In 1989, 13 Muslim friends in Egypt made a decision that would forever bind them together: They became Christians.
As Muslims in an Islamic country, they weren’t just transferring their beliefs. Living as Christians with Muslim still highlighted on their state ID cards was treason against their society. Their decision betrayed and brought shame to their families, provoking violent reactions from those closest to them.
Over the next several years, some died at the hands of militant Muslims or vindictive family members. Some spent time in jail for sharing the gospel. All lived under the threat of violence and discrimination. They were punished for the love and faith that compelled them.
Christians who attended registered churches had state IDs giving them the right to follow Jesus publicly. They feared to associate with these new Muslim converts lest the police and the community bring sanctions on them and their ministry: churches could be shut down, and the underground believers could be exposed by Christians not used to the need for secrecy.
One member of the group, Brother K, relates the point of decision: “The church was scared to make any problems with the government, so we left.” After that, the converts had to teach themselves how to follow Christ. K began conducting weekly teaching sessions—eventually, training house-church participants in four cities.
And the police arrested him. Despite the brutal treatment he received, after he was released, he kept teaching. “If I didn’t do this,” he said, “they would leave Egypt, and we would lose a whole new generation of believers.”
His wife, Sister E, also faced horrific abuse for her faith. Before they were married, when her parents learned she had started to follow Jesus, they locked her in her bedroom for three years. She was released only when Brother K offered to marry her. That took the shame out of the house.
Both K and E knew they could be arrested at any moment. It happened again in 1997, when the police brought K in for teaching Muslim-ID’d people about Jesus. This time, while K sat in prison, his wife was home with their newborn son, S.
The stakes are higher
Like his parents, S’s ID said he was a Muslim, though he had been born of two believers (whose ID said they were Muslims). At home the family shared a devotion to Christ. As S grew up, he found it increasingly difficult to survive this duplicity.
Other kids at the Muslim oriented schools teased him and excluded him. He was forced to study the Qur’an and join daily Muslim prayers. In his heart, he followed Christ, but the school forced him to behave as an adherent of Islam. It tore him apart.
One day K found his son whispering into the phone in tears, “I’m a Christian. I am not a Muslim.” No one was on the other end—S had only an empty line to share his heart. They finally found a Christian school to take him.
In February 2012, K traveled to the United States at the invitation of Advancing Native Missions. He would visit American churches as a representative of the world’s persecuted believers. During the trip, E called from Egypt with heart-wrenching news: S’s Christian school expelled him because they found out he was following Christ with a Muslim ID. If the authorities found out, they could shut down the school.
Tormented over their son’s situation, K and E made the impossible decision to take him out of the country. In June the three of them traveled to the U.S. to bring S to a family in Missouri who agreed to house him and let him attend their school.
Again, events back home in Egypt changed everything. Security officers arrested a woman named Mary, one of the original 13. They forcefully extracted from her details about her friends’ relationships with Muslim-background Christians. The government blacklisted K and E. They could not return home.
“People thought I betrayed them because I didn’t go back,” K recalls. Stuck in the U.S., he mourned the severed relationships with his friends in the underground churches back home. He also questioned how they would survive and grow as believers without continued teaching and mentorship. But he was in the U.S., thousands of miles away.
“The church was scared to make any problems with the government, so we left.”
K was scheduled to lead two events for converts from Islam in Turkey and Egypt in the fall of 2012. Like the Apostle Paul, K had already traveled to these communities of believers to teach and encourage them. He longed to return, but the Egyptian government’s actions blocked his entry into Turkey. Friends continued organizing the events in K’s absence. Then in August, K received a message from one of the organizers: “Can we talk via computer?”
So K began his first Skype call. The video chat and voice call service, founded in 2003, had just been acquired by Microsoft and had also become available to millions of iPhone users for the first time the previous year.
The friend at the other end was Isaac, one of the 13. After K’s second arrest in 1997, Isaac fled Egypt for Lebanon, where he eventually married a Lebanese Christian. Isaac and K communicated through an intermediary for six years, fearing discovery by authorities in Egypt. Eventually, other regional leaders decided to come together and coordinated the event through Skype.
K planned to fly there and share with the leaders, but Egypt’s block on travel prevented him from entering the country. Ultimately, K shared with them from the U.S. via Skype. The Muslim-background Christian leaders from around the Arab world returned home encouraged and equipped to help their secret churches grow in their faith. The network the Egyptian police seemingly had broken years before was gaining new life.
A new paradigm
K and Isaac realized that their Skype calls could not only re-start, but even enhance K’s mentorship and coaching of leaders in underground churches. Local pastors from Morocco to Turkey began gathering believers in their homes weekly for K to instruct and encourage.
In 2014 a friend of K introduced him to a Syrian Muslim refugee family in Turkey. He asked K to talk to them about Jesus. K did, and when he prayed with them afterward, God used his prayer to cast a demon out of the mother. Both she and her husband accepted Jesus.
