I’m going to find the flaws in this thing and then inform my students, thought Ari*, as he took a Bible off the university library shelf.
Ari was a lecturer in a respected Islamic university in Indonesia and a strict adherent of Islam. He wanted to assure his students that Islam is the true way and that they should be wary of the Christian religion.
Secretly, Ari spent days reading the Bible in the university library, looking for problems and inconsistencies. When he came to the New Testament, one particular verse stopped him short: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life…” (John 14:6). What kind of person can say this? he wondered. Who is this Jesus?
As a good Muslim, Ari continued praying five times a day. But he also persisted in reading the Bible. He couldn’t get that perplexing verse out of his mind.
One night he woke up around midnight, and this same verse from the Gospel of John was dominating his mind. Finally, at three in the morning he went outside for a walk. Seeing a Presbyterian church as he walked, he determined to ask the pastor about this verse. Some young men loitering outside took him to the nearby parsonage, and Ari knocked on the door until the tired man, roused from his sleep, opened it and invited him in.
Can an Aceh Muslim become a Christian?
“Jesus is calling you to be a disciple,” the pastor told him as they talked.
But when he learned that Ari was from Aceh, he didn’t proceed any further. Aceh people are militant Muslims quite hostile towards Christians, and Aceh is the only province in Indonesia that applies Islamic Sharia law.
The churches in Aceh province, composed predominantly of Batac people, did welcome Ari, but the pastors and elders knew that for them to lead an Aceh to Christ and baptize him would mean trouble. They proceeded cautiously. One of them made arrangements for Ari to live with the head of a mainline denomination in North Sumatra. It would be safer for everyone.
Ari, then 23 and single, stayed in the church leader’s home for six months. During that time he read all the books on Christian doctrine in the leader’s office. He desperately wanted to know the Lord Jesus. He forgot about his teaching position in the university; he had already made up his mind to become a Christian.
One Sunday in January 1976, the church leader took Ari to a small church in a remote place and secretly baptized him. A feeling of peace and relief flooded Ari’s being.
Heedless of the personal danger he could face because of his conversion, he went back to Aceh province to share with his friends his new birth. He told Mansur, a former classmate who was then a popular broadcaster on an Islamic radio station, that he was now a Christian and that he had found peace beyond understanding.
“No,” Mansur said in disbelief. “That can’t be!”
“Yes,” Ari said, as he showed him the baptism certificate.
“You’re kafir! An infidel! You’re dirty! Don’t touch me!” Mansur shouted.
Mansur lost no time in airing Ari’s “betrayal” of Islam. Some Aceh hardliners began looking for him 24/7. If they found him, they would kill him. Ari fled for his life.
Tensions grow in Aceh province
Ari sought refuge back in North Sumatra, and the church that had baptized him sent him to their Bible school. After a year there he shared his conversion story in the Batac churches of North Sumatra. While he wanted to go back to mainland Aceh, it was still too dangerous for him. So he remained in North Sumatra and continued witnessing to the people living there.
One day he met the first-ever Aceh Christian, a man named Yonathan. Together with another Aceh Christian, Ari and Yonathan started translating the entire Bible into the Aceh language from Indonesian. After Yonathan finished translating the Gospel of Luke in 1978, they smuggled copies of the Gospel into Aceh province, causing quite an uproar. The authorities apprehended Yonathan and put him in jail. The third translator, fearing for his safety, withdrew from the project, leaving Ari to singlehandedly continue the work.
Later in 1978, Ari married the Muslim widow of his older brother, in keeping with an Aceh tradition. They had five children. When his wife finally came to faith in Christ 10 years later, she bravely and passionately shared the gospel in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province. In 1991, while Ari was away, a mob came and destroyed their house, seized his wife, and put her in jail for 20 days.
Trials and loss
Fortunately, Ari had all his translation work with him, so it was not confiscated. Immediately upon his wife’s release, Ari took her and their children to Jakarta at night for safety. But they didn’t have money to rent a decent apartment. Due to harsh living conditions, his wife succumbed to cholera in 1995, and their two youngest children, an 8-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter, died 10 days later. Ari was inconsolable.
