Finding Christ in exile
By Trent Parker
The wind stirred the frigid air into a furor, enveloping the small band of refugees as they inched across the Central Asian mountains. Ali* fumbled with the lighter and held its small flame underneath his shirt to provide a short respite from the cold. One of the smugglers guiding them had taken Ali’s coat, leaving him with only a T-shirt. As his mule lumbered along carrying him over the mountains into another country — and relative freedom — a dream lingered in his mind.
Two angels were dragging me toward a tree as the shadows of evening fell. “Where are you taking me?” I asked. “You are sinful, so we are taking you to be killed,” they replied. At once a blinding light engulfed them and a voice rang out from the light: “His sins are forgiven. Let him go.”
Ali had grown up in a wealthy Muslim family. His father owned an electronics factory that allowed their family to prosper and while they lived in an Islamic world, their faith was something mostly relegated to the mosque.
“We didn’t understand Islam,” Ali said. “We said we were Muslims, but we didn’t really believe.”
Their need for religion grew when Ali’s father’s business faltered. His friends had betrayed him. They bribed the police to take everything from the factory, leaving Ali’s father with nothing.
Rage and despair washed over his father. He became mired in a legal battle against his friends — fought mostly with bribes — and was left with only a fraction of his former wealth.
Ali’s once-rich family now could not afford to pay rent. With nowhere to turn, they sought refuge from their desperate situation in Islam.
“My father went to a mullah (Islamic leader) for help,” Ali said. “He suggested that our family pray, fast, sacrifice animals and call out to the spirits for help, but nothing changed.”
A painful realization dawned on Ali’s father: he was going to have to leave their country — and his family — to seek a better life for them elsewhere. He fled in secret to a neighboring Central Asian country.
As the oldest son, Ali shouldered the responsibility of caring for the family until he was forced into military service. All the while, his disillusionment with Islam grew.
It was during this time the dream came. The angels came to kill him and he was saved by the voice from the light. Ali awoke feeling confused.
Months later, Ali’s father sent a message to Ali asking him to join him in exile. Ali requested a leave from his work to discuss matters with his mother.
The police took his mother to prison the night Ali arrived home. The police were using Ali’s mother to get to his father. The police informed her she would be released if her husband would return.
“I can’t go [with my mother in prison],” Ali said. “I am the oldest child and I must look out for my family.”
But his mother sent word from prison insisting that he leave. She was kept in prison for 21 days but released because they had nothing to charge her with.
The night his mother was arrested, Ali gathered what little belongings he had and made his way to a border town. Following his father’s instructions, Ali found a group of smugglers willing to sneak him and several other refugees across the border.
“We stayed in the first village until night, then we left,” Ali said. “We got on mules. There were 10 of us in that village with about six smugglers to help us.”
The small group headed into the mountain range separating the countries.
“It was November, so it was cold. Everyone had a coat but me. One of the smugglers had taken mine. Some of the people wanted to stop and rest but I had no coat so I wanted to continue going. It was very cold. I had a lighter and would burn it under my shirt to warm myself.”
Ali arrived in his father’s city after days of riding and walking. Ali’s mother and brother would follow his path months later — in the middle of winter.
Ali’s father had sent word months before to his family that he had become a Christian since he had left. Although the family had turned away from Islam during the trials, this news still came as a surprise. Yet when Ali arrived with his father, pressing matters like finding food, jobs and a home for their family pushed religion out of his mind.
Although they were free from their country, their new living conditions were far from pleasant.
“We had little money. We legally couldn’t have jobs and we had a bad house,” Ali said. “We slept on the floor and had [only] two blankets but no mattress to sleep on. We had no one to help us.”
When members of a local refugee church began ministering to Ali’s family, his mother and brother became believers, but Ali was hesitant. He began reading the Bible to find errors in it.
“I knew there were errors in Islam, and I thought since Christianity was an even older religion there must be more errors in Christianity,” Ali said, “But I didn’t find any.”
The church continued to disciple Ali’s family and he listened as they taught that part of coming to Christ was recognizing that you are a sinner. Ali had trouble with this — he did not feel that he was a sinner and struggled to see a need for salvation.
“I’m not that bad of a person,” Ali thought, “so why do I need to believe in Jesus?”
Ali prayed for God to change his heart and show him his need for Jesus. God answered Ali’s prayer — He revealed to Ali that he was a sinner.
“[My sin] destroyed my view of myself,” Ali said, “I realized that I am not a good man.”
Memories of the dream returned to Ali. The angels were coming to kill him and again the voice spoke to the angels telling them Ali’s sins were forgiven.
The Bible was telling Ali he was a sinner, and until this moment he had refused to accept that fact.
“I was at a dead end,” Ali said. “So I was asking God for help and the only help was his message in the Bible: Jesus Christ was crucified for me.”
Ali recognized his need for a Savior and asked Jesus Christ to become the Lord of his life.
“After I became a believer everything changed,” Ali said. “My thinking changed, my desires changed and my character changed.”
Things were not easy for Ali and his family after he became a believer. His family still struggled with money, and when his father returned to their country to rebuild his factory, he faced persecution because of his faith.
The Lord blessed Ali in the midst of physical hardships and he grew spiritually. Ali was discipled by a local ministry and plans to go to seminary. He wants to return to Central Asia to help foster the growing church there.
“There are very few Iranians who are knowledgeable about the Bible,” Ali said, “For this reason I know that I must receive training and go back to serve the [Central Asian] church.”
Ali came to Christ in exile but knows he must take the hope he has found to the people of his homeland. The lack of freedom Ali experienced in his country is overshadowed by the freedom he now has in Christ.
For more information on how to reach your Muslims neighbors with Christ’s love, visit lovingmuslims.com. Lovingmuslims.com offers a two-week small-group study and an eight-day prayer guide for use with the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this September. It also offers sermon outlines, feature stories and videos and additional resources. Churches and individuals can connect on Facebook by liking “LovingMuslims.com” and following @Loving_Muslims on Twitter.
*Name has been changed
Trent Parker is a writer for the IMB in Europe.