Not too long ago, I read a very enlightening book. It's called Secret Believers: What Happens When Muslims Believe in Christ, and it was written by Brother Andrew and Al Janssen. I don't know Brother Andrew's last name; I first read of him in his book God's Smuggler, in which he talked about his first Christian ministry, smuggling Bibles into the Soviet Union. Once the Soviet Union collapsed and religious freedom meant that his smuggling services were no longer needed in the Soviet Union, Brother Andrew turned his attention to other locations where Christians were persecuted, including China and the Middle East.
Secret Believers is the true story of a small group of believers in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. I'm pretty certain that the unnamed country isn't Egypt--some of the factual details about the country's form of government don't match up with Egypt. But I don't know for certain what country it is. And all of the people's names have been changed, except for the occasions in which Brother Andrew himself shows up in the story.
The book begins with an event that I personally found disturbing, although as the book went on, I understood more and more why it happened the way it did. A teenage Muslim boy has become curious about Christianity, due to conversations with a friend who began questioning Islam while at college. Despite his abject fear of eternal punishment for even thinking disloyal thoughts about Islam, Ahmed--one of the main people the story follows--decides to visit a local Christian church. Here's the disturbing part: The pastor turns him away. The pastor fears two things: that the boy will claim Christianity until he marries a Christian girl, then go back to Islam and force her to convert as well; and that the Muslim community will accuse the church of proselytizing Muslims, which almost certainly would result in violence against the congregation. This is a vivid picture of the fear among Christians that persists throughout the book.
Another central person in the book is Butros. Butros is a Christian, from the same country as Ahmed. While studying in England, he met his wife, Nadira, who is a Christian from another Middle East country. After he finished his education, Butros and Nadira had to decide where they would live: England, Nadira's home country, or Butros's home country. Butros became convinced that God was calling him back to his native land, where he was to strengthen the church by ministering to the ministers in whatever ways they needed. Nadira agreed, so the two signed up for a life of poverty and persecution, foregoing the good-paying jobs that would have been theirs in England.
Eventually Ahmed and Butros meet up with each other, and with a few others who, like Ahmed, are Muslim-background believers (MBBs). The conversion experiences all are different, yet all have the same result. The former Muslim is beaten severely by his or her family. The beatings occur in order to convince the "apostate" that he or she is wrong, that he or she must revert to Islam or face even worse punishment after death. If the convert does not revert, the family may kill him or her in order to restore the family honor. The one woman whose story is detailed in the book--Salima--wasn't even sure she was a Christian when her interest in the Bible and the prophet Isa (Jesus) was discovered, but still, her father tore her Bible apart and burned it, beat her, and informed her that he had arranged a marriage for her to a very strict Muslim. She had to run away from home to avoid being forced into an intolerable marriage. Almost all of the MBBs detailed in this book either left their homes because of their conversion or hid their conversion from everyone around them, at least for a time.
Butros, Ahmed, and Salima are joined by Mustafa and Hassan. They do not openly proselytize, as that is a crime punishable by death. When Ahmed and some other new believers are baptized, they are baptized by Brother Andrew, not by any citizen of their country. This is because baptism of a converted Muslim also is a crime punishable by death, both for the baptizer and for the one who is baptized. A Muslim who converts to Christianity can revert back to Islam up until the time when he is baptized; then, he is an apostate who must be killed. So the local pastors can't baptize them without risking their own lives. Brother Andrew must baptize the first group; after that, leaders among the MBBs baptize other MBBs--since they already are under the death penalty, their risk is not increased the way it would be for the pastors. All the Muslim-background believers keep their baptism a secret, except from each other. But even that is not enough to protect them. Ahmed, Mustafa, and Hassan become targets because of their ministry, teaching Christians to read in order to help them earn better incomes. Two of these believers end up dead; the other flees the country because the police--knowing he is innocent--decide that he is the murderer simply because he was the last to meet with the two before their deaths.
The Muslim-background believers aren't the only ones who face persecution. The "official Christians"--those who were born into Christian families--also face persecution in this country, which has signed the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, which expressly states that everyone has the right to freedom of religion, including the right to change his religion. In the country of this book, the only ones who have the right to change religion are Christians, who can become Muslim at any time. Christians are highly encouraged to convert and sometimes are given no choice. Layla, born into a Christian home, is only a teenager. She is abducted, forced under penalty of death to say the shahada (covert to Islam), and forced into physical and sexual slavery to a "man" whose imam illegally married them without her, or her father's, consent.
There is so much more in this book. At the end, there is a section in which Brother Andrew talks about the nature of the problem throughout the Middle East. He talks about believers in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Egypt. Across the board, Christians in the Middle East tell Brother Andrew what they need from believers in the West. They need believers in the West to come, with maturity and love. They need believers in the West to pressure the government--both theirs and ours--for true freedom of religion. They need believers in the West to impact their own cultures by living differently and by showing the watching masses that Christianity is not synonymous with modern Western culture. Above all, they need prayer. They cannot proselytize, but they can and do respond when seekers find them. And seekers are finding them--God is calling people through dreams and visions, causing people to seek out the believers who can answer their questions. It's a dangerous time and a dangerous path for Christians in the Middle East, and many flee. But some who could afford to leave choose to stay, for the sake of the seekers.
If you're interested in more information, I would encourage you to visit SecretBelievers.org. Among other things, you can sign up for free emails containing excerpts from the book.
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