still young, both under 12 years old. And they are very happy to be with their father again. His wife is still a Muslim but isn’t against her husband’s new faith.
“For her, the most important thing is that we are together again as a family,” he says.
Ibrahim’s father’s call and the outcome for his family is answered prayer, says Pastor Muslih “God has heard our prayers,” he says. “We expected that Ibrahim wouldn’t see his wife and children again. Through prayer, God has done something.”
The husband and father of two–and part of the family of God–now frequently meets with other believers. He’s part of a church. For him, the time of living as an isolated believer and away from his family has ended.
1,500 Believers Living in Isolation
But Ibrahim’s joyful outcome isn’t common. Pastor Muslih estimates that 1,500 believers in Algeria live in complete isolation, the way Ibrahim once did.
“Some of these believers are known to us, but they live too far away for us to visit,” Pastor Muslih says. “Some come to Jesus because they have dreams. Recently, I heard the testimony of a lady who saw Jesus in her dream. The Lord is at work, and He uses dreams but also Christian television. Especially for a woman, it’s very difficult to have contact with other believers, due to the Muslim culture where women cannot do things on their own.”
When the Algerian churches hear about a new believer somewhere in the country, they attempt to contact them. “Ideally we would like to visit them, but we haven’t enough people to do that,” Pastor Muslih explains. “Some of them we only see once a year, or even less.”
When possible, Pastor Muslih’s church invites isolated believers to three-day meetings the church frequently organizes. In the past year, his church held three gatherings. He and his wife led two trainings in the south, specifically for women, where they celebrated communion, enjoyed fellowship with other believers and learned from each other.
Back at home, these new believers grow in their new faith by watching Christian television at the moments they can safely switch to a channel, Pastor Muslih explains. “As soon as they have a Bible, they study the Bible. Especially at the beginning, most continue to live as a Muslim, like Ibrahim did. They go to the mosque but instead of praying their Islamic prayers, they pray to Jesus. They will also participate in all Muslim cultural events, mostly out of fear. I am very convinced that one day they should confess they are Christians. The Bible is clear about that.”
Because of growing government pressure on Algerian churches, organizing events for believers is becoming increasingly difficult. Pastor Muslih’s recent encounter with police officials drives home the reality for all involved.
“We had the police asking about the believers in our region,” he says. “They want to know numbers, they want to know about the visits. One of the officials said to me: ‘Don’t lie, we know everything, you are constantly monitored.’
“I am not afraid, but my wife and son are worried because they know the police come to me and ask me questions,” he says. “But this also puts pressure on the new believers. There is a lot of suffering, especially for those who lose their family. I sometimes don’t find the words to comfort and encourage them. That is the burden we bear here in Algeria.”
Open Doors is coming alongside churches in Algeria, including Pastor Muslih’s, to provide the discipleship materials and program that churches use to disciple the new believers they encounter.