×
North African believers pay heavy price for faith
Don Graham, Baptist Press
August 10, 2010
8 MIN READ TIME

North African believers pay heavy price for faith

North African believers pay heavy price for faith
Don Graham, Baptist Press
August 10, 2010

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.

Face off

“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.

Witch hunt

Within days the believers

were ordered to appear for trial before the town’s Islamic council.

They knew

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

council.

“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.”

IMB photo

Karim,* center, the village chief who threatened to murder Ibrahim,* thanks the believers he once persecuted for installing a well that provides his village with clean water.

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

kuffar.

“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.”

Homecoming

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.

There was

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

major tribes.

Heaping coals

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

visit.

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.”

*Names changed.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Graham

writes for the International Mission Board.)