NORTH AFRICA — Ibrahim* wasn’t
ready to die. He wasn’t ready to back down either.
For months, Islamic
authorities had ignored the tiny house church he started with a handful of
former Muslims in a dusty, desolate village on the outskirts of town. But the
26-year-old Arab farmer’s brazen evangelism had become a problem. The church
was growing, and it was now turning too many heads and winning too many souls
for authorities to overlook. Today, they’d come to end it.
Ibrahim’s eyes scanned the
mob of about 20 men, led by the village’s chief, Karim,* sent to confront him.
Ibrahim recognized many of their faces. They were his neighbors, even friends.
Now as Karim’s hired thugs, Ibrahim saw only hatred in their eyes. Armed with
knives, machetes, spears and guns, the men stood ready to kill if necessary.
Acting on Karim’s orders,
the mob had already trashed the round kuzi (coo-zee) where Ibrahim and the
other believers met for church, ripping apart the hut’s thatch roof and
smashing its mud-brick walls. Karim then turned his attention to a box of
Bibles and study materials his men had taken from the church.
He was going to burn the
Bibles. That’s when something inside Ibrahim snapped.
“We’re not going to let you
burn those books,” Ibrahim exclaimed as he charged from the huddle of believers
to face off with the chief.
“You’ve become heretics in
the way of Islam,” Karim shot back.
“You’ve become believers in Jesus. This
would have been different if you kept it to yourself, but you’re telling other
people, and I can’t allow that to happen.”
As he argued with Karim,
Ibrahim’s mind flashed to passages in the Bible where he’d read of the beheading
of John the Baptist and the torture and crucifixion of Jesus. Ibrahim realized
he wasn’t afraid. He was, however, tired of talking.
Ibrahim grabbed the box of
Scriptures from Karim, walked briskly back to the believers and calmly stared
down the mob.
“We were full of the Holy
Spirit,” Ibrahim recounted. “We knew that if they threw a spear at us or
stabbed us or shot us and we died, we would be in heaven.”
The mob yelled at them, but
a physical confrontation did not occur. Ibrahim and the believers mounted
horses, rode a triumphant lap around the village and took off.
The victory was short-lived.
Within days the believers
were ordered to appear for trial before the town’s Islamic council.
it would be a witch hunt, run by 80 of the area’s most powerful Muslim leaders.
But the believers chose to go anyway. They weren’t ashamed of the hope they had
in Christ and wanted everyone to know it.
“We’ve called you here to
hold Islamic court over you,” explained the head imam, who presided over the
“How can you do that?”
Ibrahim asked. “We’re not Muslims.”
For the next three days the
council grilled the believers about their belief in Jesus, why they had left
Islam and why they so fervently shared the gospel with anyone who would listen.
Some of the most
incriminating evidence came when the imam produced a gospel cassette that Karim
had managed to steal from the church. The imam played the tape, a condensed
version of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, for the entire council to hear.
Most people in the audience laughed. Ibrahim smiled knowingly.
“We’ve really made it big,”
he whispered to one of the believers. “We’re actually evangelizing all of the
major religious leaders in town because they’re listening to our tape.”
In the end, the trial boiled
down to a single question: “Will you return to Islam?”
The believers’ answer was an
unequivocal “no.” They immediately were banished from their village, the town
and the entire county. To return was an automatic death sentence. Loudspeakers
on the town’s mosques blared the believers’ names, publicly marking them as
“It means you are absolutely
worthless, an absolute heretic,” Chuck Castle,* a Southern Baptist doctor who
runs a clinic in town, said. “You can’t get jobs, you can’t get married and no
one will live with you. You are a complete outcast.”
People were told not to
meet, eat or drink with the believers. Worse, their marriages and children were
now considered illegitimate. Even in death they would remain outcasts, the
burial rights to their family cemeteries revoked.
Eight years ago, it was
Castle who led Ibrahim to the Lord and discipled him. But now, in a
heartbreaking twist of circumstances, the doctor found himself helping Ibrahim
leave the area.
He was the only friend who volunteered to drive Ibrahim to the
desert so he wouldn’t have to make the 30-mile trek on foot. But taking his friend
and church-planting partner to a place where he would be forced to live as a
nomad is a painful memory, one that still brings tears to Castle’s eyes.
“There was nothing out
there,” he said. “It’s extremely hard when people that you helped lead to Christ
are persecuted and you can’t walk through that persecution with them. … And
you’re broken on their behalf. You’re also moved by the joy they show in
evangelizing the very people that were persecuting them.”
Barred from their homes, the
believers and their families survived in ramshackle tents near the county
border. Ibrahim’s son was only a few months old at the time, and with no source
of clean water, day-to-day life under the blistering North African sun was
brutal. But being outcasts did come with one advantage: They were free to
worship God. And He didn’t forget them.
A year later they received a
surprise letter from Karim granting them permission to return home.
no explanation, but Ibrahim didn’t need one. He knew God was giving them a new
place to live just like He did for the Israelites after they wandered in the
wilderness. Instead of moving back to their old village, the believers founded
a new village a few miles away.
Now free from the fear of
persecution, and living as the area’s first and only Christian community, the
believers’ faith blossomed. But they soon realized they were missing something.
“God began to give us a
vision to evangelize other peoples,” Ibrahim said. “No matter how far it was,
we wanted to go to that place and tell people about Jesus.”
And they did. Today, church
members estimate they’ve shared the gospel with more than 5,000 people. At
least 90 have been baptized. Under Ibrahim’s leadership, the church itself has
grown from a group of 10 to more than 25 and is focused on evangelizing three
What’s more, they’ve come
full circle with the chief who once tried to destroy them.
With the help of Castle and
financial gifts from Southern Baptists, the church recently finished drilling a
well at the village where the persecution began. The village’s women used to
travel more than four hours round trip by donkey every day to get water. It
wasn’t always clean and often made people sick.
Capped wells cost about $4,000.
Villagers managed to raise $1,000 and Southern Baptists paid the rest.
Installed earlier this year, it’s literally giving new life to the village,
keeping children healthy and bringing back families who had moved away because
of the lack of water.
Karim is baffled by the
church’s actions. It’s no small irony the well is located less than 100 yards
from the site where his men ripped apart the believers’ hut.
“Why have you done this for
us?” the chief asked Ibrahim and a handful of believers on a recent
Amine,* one of the believers
who was persecuted with Ibrahim, answered Karim with a Bible reference about
loving others more than yourself.
Karim nodded in agreement
and smiled at the men he once considered killing. Though there is a lot of work
to be done before Karim and others in the village are ready to surrender their
lives to Jesus, Ibrahim and Castle believe the well has done much to repair
their relationship and demonstrate Christ’s love.
“Every day I thank God for
the well,” Karim said. “If you don’t have water, you can’t work, you can’t
live. I’m very happy with Ibrahim and Amine for helping bring us this gift.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Graham
writes for the International Mission Board.)