K started talking with them once a week, teaching them about Jesus and discipling them. Friends of the Syrian family learned what had happened to them and joined them for the weekly calls. Before long they asked K to pray for them as well. Several of them were delivered from demons. The one family quickly grew to 12 families.
About the same time, a young woman named Grace began working among the Muslims and new Christians in Turkey. She became like K’s hands and feet, while he met with her via Skype regularly to train her. “Almost every day, we talked three hours to teach her the vision, the goal, and preparing and equipping her to be wise—how she can know about security,” K said.
After mentoring her during the first year through Skype, K believed she was ready to lead the ministry. He remains her adviser, always available to help and guide her whenever she encounters challenges.
K now Skypes with four groups of Syrian refugees in Turkey—about 100 families in all. Each week they gather in local homes for up to two hours.
During one of these meetings, as they were praying and worshiping, God touched a woman who had been handicapped for more than 12 years. To everyone’s astonishment, she got up and started walking. Learning what happened to her, 35 members of her family still living in Syria began following Jesus. Desiring to learn more, they started listening in on K’s Skype meetings. K now communicates with believers in two large Kurdish cities in Syria. The ongoing war inevitably disrupts connections, making scheduled meetings difficult. They talk when they can.
“When I’m driving, and they call and tell me, ‘Brother K, now we have a connection. Can we talk?’ I stop the car and talk,” K said. “I must be available for them at any time or any place, even if I am in a meeting.”
In Lebanon, where Isaac’s center occupies the basement of a building in the Muslim section of a large city, two congregations meet for worship, one Lebanese and the other mostly Syrian refugees. Brother K holds Skype classes for Isaac and his staff of 11 people twice a month. He gives them lessons on apologetics to help better equip them to answer Muslims’ questions.
Six years after his first call, K Skypes directly with house churches in Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria. Some of the Syrian refugees among them link up with their families in Germany, Denmark, Belgium, and Austria through another communication app, Viber, so they can hear and see K themselves.
K knows his imperfections, but he hopes his experience will benefit these young believers. In the Muslim countries, the local churches won’t touch former Muslims, as the authorities would shut them down for any excuse. Their neighbors might be their enemies. K hopes to help them survive and grow in their faith until they don’t need his leadership anymore.
When you meet K, you immediately sense he is a man with a big heart. He speaks with passion, it’s not unusual to see tears, and he’s often ready with a hug. K’s family are those bound together in Christ, and he takes that reality seriously. So his reconnection with friends and new believers was never just about programs and teaching.
Before leaving Egypt, K and E enjoyed monthly meals with other believers. Those now continue in a new way. “We prepare food, they prepare food, and we eat and talk together,” K said. They decided to begin meeting weekly to encourage each other. “We also do communion through Skype. I know people think we are crazy, but we are family.”
At times, emotions run high during these encounters. Technology brings these friends closer but also stands as a reminder of their distance and the restrictions between them.
K tempers his feelings, knowing what his friends endure in extremely restrictive societies, while he is free to practice his faith in the U.S. They need a strong love and a courageous faith.
“When I see my people face to face, I feel I need to be with them,” K shared. “I must control my tears. I cannot cry in front of them, as leaders must be strong. We are family. So I must be strong for them and smile, and yet I cry inside.”
Close to home
In 2014, K started hearing from Grace’s Syrian refugee church about a problem that took him straight back to his last days in Egypt. They were agonizing over their children, suffering a tragic dual identity: Muslim at school, Christian at home.
Some had missed months or years of school as their families fled the war in Syria and sought to establish a new home in Turkey. The parents got them back in school as soon as possible. Unable to afford Christian schools, however, they enrolled them in the free Islamic schools. The children, who just recently started following Christ with their families, didn’t know what to do. One boy cried as he said, “I am a Christian. I don’t want to learn the Qur’an.”
Burdened for these children, so like his own son, K reached out to American believers with a plan: provide supplies, space, and teaching for the families to homeschool their children.
It worked. In 2018 13 students finished the school year in their church’s Christian homeschool. K and Isaac replicated the model in Lebanon for Syrian refugee children. Now 56 children from 5 to 17 gather three times each week in the basement center. Four American teachers meet with the children through Skype three days each week, using an American curriculum. Since so many of the children missed time in school, classes are ordered by level of learning rather than age.
K and the teachers, along with the local leaders, hope that these children can eventually earn degrees, even attend college in the United States, and someday return to Syria as influencers able to help rebuild their society—perhaps even openly as Christians. That would be a dream come true for K, whose own family so far has been denied that return.
Yet for K, this is family in a way most people haven’t experienced. “We have a covenant between each other; we are family,” he said recently. “I’m like a big brother for them. If they ask me to do anything for them, I will do it.”
Andrew Needham contributed to this article.