NORTH AFRICA (BP)–Ibrahim* wasn’t ready to die. He wasn’t ready to back down either.
For months, Islamic authorities had ignored the tiny house church he started with a handful of former Muslims in a dusty, desolate village on the outskirts of town. But the 26-year-old Arab farmer’s brazen evangelism had become a problem. The church was growing, and it was now turning too many heads and winning too many souls for authorities to overlook. Today, they’d come to end it.
Ibrahim’s eyes scanned the mob of about 20 men, led by the village’s chief, Karim,* sent to confront him. Ibrahim recognized many of their faces. They were his neighbors, even friends. Now as Karim’s hired thugs, Ibrahim saw only hatred in their eyes. Armed with knives, machetes, spears and guns, the men stood ready to kill if necessary.
Acting on Karim’s orders, the mob had already trashed the round kuzi (coo-zee) where Ibrahim and the other believers met for church, ripping apart the hut’s thatch roof and smashing its mud-brick walls. Karim then turned his attention to a box of Bibles and study materials his men had taken from the church.
He was going to burn the Bibles. That’s when something inside Ibrahim snapped.
“We’re not going to let you burn those books,” Ibrahim exclaimed as he charged from the huddle of believers to face off with the chief.
“You’ve become heretics in the way of Islam,” Karim shot back. “You’ve become believers in Jesus. This would have been different if you kept it to yourself, but you’re telling other people, and I can’t allow that to happen.”
As he argued with Karim, Ibrahim’s mind flashed to passages in the Bible where he’d read of the beheading of John the Baptist and the torture and crucifixion of Jesus. Ibrahim realized he wasn’t afraid. He was, however, tired of talking.
Ibrahim grabbed the box of Scriptures from Karim, walked briskly back to the believers and calmly stared down the mob.
“We were full of the Holy Spirit,” Ibrahim recounted. “We knew that if they threw a spear at us or stabbed us or shot us and we died, we would be in heaven.”
The mob yelled at them, but a physical confrontation did not occur. Ibrahim and the believers mounted horses, rode a triumphant lap around the village and took off.
The victory was short-lived.
Within days the believers were ordered to appear for trial before the town’s Islamic council. They knew it would be a witch hunt, run by 80 of the area’s most powerful Muslim leaders. But the believers chose to go anyway. They weren’t ashamed of the hope they had in Christ and wanted everyone to know it.
“We’ve called you here to hold Islamic court over you,” explained the head imam, who presided over the council.
“How can you do that?” Ibrahim asked. “We’re not Muslims.”
For the next three days the council grilled the believers about their belief in Jesus, why they had left Islam and why they so fervently shared the Gospel with anyone who would listen.
Some of the most incriminating evidence came when the imam produced a Gospel cassette that Karim had managed to steal from the church. The imam played the tape, a condensed version of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, for the entire council to hear. Most people in the audience laughed. Ibrahim smiled knowingly.
“We’ve really made it big,” he whispered to one of the believers. “We’re actually evangelizing all of the major religious leaders in town because they’re listening to our tape.”
In the end, the trial boiled down to a single question: “Will you return to Islam?”
The believers’ answer was an unequivocal “no.” They immediately were banished from their village, the town and the entire county. To return was an automatic death sentence. Loudspeakers on the town’s mosques blared the believers’ names, publicly marking them as kuffar.
“It means you are absolutely worthless, an absolute heretic,” Chuck Castle,* a Southern Baptist doctor who runs a clinic in town, said. “You can’t get jobs, you can’t get married and no one will live with you. You are a complete outcast.”
People were told not to meet, eat or drink with the believers. Worse, their marriages and children were now considered illegitimate. Even in death they would remain outcasts, the burial rights to their family cemeteries revoked.
Eight years ago, it was Castle who led Ibrahim to the Lord and discipled him. But now, in a heartbreaking twist of circumstances, the doctor found himself helping Ibrahim leave the area. He was the only friend who volunteered to drive Ibrahim to the desert so he wouldn’t have to make the 30-mile trek on foot. But taking his friend and church-planting partner to a place where he would be forced to live as a nomad is a painful memory, one that still brings tears to Castle’s eyes.
“There was nothing out there,” he said. “It’s extremely hard when people that you helped lead to Christ are persecuted and you can’t walk through that persecution with them…. And you’re broken on their behalf. You’re also moved by the joy they show in evangelizing the very people that were persecuting them.”
Barred from their homes, the believers and their families survived in ramshackle tents near the county border. Ibrahim’s son was only a few months old at the time, and with no source of clean water, day-to-day life under the blistering North African sun was brutal. But being outcasts did come with one advantage: They were free to worship God. And He didn’t forget them.
A year later they received a surprise letter from Karim granting them permission to return home. There was no explanation, but Ibrahim didn’t need one. He knew God was giving them a new place to live just like He did for the Israelites after they wandered in the wilderness. Instead of moving back to their old village, the believers founded a new village a few miles away.
Now free from the fear of persecution, and living as the area’s first and only Christian community, the believers’ faith blossomed. But they soon realized they were missing something.
“God began to give us a vision to evangelize other peoples,” Ibrahim said. “No matter how far it was, we wanted to go to that place and tell people about Jesus.”
And they did. Today, church members estimate they’ve shared the Gospel with more than 5,000 people. At least 90 have been baptized. Under Ibrahim’s leadership, the church itself has grown from a group of 10 to more than 25 and is focused on evangelizing three major tribes.
What’s more, they’ve come full circle with the chief who once tried to destroy them.
With the help of Castle and financial gifts from Southern Baptists, the church recently finished drilling a well at the village where the persecution began. The village’s women used to travel more than four hours round trip by donkey every day to get water. It wasn’t always clean and often made people sick.
Capped wells cost about $4,000. Villagers managed to raise $1,000 and Southern Baptists paid the rest. Installed earlier this year, it’s literally giving new life to the village, keeping children healthy and bringing back families who had moved away because of the lack of water.
Karim is baffled by the church’s actions. It’s no small irony the well is located less than 100 yards from the site where his men ripped apart the believers’ hut.
“Why have you done this for us?” the chief asked Ibrahim and a handful of believers on a recent visit.
Amine,* one of the believers who was persecuted with Ibrahim, answered Karim with a Bible reference about loving others more than yourself.
Karim nodded in agreement and smiled at the men he once considered killing. Though there is a lot of work to be done before Karim and others in the village are ready to surrender their lives to Jesus, Ibrahim and Castle believe the well has done much to repair their relationship and demonstrate Christ’s love.
“Every day I thank God for the well,” Karim said. “If you don’t have water, you can’t work, you can’t live. I’m very happy with Ibrahim and Amine for helping bring us this gift.”
*Names changed. Don Graham writes for the International Mission Board.