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The number of believers of Muslim background has increased radically in the Horn of Africa, despite the high costs associated with the decision of leaving Islam to follow Christ whole-heartedly.
The number of believers of Muslim background has increased radically in the Horn of Africa, despite the high costs associated with the decision of turning your back on Islam to follow Christ whole-heartedly. Open Doors field workers recently visited the Horn to spend time with persecuted believers and met an extraordinary man called Awel*.
Awel is a skinny man. His lanky body is clad in a bright red sarong, a worn shirt, and a jacket fraying at the seams. His shoes seem to have travelled at least 1000 kms. But he is very happy and greets us loudly with the only English word he knows, while pointing a bony finger to the sky: “Jesus!”. In the following hours we spend with him, it becomes clear that Jesus is the answer to each and every situation in Awel’s life. Jesus is His joy, his peace and his gratitude.
Awel comes from a very remote area in the Horn of Africa. For almost 7 years he was the lead imam at his mosque. Life became extremely hard when he got an illness affecting his organs for which he needed regular hospitalization. “I tried to take medicines in hospital. I tried Muslim rituals1 to find healing. Finally [I was sure] there was no way to be healed.”
His last day during at the hospital, Christians woke him up and told him, “There is a solution for your sickness.” They told him about Jesus from the Word of God and explained that He was the great Healer. They asked if they could pray for him. “They prayed for my salvation and for my healing... As soon as they prayed, I felt the pain go away…”.
But the healing was not only physical. “After they prayed for me, something in my heart changed. That night I had a vision. A man, big like a lion but more beautiful than any human being, came to me from heaven and said: ‘I am Jesus and I am peace’”, Awel said. When Awel told the Christians he wanted to follow Jesus, they took him to their pastor who spent time teaching him the basics of the faith and then prepared him for the persecution he could surely expect. “What about your family? Will you follow Christ even if they persecute you?”
Awel was determined, and decided to talk with his wife who was waiting for him back in their village, which was seven hours by foot from the town where he sought treatment. “I said to her: ‘Listen, my dear wife, we have been losing our money because of my sickness and we have had great problems because we had no solution, but now I received a solution. Some Christians told me about Jesus Christ as a healer. I accepted the idea and they prayed for me. Now there is no pain in my body and I am healed. What do you think about it?’”.
Moved by the miracle of his healing, she wanted to follow Jesus too. Together with their children, Awel and his wife travelled the seven hours on foot back to the town to attend church. They remained there for a month while the pastor took them through basic discipleship.
Awel’s brothers and the community had no idea what had happened with the family and reported them missing. When the police found Awel they told his family where he was. They were furious and went there to look for him.
When they found him, they captured him and tied his hands behind his back. “They took me to the police and told them that I was crazy. I shouted, ‘They are lying, it is not true! I am not crazy. I came to this town to look for a job, for business to support my family.’ But my brothers started beating me. ‘Shut up, shut up, shut up! Keep quiet!’”, Awel recalled.
“They said to the police: ‘He is a madman, this is why we tied him up! We will take him home.’ Then they put 20kg of corn on my shoulders and brought me back home. My hands were tied all the time behind my back and they beat me again and again during the seven hours travel to the village. By the time I got to the village, my left wrist was broken”, he said.
Awel is not ashamed to speak honestly about the turmoil, the suffering and humiliation he suffered. “At that moment my heart was divided. When they were beating and insulting me, when the persecution was so severe, I started to think that I didn’t want to follow Jesus Christ any more. But before I could act on those thoughts, I was reminded of my miraculous healing and confessed these thoughts to the Lord”, he said.
But sadly, the constant pressure was too much for Awel’s wife. She told Awel it would be best if they returned to Islam, but when he refused she decided to do so without him. She left Awel, taking with her all the children2 and most of their possessions.
The day she left, Awel stood outside watching his wife and children walk away in heartbroken silence. Then, his six-year-old daughter broke away from the group and ran toward her father. Awel’s wife didn’t force the little girl to come with her and left her with Awel. Even when he speaks of these sad things, Awel has a joy that cannot be suppressed. But his light-hearted manner should not be confused with superficiality. He has deeply thought about his persecution and concluded that it is neither accidental nor any reason to rebel against the Lord.
“When I am persecuted I think, this is from God, and when God intervenes also I think this is from God. God is good in all things”, he says. “It is a miracle for me”, he continues. “I lost many things: my wife, my children, my property and there is persecution around me even today, but I am happy, rejoicing because of Christ. All the things I lost are of this world, but my rejoicing is in heaven, in the eternity”, he adds.
The support Awel has been receiving from the Christian community has been a great help for him. “I received support from different areas. The first one is from my surroundings, the churches around my village and my district gave money for the hospital bills and for my needs. And brothers from far areas (Open Doors) came to visit me and helped me to start farming , so that I can recover my life again”, he explains. The donors are from Australia, the USA, and Northern Ireland.
When one Australian visitor gives him a koala keyring, as a small reminder that there are people elsewhere praying for him, he was thankful but looks puzzled, because he has never seen a koala. He thought the koala looked like a bear, but the craftsman did not do a very good job. However, when he saw pictures of a real-life koala on the visitors phones, he realized that there are real animals that look like this in their country, and was so happy to see that they had travelled from there to spend time with him.
“As I said before, Jesus healed me physically and he healed my soul as well. The most wonderful healing is not physical. You can also get healing by going to the hospital or through traditional medicines. The most wonderful healing is the healing of the soul. Salvation has brought us together: you from abroad, from far away areas in my country, and us from here. My salvation brought me to the Body of Christ, that is wonderful!”, he declares.
The help he received from near and far was something he had not expected, but the thought of meeting followers of Jesus from so far away was absolutely amazing and an immense privilege. Awel doesn’t realize the privilege is all ours.
Because of stories like this, which show us the difficulties that many are facing in different parts of the world, Open Doors in Spain has launched its #GivingTuesday campaign. GivingTuesday is an online platform created to encourage solidarity by establishing a special day for giving, which this year will be November 29th. Open Doors believes that solidarity can change the world , so that we encourage you to help the lives of brothers and sisters who are willing to follow Jesus steps in the midst of persecution.
You can find further information by visiting our “Secret Believers” project in GivingTuesday (Spanish).
*Names changed for security reasons
1 In this region, folk Islam in which Muslims use Animistic rituals, is practised widely
2 We don’t know how many children they have, but will try to find out