Where faith costs . . . everything!
In many part of the world, women pay a high price for their faith in Christ. We asked two women to share their stories with us. Reports by Christian Solidarity International
‘My life is on hold, but I have hope’
In Iran, Muslims who convert to Christianity, known as apostates, face harassment by the state that leads to misery and exclusion from society. This can include arbitrary detention, during which many are pressurised to recant their Christian faith and to sign documents, pledging they will stop attending Christian services and sharing their faith with others.
There are reports of apostates being denied exit at the borders, with the authorities confiscating their passports and requiring them to report to the courts to reclaim them. During the court hearings, they are coerced to recant their faith with threats of death penalty charges and cancellation of their travel documents.
Although verdicts stipulating the death penalty for apostasy are rarely, if ever, carried out, intense pressure and serious human rights abuses occur regularly. Attacks and attempted murder by Islamic militias or radical groups are a serious concern. Like Jamila, who tells us her story below, many apostates fleeing Iran often end up in other Islamic countries where the state makes it hard for them to obtain the official documents they need to resettle and work, leaving them marginalised and disempowered.
“You’re being pursued”. Those words changed my life forever – and quite possibly saved me from execution. My name is Jamila* and I used to be a Muslim. In turning my back on Islam, I lost my son, my family and almost all hope. This is the difficult path chosen by Muslim converts to Christianity, and one that I continue to follow.
It was my pastor in Tehran who alerted me that Iranian information agents had been asking about me at the church. This was no coincidence; I knew that my mother-in-law, a devout Muslim who disapproved of me because of my faith, had tipped them off. Three days after my pastor’s warning, I fled the country.
My journey to Christianity began in 1999, a year after my first marriage. I had been a devout Muslim all my life, but happened to visit a church in Tehran while on holiday from my home-town in the west of the country. There I was given a Bible and began to think about Jesus for the first time. The change in me was detected by my husband who, after five years of various forms of domestic abuse, attacked me with a knife, stabbing me. He then divorced me, taking full custody of our two year-old son, whom I have now not seen for six years.
I felt I had lost everything. I had no son, no family, no job and no hope. There was only one place for me to go. I returned to the church in Tehran and became part of a women’s group. It was there that I gave my life to Jesus. After six years of soul searching, I finally knew that only Jesus Christ could give me peace.
I used to work as a film-maker and photographer, but at church I discovered a gift for song, becoming the church soloist. I also discovered that my life was transformed. I found hope. My perspective toward life changed and I could forgive others more easily. Jesus healed me.
In time I remarried, but my new husband’s family did not approve of my faith. My mother-in-law was convinced that I would “beguile” her son away from his Muslim upbringing. Although he denied any commitment to Christianity, his mother, who worked for the ministry of Defence and Information, took me to court on the grounds that my singing activities were “improper”. Her motivations became clear when government agents arrived at the church, looking for me. I was considered an ‘infidel’ and thus merited execution. That’s when my pastor called me and warned me to flee.
Now I live as a refugee in a neighbouring Islamic country, which I cannot name because I am still hiding from the information agents. As I cannot work, I am unable to support myself or afford the necessary ID card and residence licence that I need, so my life is on hold, indefinitely. I live with the daily fear that Iranian information agents might find me and force me to return to Iran. As an apostate, I could be imprisoned, tortured or even executed.
But although I’m away from my son and I’m having a hard time, I still have faith in what Jesus is capable of doing.
*Jamila’s name has been changed for her protection
‘We are considered second class citizens’
Christians form the largest religious minority in Egypt and, although the vast majority of the country is Sunni Muslim, churches are allowed to function openly and police protection of church buildings is often provided during services. However, churches face restrictions when seeking to renovate or alter buildings, and apostates, converts from Islam to Christianity, face harassment by the state and the community, particularly when it comes to being registered on their identity cards as a Christian.
Life is also difficult for Egypt’s Coptic Christians, the oldest Christian sect in Egypt, who make up 10 % of the population, but are considerably underrepresented within the public sector, local and national politics. Non-Muslims are not permitted to attend the prestigious, publicly-funded Islamic Al-Azhar University in Cairo and Egyptian universities lack courses related to the Coptic era, namely the Coptic language, literature, archaeology and art. Coptic educational institutes receive no public funding.
Worse still, sectarian attacks appear to be on the increase. Of over 70 incidents of sectarian conflict recorded by observers since 2004, at least 54 have occurred since the beginning of 2008.
The evening air is warm, and the dark sky filled with flickering stars as I walk back from the twilight service at my church. The other church members are disappearing into the darkness on their various paths home, their long, black robes flowing behind them. I belong to the Coptic Church, an ancient Christian tradition in the most unlikely of settings, the Egyptian desert.
As I sit down on my Bedouin rug, I recall how, as we sang our hymns in the service, a call to prayer from the local mosque had echoed through the valley. It makes me think of what it must have been like, all those years ago, for my ancestors singing the same hymns in the monasteries of Upper Egypt, facing the Islamic invaders who came to Egypt to capture the land and kill all those who would not convert.
My name is Sally and I work in the districts of Upper Egypt to empower Coptic women in areas where religious violence and discrimination are rife. In the Coptic language, the word ‘Axia’ means ‘worthy’, and this is also the name of a programme I developed, with one of my good friends, to transform and empower the female body of our church. ‘Axia’ ministers to 300 girls, raising funds to bring them to a retreat centre in the desert in order to give them training to deal with the challenges they face in their immediate environments.
As part of a minority these young girls, like Coptic women of all ages, face the threat of verbal abuse and forced abductions. Because of the nature of the crime and the second class status of the Copts within society, many abduction claims go unheard. I can recall one high profile incident when the family of a wealthy Muslim girl, who was made pregnant by a Coptic boy, killed the boy’s father and uncle as punishment, raped his mother and then abducted and repeatedly raped his sister. She has never been seen again.
Incidents such as these have traumatised many of the girls I work with, as well as their families. Many girls are housebound because their families are afraid of attacks or abductions. We are often abused in the street because we are considered second-class citizens. But like the Copts that came before us, we persevere.
My church has endured despite 2,000 years of persecution. In January of this year, six Copts were gunned down in a drive-by shooting as they emerged from their Christmas Eve service in Nag Hammadi, Qena district. These killings followed months of sectarian attacks in which Christian homes and businesses were torched. Impunity has flourished, but we still go to church.
I know that my work to empower Coptic women is not considered respectable and puts me in even more danger than the rest of my friends and family. I am not afraid, but I am careful. Egyptian society may not value them, but my vision and passion is to see the young girls I work with transformed by knowing their worthiness in God’s sight.
Axia opens a door for them and shows them they have a chance. When these girls come together, they talk, they share experiences and they realise that they are not alone in their suffering. Being with them and hearing about their suffering, you learn something new every day.