Believer suffers prison so others can live
CENTRAL ASIA (BP) -- "Dad, I think we're being followed."
Meleeka* drummed her fingers nervously on the car door. Her father kept on driving the familiar route to drop her off at English class, singing a praise song to Jesus as he drove.
Meleeka turned around and looked back.
"Dad. We're being followed."
He sang louder.
"Would you take it seriously?"
Not missing a beat, he changed his lyrics mid-verse and belted out a song of his own: "I'm going to prison today!"
Ahsan* knew the signs. He'd already been in prison once for his faith in Jesus. That day made it a second.
In the region where Ahsan and his family live, people bend over backward to show hospitality. Go to your neighbors' home, and they spread out a feast for you and heap your plate high with special food. Leave your wallet somewhere, and people will guard it until you return.
"In lieu of an armored car, I've seen cars left unattended with the trunk open and piles of cash inside. No one would dare bother it," a friend of Ahsan says.
In his country, they take care of each other.
But share Christ openly, and they may torture you.
"Ahsan has been blindfolded, handcuffed and held in solitary confinement," his friend says. "During the day, he was confined to a room where there were three compressor units blowing hot air on him, and he was not given any water or food."
Officials interrogated him, asking why he left his former religion.
"I am on this way because of Jesus and what He has done for me," Ahsan responds.
At the beginning of his imprisonment, he was put in a very small jail cell at night, his hands released just long enough for him to eat a small piece of bread and drink one liter of water.
But Ahsan didn't sleep -- he stayed awake praying and singing praises, just as he did in the hot room during the daytime.
He's lost nearly 50 pounds since being imprisoned.
But he's seen a lot of people decide to follow Jesus -- many of them from places where Ahsan could never get access to go and share. One of them had heard part of the Gospel message nine years ago, and when he met Ahsan in prison, he heard the whole message and believed on the spot.
"This man had been waiting for nine years to hear the rest of the Gospel, just wanting to meet someone who could tell him. He knew immediately it was God's plan to send him to prison," Ahsan' friend says. "He danced for joy."
And the guards came and began to beat him.
"He cried out for Jesus to rescue him, and he stood firm," Ahsan' friend says. "He's still standing firm with Ahsan in prison today."
Ahsan is seeing more people come to faith in Jesus Christ during this imprisonment than in the rest of his 20 years as a believer, his friend marvels.
"He is enduring all things, and all the time more people are coming to faith," says his friend. "He is torn between two things -- his release, and the work God is doing there through him. His family is very anxious for him to be out of prison, but he is telling them to be patient, because God is doing great things."
His wife, Iman,* and Meleeka got to visit him in prison. Tears ran down their faces.
"He put his hands on our heads and said, 'Why are you sad? God has a purpose for me here and He is not finished with it yet,'" Iman says.
He prayed for comfort for them then told them he had a job for them to do.
"He said a man had come to believe in Jesus and wanted his wife to know. He asked Ahsan to get us to go and share with his wife," Iman says.
With nerves on edge, Iman and Meleeka loaded up the car and went straight to her house from the prison.
"I didn't know what we were going to do, how we were going to tell her or how we would be received," Iman says. "But when we got there, she said, 'I want very much to hear what you have come to tell me -- there is light all around you, and I want to know why.'"
Iman knows the difference light can make.
She herself came to faith when she encountered light during childbirth, seven years after Ahsan had first believed in Christ.
He was a devout Muslim -- even to the point of planning terrorism -- before someone gave him a copy of the Gospel of John. In the middle of the night he felt someone call his name, shake him and tell him to go read.
He lit a lamp, got the book from the shelf and started reading while his family slept. The words jumped off the page at him. By the following year, he was a wholehearted follower of Jesus Christ.
"I had been so angry with him for becoming a believer. I tried and tried to get him to return to Islam. I got my mat out and prayed with the kids in front of him on purpose," says his wife.
He didn't change his mind, or his heart.
"Finally after years of trying to get him to come back to Islam, I was at the lowest point in my life. I decided to divorce him, even if it meant I had to leave the kids," Iman says.
Then she learned she was pregnant.
She headed straight to a clinic to have an abortion -- she didn't want to have the baby of an infidel.
"But the doctor said I was too far along to abort, so I decided I would have the baby, but that was it," she recalls.
She packed her bags and left to live with family until she had the baby. Ahsan didn't see her again until he got a call while she was in labor. It wasn't to let him know she'd had the baby -- it was to let him know she'd decided to come home.
During labor, she met Jesus. "All I could see was light," she says.
And now all her children have met Jesus, too, which has helped greatly with understanding why their father is in prison.
But they still struggle with his absence.
"As the trial with Ahsan has continued, remaining upbeat has grown increasingly harder," Ahsan's friend says. "His family struggled greatly with sadness and frustration. That being said, however, the Father has been working powerfully to strengthen their faith through it all."
And the Father has made such an impact on Ahsan's fellow prisoners that many of them, after their release, have traveled great distances to let Ahsan's family know he's safe, his friend says. "His wife and kids are encouraged by the reports from the former inmates, but they are also dearly missing their dad and spouse."
But they know that God put him in jail with those men so that their families could also know the truth, his friend says. "Keep Ahsan lifted up so that the spirit of love pours from him into their lives and his light burns ever brighter every day."
Meleeka also was targeted by the police soon after Ahsan's arrest, but she escaped to the U.S., eventually living with John and Mary Harper,* former IMB missionaries with whom she and her father had partnered in Central Asia. The Harpers were forced to return to the United States in 2012 when Mary was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).
Ahsan was released from prison in spring 2013. He now resides in Europe with his wife and their children, and is still actively sharing the Gospel among his people there. Meleeka spent six months at the Harpers' home before leaving for Europe to be reunited with her father. Meleeka says that during her father's nearly two years in prison, almost 40 men put their faith in Jesus as a direct result of his witness.
Ava Thomas is a writer/editor for the International Mission Board.