EDITOR'S NOTE: As Christians are being asked to pray about the unrest in Afghanistan, God continues to move in that country and many other parts of Central Asia. This story highlights the spiritual journey and sacrifice of a Central Asian believer who risked everything to follow Jesus.
CENTRAL ASIA (BP) -- His heart pounds as he presses his two young daughters tightly to his chest and darts into the freezing rain. His wife follows close behind, quietly making her way through the darkness to the taxi idling outside the family's home. Faruq and Jamilah* aren't safe here anymore; police have finally tracked them down. Faruq knows they will soon come to arrest him.
|Death -- even at the hands of one's own family -- is a very real threat for Muslims in Central Asia who become Christians. Choosing Jesus often costs new believers their homes, jobs, marriages and contact with their children.|
The girls are in tears, frightened and shivering after being startled from a deep, warm sleep. Why are they leaving in the middle of the night, and in this weather, the driver asks, explaining that the taxi's heater is broken. Faruq offers a flimsy excuse and tells him to drive, warming the girls' tiny feet with his hands as the taxi speeds away.
This isn't the first time Faruq has been forced to disappear, but it is for the same reason -- his decision to follow Christ.
At 18, he abandoned the Muslim tradition of his parents in search of what he calls the "real God." But for many Christians in Central Asia whose belief in Jesus is born out of the ashes of a past Islamic faith, Christ's "free gift" of salvation comes at a high price.
Faruq's own nightmare began not long ago. As he prayed alone late one night while his wife and daughters slept, more than a dozen policemen slipped silently over the walls surrounding the family's compound. Within moments they were inside the house. Faruq and Jamilah watched in horror as police ransacked their living room, confiscating Bibles, Christian books, literature and videos as well as other Gospel materials. But they didn't stop there.
"They took my laptop, my camera, even my kids' toys," Faruq says. "They say if you're changing your religion, anything you have belongs to the Muslims."
The raid was part of a coordinated sting on several suspected Christians; Faruq knew immediately who sold him out. Earlier that evening, he had discipled a small group of believers at his home. One brought a new friend who turned out to be a police informant.
After the officers finished picking through the couple's possessions, they arrested Faruq. Jamilah watched as they loaded him into a truck and drove off, leaving her and the children behind.
Rounds of interrogation began as soon as Faruq arrived at police headquarters. Why did he become a Christian? Was someone paying him to convert Muslims? Was he paid to convert?
The police didn't like his answers.
"I told them my testimony," Faruq recounts. "I said, 'There's no money.' ... Finally one of these people who were investigating me got very frustrated. He was saying, 'Why don't you tell us [the truth]?' I said, '... the Holy Spirit is changing people, not me.'"
But the questions kept coming. Early the next morning Faruq was thrown into a small holding cell, exhausted, afraid and totally alone. Seeds of doubt planted by the police about his own decision to follow Jesus were taking root. They said he was too young, stupid and naive to understand that he'd been deceived by the Christians. Perhaps he'd made a mistake?
"I was thinking maybe they are right," Faruq says, but he suddenly was reminded how and why he came to love Christ.
It started with a burning curiosity to know his Creator.
"I was trying to reach to God. I was praying and I was fasting. At midnight I was going to the mosque to pray alone. I was like 12, 13 or 14 years old," Faruq says.
But that fervor eventually faded to disappointment at the emptiness and insecurity he found while studying the Quran at a local madrassa (Islamic school). By 18, he was tempted to give up on religion altogether but couldn't shake the fear he felt.
"I was not sure if I died today where I would go. There was no assurance," he explains.
A seemingly random encounter with a foreign believer placed a Bible in Faruq's hands. He knew precious little of the Gospel but began to read it and was immediately struck by Jesus' words in John 10:10 -- "... I have come that they may have life and have it in abundance."
Faruq believed; he had never known such love. But with his new faith came a new fear.
"I didn't want people to know who I was," he admits.
They knew now.
"I don't care if they kill me, but I cannot go and say I made a mistake," Faruq decided as he sat in his cell. "They said, 'What you're believing is wrong.' But I said, 'Even if it is wrong [in your eyes] I still want to believe in this ... my country needs it.'"
Five days later police changed tactics, dumping Faruq into an open, overcrowded central jail packed with more than 200 inmates. Many were hardened criminals, gang members, Islamic radicals -- or all three. Faruq says police made an extra effort to ensure everyone knew why he had been arrested.
Faruq was terrified but the Lord sent an unlikely ally to protect him: a homosexual gang leader.
"Hey, you!" one of the inmates grunted fiercely at Faruq, who was so scared he could only stare at the man's feet.
"When I [finally] looked into his eyes, I understand that he was my friend; we grew up together!" Faruq says. "And then he hugged me and ... pointed to all the prisoners and said, 'This is my cousin. If I see that you are going to treat him bad, then I know what to do with you guys.'"
Faruq spent the next 10 days in the central jail, sleeping on concrete with a water-filled, plastic Coca-Cola bottle for a pillow. But under the watchful eye of his friend's gang, no one laid a finger on him.
