Islèm is a secret believer from North Africa. She found out about Jesus through social media - and has to keep her faith hidden from her family. Can you help isolated believers find fellowship?
You are probably experiencing isolation in a new way this year. Coronavirus has had a widespread impact on all of our lives. Churches have closed. Families can’t gather together for special occasions – or even everyday occasions. Whether or not your life was usually very busy, it’s likely that your experience of Christian community has changed dramatically in 2020.
The measures brought in to combat the spread of coronavirus in the UK and Ireland are not persecution, of course. They do not specifically target Christians. But perhaps they help us to understand a bit more what life is like every day for secret believers around the world. Online communication is doubly a lifeline for them – it is a means for people to hear the good news of Jesus in places where sharing the gospel is prohibited, and new believers can be discipled and trained online too.
Islèm*, in North Africa, was brought up in a Muslim family. As far as her father knows, she is still a Muslim. But this 22-year-old student is courageously following Jesus in secret – and she found out about Him online.
When Islèm first wanted to find out more about Christianity, she had no friends or family she could ask. She didn’t even know it was possible to become a Christian, given her upbringing and where she lives. “At that time, I thought there were no Christians in North Africa. I thought I’d be the first one. For me, Christians were people living abroad.”
It’s unsurprising that Islèm hadn’t met any Christians living in her country, which we can’t identify for security reasons. Across North Africa (with the exception of Egypt), the number of Christians is tiny. Those who do follow Jesus in this region have to do so secretly, individually or through the underground church. In many parts of the region, telling a Muslim about the gospel, or converting from Islam, is illegal.
That’s why online outreach is so important in North Africa. It can reach people who would otherwise be completely alone with their questions. Islèm’s first online searches didn’t come to anything – but later, thankfully, she started searching again. She knew there was something missing.
A few years later, when Islèm was 15, she spent some time in hospital with a kidney infection. Home life had been increasingly difficult, and her father was being aggressive to her mother. Islèm was struggling psychologically.
“I used my smartphone to go on Facebook,” Islèm remembers. “And while I was on the landing page, I saw a page called ‘Christians in [Islèm’s country*]’.” Open Doors partners didn’t create the particular page that Islèm saw, but this form of social media discipleship and outreach is increasingly becoming the way Open Doors partners are reaching seekers and new believers. During the coronavirus crisis, with face-to-face outreach impossible, online projects are more crucial than ever. Open Doors partners are increasing their online programmes in North Africa, offering outreach, training, Bible reading, prayer and spiritual encouragement. These online projects were already lifelines to many secret believers; now they are critical to the survival of the church.
“It was strange for me,” continues Islèm. “I clicked on it, but then stopped it. I switched off my phone. When I switched it on again – again, the same page in front of my eyes. Maybe there was something, maybe it was a sign. I clicked on it and sent a message.”
Someone from the group responded. Islèm spoke to a pastor, and he arranged for a Bible to be brought to her: “A girl came with her brother to give me a Bible. She said they were going to a church – I asked them if I could come with them, and she said yes. I went to church and it was great!”
And so Islèm found a community of believers to learn from, keeping her exploration secret from her parents. Soon after, she attended a Bible study group run by Open Doors partners, funded by Open Doors supporters: “That was the first time I read the Bible, with a pastor explaining the verses. On that day, the pastor was teaching John 14:6, ‘Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”.’ On that day, I became a believer.”
Islèm kept going to the church, and praying with the pastor and his wife. She read the Bible whenever she could: “To me, reading the Bible was like eating; it was a need. I wanted to read more and more. I was really happy. I felt at ease.”
All the time Islèm was learning about Jesus and attending training seminars (which are funded by the gifts and prayers of Open Doors supporters), she had to keep her faith secret: “My family still thinks that I am a Muslim,” says Islèm. “Only my mother knows that I am a Christian, and she accepts it. My father does not know anything about it.” The only times she has raised the topic of Christianity with her father, he has responded violently. “I thought that, if I said anything more, he would kill me,” she says. It’s too dangerous for Islèm to live her faith openly.
Islèm speaks passionately about her relationship with Jesus now: “Jesus is like oxygen, because without oxygen you cannot breathe. If Jesus were not in my life, I wouldn’t be here today, I would not be alive.”
Without that initial Facebook group that led Islèm to the answers she needed, she might still be waiting for an encounter with Jesus and the life she is receiving from Him. The Bible tells us ‘seek and you will find’ (Matthew 7:7) – in the 21st Century, seeking can increasingly mean searching on Facebook! There will always be a vital role played by face-to-face discipleship and evangelism, of course, and for smuggling physical Bibles to secret believers who can’t get them – but there is a vital place, particularly during this pandemic, for outreach that takes place on social media and elsewhere online.
“In the Bible, we are told that we need to be a united community,” says Islèm. “We Christians should be one body.” It’s a great privilege that we, in the UK and Ireland, get to be part of that same united community with Islèm. Open Doors’ vision is to see a strong global church, defying persecution, standing together and sharing Jesus no matter the cost. That means we have to stand with secret believers in North Africa and across the world, who are courageously following Jesus despite the danger.
Online programmes can show these believers that they aren’t alone, and the encouragement that your prayers and gifts make possible can be life-changing for your brothers and sisters. This can prevent their young faith fading or dying, and instead help them grow as warriors of faith! You can be the lifeline that seekers and secret believers like Islèm need today.
And they need it more than ever, as the coronavirus crisis adds further to the isolation and vulnerability they already face for choosing to follow Jesus. For many, these programmes are now a matter of survival.
*Name changed for security reasons