The oldest daughter, Dina, was six years old when her father, Ari’s older brother, passed away. In spite of Ari’s patient sharing of the gospel with her, she stubbornly rejected it for a number of years. Then one day, sensing something different whenever Ari would lead the family in prayer before meals, 14-year-old Dina told Ari, “Abba [Father], I want to know him more.”
Ari sent Dina to a Bible school in South Sumatra, after which she became a missionary in Kalimantan Island. One day, with boldness and conviction, she asserted that Jesus Christ is Lord to five young men in front of the mosque. These radical teenagers later ambushed her and stabbed her to death. She was 24.
Dina’s death cut Ari to the core, especially since he did not have the money to go to Kalimantan and bring her body back for burial. At his request, the people in South Kalimantan buried her. He felt a failure as a father.
About two weeks later, one kind-hearted pastor bought him a round-trip ticket so he could go and visit her grave. As he stood before Dina’s grave crying, he silently prayed, “God, even though I cannot touch the body of my daughter, and I cannot see her, I believe she’s now well. She’s a martyr and she’s in your hand, Lord.”
Losing four of his loved ones in just two years nearly cost Ari his sanity. “I almost lost my mind,” he confessed later. “My heart was so broken that I kept asking the Lord why this happened to me. I felt the Holy Spirit gave me strength.”
Ari painstakingly continued the Bible translation, and when it was finished, he worked at a radio station proclaiming the gospel on the air. He took the risk of offering a copy of the Bible to anyone interested. To Ari’s excitement, a few responded, and he personally delivered copies to the homes of those who requested them.
Then, in 1997, one man set a trap for him by requesting a Bible. When Ari went to his house, a group of men were waiting for him. “You’re a kafir; you’re a kafir,” they shouted and began beating him.
When Ari felt the first two punches on his jaw, he remembered that he must not retaliate. He did not defend himself but simply surrendered his life to the Lord and prayed, “God, your will be done. Lord, your will be done. Praise be the Lord!”
Then he lost consciousness. One Christian man kindly came to his rescue and turned him over to the police, who took him to the hospital, where he recovered.
Working toward an ambitious goal
Ari is presently engaged in contextual evangelism. He has two mission posts, one of them with 25 new Aceh believers. He intensively disciples new believers and makes sure that they know about suffering and will not revert to their former religion because of persecution.
He plants chili trees to support himself and as cover for his evangelism and discipleship work.
As to whether he has any regrets becoming a Christian, he asserts, “No regrets! I was seeking the Lord myself. No one persuaded me. I was looking, searching for him, and he found me.”
“I will gladly give my life for the Lord,” he continued. “I don’t hold anything back. But there’s one thing that I keep asking the Lord. Please don’t take my life until I see my people confess that they are Christian. If I witness a group or community of Christians together in fellowship brave enough to say they’re Christian, it will be a joy for me. Even if I die for that, it doesn’t matter. That’s what I ask God.”
Ari believes that if a thousand Aceh in one area say they are Christian, the government will not be able to kick them out because of the sheer number involved. Until that time, he tells Aceh believers to ignore each other if they meet in the market or in a public place. But when they are away from public observation they should show love to each other.
He maintains two small prayer huts in a secluded part of a rubber plantation, where Christians can gather in small groups. He is praying to have more of these meeting places in different plantations. Ari also walks the plantations telling the workers about Jesus. In the last year he has led more than 130 Aceh to faith in Christ. Altogether, he has brought 1,000 Aceh to the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
A lonely road
So much of Ari’s life and work is in secret. When my husband, Bo, and I met with him in a safe location earlier this year, he was grateful and relieved for the chance to share his story with us. Before we parted, he tenderly hugged Bo, bowed his head, and placed Bo’s right hand on his own head. “Please pray for me,” he said tearfully.
Ari’s journey is a lonely one on a treacherous road. But he knows Jesus walks with him. And your prayers will help sustain him.
*Name changed to protect identity of ANM partner ministry worker (Christians in Indonesia can often face deep persecution for their faith).