Faruq had been so consumed with survival that he'd pushed aside a deep-seated fear gnawing at him since the night of the raid: What happened to his wife and children? Would they ever be a family again?
The arrest had blown the lid off Faruq and Jamilah's relatively clandestine walk with the Lord, which meant that both sets of their parents now knew they had left Islam. But it was Jamilah's father who scared Faruq most.
"I feared that they were going to separate my wife and my kids from me," he remembers. "I was not concerned if they put me in jail for a couple years or they want to execute me.... I was scared for my family."
Was all this his fault? He was responsible for leading Jamilah to Jesus. It was five years ago, while they were engaged to be married, that Faruq first revealed to her his walk with Christ.
"I said, 'It will be a tough life. ... I might go to jail, I might be killed, many things will happen to me. I might be kicked out of the family; many times will come when they want to separate us. What do you think? Do you want to still be with me?' And she said, 'Yes.'"
It seemed Faruq's warning was prophetic. A visit from his brother-in-law was the first contact he'd had from any family members since the arrest more than 20 days ago. Faruq immediately asked about Jamilah.
"He said, 'You don't have a wife anymore. You gave up your wife the first day [you followed Jesus],'" Faruq remembers.
Devastated, he returned to his cell and wept, covering his face with his shirt so his cellmate wouldn't see his tears.
"God, I don't know [what to do]. If You gave me this family, then I want to trust You that nobody can take them away. God, give them back to me," he pleaded.
A week later Faruq was released from jail. There were no charges, court dates or conditions. He speculates that jurisdictional squabbling between police and intelligence officers likely contributed to his extended detention and, ironically, his sudden release. But he was too focused on reuniting his family to dwell on the details of God's blessing.
Jamilah had been living with her parents since the arrest. Her father's terms were simple and nonnegotiable: Faruq must forsake Jesus, embrace Islam and remarry Jamilah in a traditional Muslim ceremony. Only then could he have his family back.
So Faruq offered his father-in-law a deal: If he would allow Jamilah and his daughters to return home that evening, he would remarry her the next day. Jamilah's father agreed. Faruq had not seen or spoken with his wife since his arrest and needed to know if she would still stand by him.
"I wanted to make sure because [her family] was saying, 'Your wife doesn't want to come with you,'" Faruq says.
Her answer was an unequivocal "yes." They left town late that evening, driving through the night to ensure Jamilah was well outside her father's reach.
"It was a trick," Faruq says with a grin. "The next day when my father-in-law called, I said, 'Goodbye, I am in [another city].' ... He was so frustrated. But he couldn't do anything to me."
WAY IN THE WILDERNESS
Much has changed since Faruq's arrest. Shortly after reuniting his family, he and Jamilah left the country with their daughters. But God soon called them back; there was work to be done.
"I'm not staying in this country anymore.... I cannot live here like thieves," Faruq remembers praying. "And God said, 'I'm going to use you to do totally new things,' and spoke to me from Isaiah 43:19 ... 'I am going to make a way in the wilderness.'"
God kept His promise, and today Faruq's ministry is thriving. Discipled and mentored by Southern Baptist workers and other likeminded Great Commission Christians, he is busy training a new generation of leaders with the goal of spreading house churches across the nation. He says God is working through local believers, miracles and dreams to stir thousands of his countrymen toward a relationship with Jesus -- perhaps one day even his father-in-law.
But behind every sharing of the Gospel, every new salvation, prayer meeting, discipleship training, Bible distribution or bathtub baptism, the specter of persecution remains.
"I am a criminal right now; the government is looking for me. They have my fingerprints," Faruq says. "I am not living in a house more than six months."
He isn't alone. Recently, a believing friend he was discipling was kidnapped by his classmates, beaten and tortured with electric shocks. The 15-year-old daughter of another Christian couple Faruq is discipling was raped because of their faith. With two young daughters of his own, it's a possibility that terrifies Faruq. But he's determined not to allow that fear to keep him from answering God's call.
"I wanted to be Jesus' disciple and walk with Him. I thought it was easy, but then I walk a little with Him and I saw that Jesus was a tough guy to walk with," Faruq says. "And I was thinking that it is only the physical things we have to give up for Jesus, because the disciples gave up their boats. ... But that was not enough; the time came that I was going to have to give up my children, my wife and even my life."
Despite the hardships, Jamilah remains by his side.
"She really walks with God and walks with me," Faruq says, affectionately. "I never heard my wife complaining about the life that we have. I never heard that she says, 'I am tired of this life. I want to live in a good way. I want to live like my other friends.' ... I think she understands more of God and God's love. ... That's encouraging to me."
As for the future, Faruq says he's taking things one day at a time, seeking God's will and depending on His provision and protection.
"I expect thousands of [new believers] very soon," he says. "They will work miracles and wonders. God told me to go and raise leaders and be ready for His glory."
*Names changed. Don Graham is senior writer for the International Mission Board.