“Secret believers? I try not to get too close to them because I’m known to the authorities,” replies a pastor when asked about believers of a Muslim background in his country. “But this is what I’ve heard…
“One of the Secret Believers goes to his work office room in the morning,” he continues, “he locks the door, takes out his Bible from his drawer, reads it, has his quiet time for 15 minutes, prays in silence, returns the Bible inside the drawer, unlocks his office door and carries on with his work and life.”
Southeastern and South Asia host some of the world’s largest Muslim communities, including Indonesia and Bangladesh. Some countries enshrine religious freedom in their constitution, but others such as Malaysia, Brunei, and Maldives, are strictly founded on Islam.
And in these places, where converting out of Islam means breaching the law and people risk losing their citizenship, freedom and even life, former Muslims choose to conceal their Christian faith, making the above scenario a day to day reality for them.
Problems get stickier when the country is small in geographical size and population, such as Brunei and Maldives, each home to a population of less than 500,000. Government monitoring becomes much more intense; neighbors may watch over your shoulder and report you, and there is practically nowhere to hide. Or worse, no one with whom to confide your secret.
“I once stayed in a guesthouse in a small Muslim country and met with a young local man,” shares a mission worker. “After learning that I was a Christian, he shared that he, too, was a believer.
“The secret believer was traveling with a friend, so he pleaded: ‘Please don’t tell my friend about this.’ Later, I came across his friend in the same hotel, only to catch him storing a Bible inside a drawer. ‘The friend’ confessed: ‘I am Christ’s follower. But please don’t say anything to my friend, I beg you.’
“That day I met with two friends who, out of fear and distrust, had no idea that they were both Christians!” the missionary says, still in disbelief.
On the other hand, countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh, enjoy greater religious freedom. The government does not come after the believers for leaving Islam, but they will still endure rejections and harassments from their family and community. In extreme cases, they can be victims of physical assaults and even murder, leaving them with no choice but to lay low and hide their faith from their relatives and neighbors.
Rarely will these secret believers go to church. Instead, under the leadership of a mission worker, they form small, family-based groups of less than 20 people. This is their church: a house church. As the name implies, worship services are held at their members’ homes and “definitely not on Sundays to avoid raising the neighbors’ suspicion,” according to a house church leader.
While this approach promotes safety, leading to a greater opportunity to grow in the faith, the secret believers often feel lonely and disconnected from the larger body of Christ. After all, the only Christians they meet regularly in their village are the few other church members.
Adding to the isolation is the misperception of many local churches that these secret churches are deviant, deceitful and compromising the safety of established churches.
Understanding their struggles, Open Doors comes alongside the Secret Church by holding events that bring the scattered believers together, whether in the form of a seminar, camp, retreat or Christmas celebration. When security permits, representatives from the open churches are also invited to come, so that the invisible walls that exist between the two different church groups can slowly crumble.
And in places where believers are deeply underground, and gathering them in large groups is too risky, Open Doors sends Bibles and discipleship materials that help foster their spiritual growth. All this in the spirit of “strengthening what remains and is about to die.”
Compiled by Jerry Dykstra. For media inquiries, contact Christine Cape at 404-545-0085 or Katie Rouse at 678-410-9575.