Below is the story of Josef, a Christian convert from Islam on the run from in-laws and family who seek his life. In Afghanistan, where Josef grew up and is currently hiding, and Pakistan, where he lived for a time with his wife’s family, those who turn from Islam to Christianity risk deportation from the government or murder from their families. Please pray for Josef as he remains in hiding, and for his family as they seek to kill him in the name of Islam.
By Azam Ahmed
6/21/2014 Afghanistan (NY Times) – In a dank basement on the outskirts of Kabul, [Afghanistan,] Josef read his worn blue Bible by the light of a propane lantern, as he had done for weeks since he fled from his family in Pakistan.
His few worldly possessions sat nearby in the 10-by-10-foot room of stone and crumbling brown earth. He keeps a wooden cross with a passage from the Sermon on the Mount written on it, a carton of Esse cigarettes, and a thin plastic folder containing records of his conversion to Christianity.
The documents are the reason he is hiding for his life. On paper, Afghan law protects freedom of religion, but the reality here and in some other Muslim countries is that renouncing Islam is a capital offense.
Josef’s brother-in-law Ibrahim arrived in Kabul recently, leaving behind his family and business in Pakistan, to hunt down the apostate and kill him. Reached by telephone, Ibrahim, who uses only one name, offered a reporter for The New York Times $20,000 to tell him where Josef was hiding.
“If I find him, once we are done with him, I will kill his son as well, because his son is a bastard,” Ibrahim said, referring to Josef’s 3-year-old child. “He is not from a Muslim father.”
For Josef, 32, who asked to be identified only by his Christian name to protect his wife and young child, the path to Christianity was only one segment on a much longer journey, a year of wandering that took him through Turkey, Greece, Italy and Germany, seeking refuge from Afghanistan’s violence.
In official eyes here, there are no Afghan Christians. The few Afghans who practice the faith do so in private for fear of persecution, attending one of a handful of underground churches that are believed to be operating in the country…
Only a few Afghan converts have surfaced in the past decade, and the government has typically dealt with them swiftly and silently: They are asked to recant, and if they refuse, they are expelled, usually to India, where an Afghan church flourishes in New Delhi.
In a country of crippling poverty, ethnic fault lines and decades of war, Islamic piety offers many Afghans a rare thread of national solidarity. To reject Islam is seen as tantamount to treason.
That leaves Josef almost nowhere to turn for protection. The police would be no help. Converts report being beaten and sexually abused while in custody. His family in Afghanistan is also a dead end: His uncles are hunting for him now, too.
Josef said he lost his faith well before he knew what would replace it. Most of his siblings emigrated to Germany when he was a teenager, but he stayed behind to look after his aging, ailing parents…
He hung on through civil war, repressive Taliban rule and Western invasion, but a senseless shooting he witnessed at close range in 2009 that left an 8-year-old boy dying in his mother’s arms finally shattered his resolve to stay.
In Hanover, [Germany,] close to where his siblings lived, Josef found a Protestant church for Farsi speakers, and began attending services, at first just to watch.
“When I threw away my Islamic beliefs, I was living in a space of spiritual emptiness,” he said. “During that time I was studying different religions — Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. I was studying Islam as well.”
After 15 days in Germany, he turned himself in and applied for asylum, and was held in a refugee camp where the monotony was broken by visits from missionaries.
“I think I was impressed by the personality of Jesus himself,” he said. “The fact that he came here to take all of our sins, that moved me. I admired his character and personality long before I was baptized.”
When he was released to live with his sister in Kassel, he returned to the church in Hanover and converted, a decision his siblings accepted with open-mindedness.
The reprieve was short-lived; the German authorities rearrested him and deported him to Italy because he had not sought asylum in the European Union country where he was first processed, as required. Without family or friends in Italy, he sought aid from churches and charities that offered him food but no shelter.
Homeless, broke, depressed and in deteriorating health, Josef gave up and went to live with his wife and her family in northern Pakistan.
Knowing the stakes of his secret, he put digital copies of his asylum paperwork and mementos of his conversion and baptism on a flash drive he carried in his pocket, finding some comfort in having them with him.
But one day in March, he left the flash drive at home. While he ran errands, one of his wife’s brothers borrowed the flash drive to save a file, and discovered what was on it.
When Josef came home that evening, his in-laws grabbed him by the throat and beat him. “We tied his hands and his legs and we wanted to kill him,” Ibrahim said. “It was my father who intervened, and said that he wanted to talk to his family first.”
The father said they would contact Josef’s uncles for guidance, and in the meantime Josef would be locked in a room at the side of the house, bound hand and foot.
In the middle of the night, Josef managed to escape, sneaking out of the house without a final goodbye to his wife or son. He caught a night bus to the border with Afghanistan. On the way, he phoned a childhood friend to ask for help, and then called his sister in Germany, weeping into his cellphone.
For Josef, who has recently changed hiding places, the time passes slowly now, with little company other than his Bible. He can hear the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer, a reminder of danger’s proximity and the paradox he lives now.
“When I threw away my convictions, it was hard to speak with people about it,” he said, a red ember pulsing on the tip of his cigarette. “It was like an imaginary prison.” He paused, the light from his propane lantern casting a long shadow on the wall. “Now it is the other way around,” he said at last. “My body is in prison, but my soul is free.”