When Issam in North Africa became a Christian, his family turned against him. But he stayed firm in his faith and now supports many new and isolated believers.
“I won’t kill you.” Those are the words Issam’s* brother said to him, and it was meant to show mercy. His brother added: “In Islam, you should be killed for this. If someone does kill you, I won’t avenge your death.”
Issam, North Africa
Issam’s offence was converting to Christianity. Unlike many believers in North Africa, Issam hasn’t kept his faith secret. Dangers differ in different communities, but Issam was also a bit naïve. He was so excited about his new faith that he couldn’t keep quiet about it.
“I was crazy enough to tell everyone immediately. I was so open that people didn’t really believe me or take it seriously. I think because of that it didn’t cause stress and anger in the beginning.” After two years, it was a different story. But it hasn’t stopped him helping other isolated believers.
“I was born into a committed Muslim family,” says Issam – in that much, his life was like most North Africans’. “From the age of seven onwards, I visited the mosque. When I grew up, I started to ask more in-depth questions.” He didn’t get the answers he wanted, and he began to drift away from the religion of his parents.
Ironically, it was his father who first introduced him to the Bible, almost by accident. In Issam’s country, Christian churches are allowed (though conversion from Islam to Christianity is an offence). His father had a construction job at a Catholic church, and brought home a New Testament. “The book attracted me. I started reading it. I thought, Jesus had wonderful ideas, but no one can put them into practice!” He was particularly struck by the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says that ‘anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matthew 5:28). Issam didn’t yet understand about grace.
After university, a chance encounter with a foreigner, who was only in the country for a week, made all the difference. He and Issam got chatting in a coffee shop, and he invited Issam to church. Issam wasn’t sure – but in the end he decided to go: “I met the man and he introduced me to other people. From that day to this, I have never left the church.”
After he’d been attending the church for a while, he began to realise the truth of who Jesus is. Though miracles are attributed to Jesus in the Quran, He is not recognised as God. “To me, it wasn’t easy to understand who Jesus really was,” remembers Issam. “It took me a few months to see that Jesus indeed is the Son of God – that He is God.”
Though Issam told his family and friends about becoming a Christian without retaliation, after a couple of years, things got worse. It was that conversation with his brother, where he said he wouldn’t avenge Issam’s death, that changed things. “I knew from then on that I didn’t have a family that supports or protects me anymore,” says Issam. “That was hard to hear.”
Pressure on him grew. “Later, people started using my mother against me. They started blaming her for me changing my faith. Hearing that did hurt me. This went on for years.
“As I was the youngest of my family and the only one still unmarried, I supported my mother financially but, because of pressure from others, she would sometimes refuse my money. It was very hard to see her suffering because of not having enough money.”
His family hoped this pressure would make him turn back to Islam. But Issam felt secure with Jesus: “I keep going because I know my future, I have hope. Having that certainty is more precious than the pressure.” Praise God, his family are much less antagonistic now. One of his sisters is even exploring the Bible.
Now Issam works for his church, and has seen it change in the years since he’s been a member. “The church is better structured now. We have pastoral care for members and a ministry that focuses on new believers. I believe there will be a new explosion of church growth in North Africa – people are seeking. For example, I personally am connected to at least eight people searching.”
The growth mostly comes from young people. “Youth, students and recently graduated students come to the church. Most of them have no jobs, no income. As they depend more on their families, the pressure of the family is stronger on them. Most pressure on Christians comes from their family. Some don’t lose their faith but feel they have to leave their church. They then turn into secret believers meeting with other believers in a coffee shop or at a private home, rather than in church.”
New believers spread all over the country are a challenge for the church. “It’s difficult for new believers to come to training organised by the church. But it’s also difficult to send a Christian to a new believer to disciple him, as the country is big and it costs a lot of money. For that reason, we sometimes gather a list of names and make one trip to visit more of them in one place.”
Issam’s work is crucial for discipling new believers. Under the current travel restrictions, it’s got even harder and the church in North Africa is scaling up online outreach and discipleship, often with the help of Open Doors partners.
The support of Open Doors partners in North Africa, made possible by your prayers and gifts, has delighted Issam. “You are an organisation that supports the plans of the local church. You come alongside churches and walk with them, you help them instead of imposing something on them.”
With your help, Issam and others like him can reach a great number of isolated believers across North Africa, connecting them with the church and – as happened with Issam himself – helping them encounter Jesus properly for the first time.
*Name changed for security reasons