Poverty and persecution have presented Iris and Muluken – a young couple with two young children from Ethiopia – with unimaginably difficult choices. At the height of desperation, they fell for the empty promises of local Muslims – a decision they have since reversed and deeply regret. Your timely Covid-19 support offers the encouragement and fellowship they so desperately need.
Iris with her son
“It was hard,” Iris reflects, not wanting to think about the decision that has come to haunt her. “I only wanted to see my children survive.”
There were days and nights when Iris and Muluken’s children went without food, and there was no money to buy soap or water. Iris even begged in shops for free food and essentials. “My heart trembled,” she continues. “I got sick and it made me fall on the ground due to the depth of my problems. It was very hard.”
"I left the Lord I was saved by. I was terribly mistaken." Muluken
The desperation was getting worse. Muluken began taking goods on credit from his close Muslim friends and, at their lowest moment around a year ago, received a tantalising offer from the local Muslim community. “Come to Islam,” they said. “We will send your wife abroad [to work]. We will buy you land.” Muluken agreed.
“I was very much tricked into believing it was true,” he says. "I left the Lord I was saved by. I was terribly mistaken. When I went there, there was nothing."
Iris grew up as a nominal Christian in the Orthodox Church. Her father was the first born-again Christian in the family. Severe sickness meant he was unable to work in the shop that supported his family. After exhausting all other alternatives, he was invited to a Protestant church where they prayed for him. He was healed. “He became a Protestant, but we refused,” Iris explains.
Iris’s initial indifference did not change the calling God had on her name. She was again invited to church and this time was ready to receive God’s Word. “They read the Bible to me. It changed me,” Iris recalls. She started reading the Bible on her own and eventually asked Jesus into her life.
Iris took Muluken to church with her, and he too became a believer. “I understood who the Lord is and received Him,” he explains. “God is the very solution for humans, I have seen this.”
After their conversion, Iris and Muluken were hated by their Orthodox family and community for becoming Protestants. They had no support at all and found it very hard to provide for their two children.
In rural Ethiopian villages, there is an intricate interdependency within a community for survival. And religion is part of the collective tradition. If anyone renounces the tradition, it upsets the whole social system and can have devastating consequences for the ‘rebel’.
Muluken explains, “After I came to the Lord, I was very much humiliated. People smirked, ‘Muluken has become born-again.’ Not just other people, but my relatives also hated me. While there were jobs to do, I stayed jobless because they said, ‘Muluken will not work with us.’
Iris tried to get work, without any real success. “We faced so many problems. We could not even send our children to school. I was paid 150birr (£3) working as a daily labourer – not enough for daily expenses and house rent.”
At the height of the couple’s stress and despair, that’s when they were asked to convert to Islam and accepted the invitation.
Iris and Muluken’s experience is not unusual. While extremist Islamic violence in sub-Saharan Africa often claims the headlines, non-violent coercion is also often used as a means of Islamic expansion and it’s equally dangerous for the church today. Muslim communities and organisations continue to exert pressure through subtle ways that come with conditions – such as the financial help to Iris and Muluken, infrastructure development, access to schools, clinics, boreholes, education and scholarships, business opportunities and marriage – but only if the recipients convert to Islam.
But a few months later – following the invitation of an Open Doors partner who could not promise that life would get easier – the couple made the bold decision to return to their Christian faith. “He talked to us and said, ‘Come back to the Lord. You will rise even if you fail,’” Iris remembers. “We said, ‘Enough! Let whatever happen.’ We came back to the Lord.”
Whilst the recent past is tinged with sorrow, the couple are determined to look forward. “My heart deeply grieved about leaving Christ. I felt very bad. I had given up because of poverty,” Iris says. “It’s terrible to think of the past. It is good we talk about the future. It was very hard, and I do not want to think about it.”
Asked how she now feels to be a Christian again, Iris adds, “I can’t find words to describe that feeling. ‘Thank you, God’ is what I said. I was so pleased.” The Open Doors partner continues to counsel the couple and help them grow in faith through discipleship. Importantly, the support that Open Doors partners give to Iris and Muluken comes without conditions or expectations.
Since leaving Islam and recommitting themselves to Jesus, life remains hard. To worsen matters, the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdown have added difficulty. There is no work, and whilst government aid is available, the authorities will not register their name. It’s an all-too-familiar story not just in Ethiopia but many countries – Christians deliberately rejected in the distribution of aid. The family endured days without food.
"You have reached out to us at the time of our brokenness" Muluken
The family’s church had been a source of support, but since services have stopped (because of Covid-19) there is no longer enough income to help them. “The closing of the church has disturbed life very much,” Muluken says. “Our children often beg us to take them to church. Life is very difficult now. The closing of the church hurts us.”
Despite the unrelenting challenges, the family are refusing to be downbeat. “What we think is, even if problems are around, we will get through them, being strong in Him,” Iris says.
In August, thanks to your generosity, Open Doors partners were able to assist Iris and Muluken in covering their most urgent expenses, including rent and food. In total, more than 500 Christian families in Ethiopia who have struggled with intensified poverty due to Covid-19 received vital aid.
Muluken is deeply moved by the timely help. “You have reached out to us at the time of our brokenness,” he says. “I am very grateful. May God help you stand in His strength. As they stand for us, may God stand for you. I don’t have words… You came to us while we had nothing at all. I am so thankful. By the money you sent us, we got up from where we failed.”
Iris’ face brightens as she says, “God bless those who sent this money for us. May God protect you. May He hear your prayers. May God bless you richly.”
Thank you for faithfully standing with Christians like Iris and Muluken who face not only the threat of pressure and persecution, but the discrimination of local authorities and communities who put them the last in line for government aid.
Now in the second stage of #TheLastInLine campaign, you can continue to show your support for Christians like Iris and Muluken by writing to your MP asking them to save the date for the 2021 World Watch List launch, and sharing your #TheLastInLine photos on social media.