An Asylum Seeker from Pakistan Opens Up About His Conversion and His Fears of Going Home
By Daniel Harris
03/16/2017 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – The bright yellow t-shirt John was wearing seemed like a mere extension of his personality: bright, exuberant. John smiles almost constantly. He is well-spoken and the kind of person you can tell is intelligent without them saying much at all. John and his family are in one of the last places you would expect to find an asylum-seeker from Pakistan: an island in Indonesia. They have been here for years hoping to be granted asylum to what an asylum-seeker calls the “third country:” a country that will grant them residence as refugees. A few weeks ago, International Christian Concern (ICC) sat down with John to hear his story. John’s family is just one of thousands hoping to be granted asylum in Southeast Asia.
John’s father was first introduced to Christianity at the age of 14, although he was unaware of it at the time. According to John, one night his father’s room became bright, and the face of Jesus appeared, smiling over him. He spoke with John’s father and promised him he would be a good person and would help others. John’s father told his grandmother that he had seen a vision of Mohammed, but when he described the man, his grandmother told him it could not have been Mohammed; it must have been “another great being.” Nevertheless, he was changed by what he saw, and even the people in the community noticed the change in his life.
John’s father grew up and became involved in politics, but life for his family became dangerous when an opposing political party took office. The opposing party intimidated and threatened his family. John says that at that time, “We were so scared from just our house, just going to the grocery store was as if you were walking through a minefield…. they were known for killing people, known for making people disappear.”
One day, John’s uncle was killed and he and his family were forced to flee to Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, they began to attend a church. It was here that he recognized in the sermons the principles his father had taught him growing up. He says that as they listened to the worship songs, tears would stream down their faces even though they did not understand a word that was being sung. John said, “I would feel this sensation that there was someone around me. This is a stark contrast to how I was when I was a Muslim…I was very dedicated Muslim…I would pray a lot, but no matter how many times I prayed, no matter how hard I prayed, and no matter how long I prayed, I never got that feeling. It was always me alone…it was like I was in a dark room and it’s just me praying, nothing else, empty. But when I came to church, I could feel it. There is a difference, there is God.”
Unfortunately, life for John’s family did not get easier when they became Christians. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country and his family seemed to have traded political persecution in Pakistan for religious persecution in Indonesia. John said that before they were Christians, they were treated like normal people by the community and other asylum seekers. As soon as word got out they were no longer Muslims, everything changed. “They gave us a complete social boycott,” John recalled. If other children wanted to play with them, their parents would pull them away. People even stopped greeting them in the streets. John’s best friend told him, “You are dead to me now,” and never spoke to him again. “We faced a lot of hurt from people finding out…” John remembered as he looked at the ground.
At one point, it felt like there was hope. A program was started to allow asylum seekers to open up about their struggles. “People from Myanmar can go there and talk about the discrimination they’re facing. The people from Afghanistan can go there and talk about their problems with the Taliban…” John explained.
But when John tried to open up about the religious persecution they face in Indonesia and the fear of being sent back to Pakistan as a Christian, he was told he could not talk about it because it is a sensitive issue. His fears are well-founded: “It is very real that I can be killed and I will be killed if I go back to Pakistan…Our problem is such that we can’t even talk about it for help. We can’t even mention it to the government or to anyone because it is a sensitive issue. We are stuck in the situation, we are facing a lot of danger, and at the same time we cannot even ask for help.”
The danger for John’s family is so much greater now that they have converted. The issue faced in many Muslim countries is that it is illegal to convert. Citizens are issued government identification (ID) that states their religion. This cannot be changed. If one is born into a Christian family, their ID will say “Christian.” If one is born into a Muslim family their ID will say “Muslim.” To convert from Muslim to Christian is not just “unthinkable,” it is forbidden. To carry a Muslim ID and not be seen attending prayers in the mosque is dangerous. To carry a Muslim ID and be a known follower of Christ can be suicide. That is the tension John and his family face as they wait, for years now, to find out their “sentence.” Their application for asylum has actually already been rejected, but they are appealing, knowing that any day a final decision may come and they may be sent home as not only political outsiders, but now members of a strongly persecuted religious minority.
John is asking for our prayers for his family. A review has been set for his family; the person reviewing their asylum application is renowned for his harshness. He is asking that the Church in America would pray for his family to be granted asylum, and that they would not be forced to return home where it is likely they could be killed.
ICC is working to support asylum seekers like John, but what these families need most is your prayers. Join us in praying for John and for families like his whose lives are in the balance as they seek refuge from persecution.