05 November 2015

Loving your neighbor

During a recent visit to a Central Asian country to gather information about the religious freedom situation, the delegation I was a member of was privileged to meet with Abraham.  He is a pastor of a Christian congregation in a country with about 3,000 Protestant Christians out of a total population of more than 8 million.  Though he professed several times to being a timid person, his story is a profile in courage.

During the country's civil war, the Priest of the Orthodox Church in the nation's capital said that there were snipers just outside his door and opposition snipers on the hill above the church.  Both groups promised not to fire at the church or any worshipers.  These were difficult times.  Abraham's experience was even more difficult.

A group of Mujahideen controlled the town where Abraham's small church was located.  As a convert from Islam, he knew the dangers.  Rumors about how the Mujahideen were planning on attacking the church the following Sunday spread quickly through town.  The Christians met and prayed.  They prayed for God's protection, for salvation for the Mujahideen, and that they would personally be faithful till death if it was necessary.

The Mujahideen burst through the doors and demanded everyone to cease praying and to leave.  They threatened to return shortly and kill anyone who was left.  When they returned, Abraham was still praying.  The leader of the group put a gun to Abraham's head.  Abraham began to speak to the man who was prepared to kill him.  He shared his testimony, confessing Jesus as Lord of all.  Abraham ended by saying, "Jesus love you.  Even if you kill me, Jesus will still love you."  The would-be murderer pulled the trigger.  The gun malfunctioned. "Jesus still loves you."  He pulled the trigger a second and third time. Again there was a malfunction.  "Jesus loves you," Abraham testified. Out of fear, the Mujahid dropped his weapon on the floor of the church and the whole group of them ran away.  They returned that night and warned that if the Christians continued to meet, then they would come and beat them every day until next Sunday when they would kill them all.

The beatings began the next day.  By Thursday, Abraham was the only believer left.  The leader of the Mujahideen group told his fighters, "Do not beat this one.  Let him go.  If you beat him, he will only tell you about Jesus."  The Mujahid leader retold the Gospel story he had heard Abraham tell the week before.  Abraham smiles when he remembers, "They knew more about Jesus than I did when I became a Christian!"  They did not return to beat him any more.  But on Sunday, the day they promised to return and kill him, they came to his house at 2 AM.  They were dressed in long, dark robes with only their eyes showing.  Abraham told his wife that, as he often did late at night, he would be going out to visit with some of his friends.  He said this so she would not worry.

He was taken to the city dump and told to go stand in the midst of the trash.  "Jesus is Lord, but he will to be able to save you," the Mujahid leader bragged. "Get on your knees and we will behead you."  One fighter came and put a knife to Abraham's neck.  "'Pray your last prayer' he told me.  And I was happy to pray" Abraham continued.  "I prayed a blessing on those who were attacking me.  I prayed that God would save them from the war they were fighting.  I asked God not to hold them guilty for my death. Bless them and their families and keep them safe.  I prayed for God to accept my spirit."

"Are you crazy?  I am killing you and you are blessing me and my family?" the confused Mujahid asked.

"Jesus says to love my enemies and to love my neighbor.  But I do not see you as an enemy.  I was one of you.  Jesus saved me.  He can save you," I told them.  "They released me and went away."

You can imagine the power in the room as we heard the testimony of this brother.  Subsequent beatings by authorities because of his faith?  "That is nothing," Abraham contends.  He understands and abides by the laws his country has in place to guard against the radicalization of young Muslim even though it means that Christian parents cannot take their own children to church.  In one of the more insightful comments we heard about the reasons behind the laws restricting religious liberty, Abraham added, "And when we see how Christians in countries like Ukraine have turned against each other in war, my country has a real fear of these influences."

There are Christian sisters and brothers around the world who endure daily pressure because of their faith.  Some can be called mere inconvenience.  Others, like Abraham, know what persecution really looks like.  They are also aware that a component of Christian love for the neighbor is how we conduct ourselves in our own lands.  The influence we as Christians exert for good in the world is undermined by conflicts within the church.  The ones who suffer more as a result of our internal conflicts are those who are most vulnerable.  For Christians like Abraham, their vulnerability also becomes a platform for faithful witness.  Thanks be to God.