When Akmal* went to his first Christian camp, he kept wondering when the leaders would come and eat his flesh and drink his blood.
Growing up in the central Asian country of Tajikistan, where 98 per cent of people are Muslim, Akmal had only heard scary things about Christians – that they worship images, that they worship three gods and that they offer human sacrifices.
So when his mother sent him and his brother to the summer camp, without realising what they would be taught, he was shocked when the leaders were all lovely and kind.
“I was still waiting when they will start open their real face and will eat some of the kids and drink some of the blood of the kids.” – Akmal
“They were doing a lot for the kids – they were singing, they were praying, they were trying to express their love to the kids,” remembers Akmal.
“After some days in the camp, I was still waiting for when they will start to open their real face and will eat some of the kids and drink some of the blood of the kids. But it doesn’t happen.
“Me and my brother totally ignored most of the events, like reading the Bible and some of the children’s programmes because we thought it’s not where we have to be.”
Akmal is one of the heroes of the faith who attended the United Bible Societies Round Table Exchange in Sydney in July. I met him there.
Akmal, then aged 14, and his younger brother were at the camp because their mother had to work. She had divorced their father for repeatedly beating her when she voiced objections to him taking a second wife.
“He said that ‘I don’t need this child because I can make hundreds more children.'” – Akmal
“I started to hate my father because it continued again and again for a period of time and my mother two times lay in the hospital. She was in a very difficult health condition from head trauma.”
Akmal’s alienation from his father deepened during the divorce proceedings. His father told the judge that he didn’t want to keep his sons and to let them go to an orphanage.
“In a court, he said the words that lay deeply in my heart – he said that ‘I don’t need this child because I can make hundreds more children, so I don’t care – do whatever you want.’”
“The message that God is our father was a revolutionary idea in my head.” – Akmal
In this context, it’s easy to understand the dramatic impact upon Akmal when one of the camp leaders said that the Christian God was his heavenly father.
“One evening, one of the guys who was responsible for our group came to us and started sharing his story before we go to sleep. He shared about his family and it was interesting that his experience was very similar to our family story – the violence that he also experienced – but he started telling something that was totally new in my understanding. He started talking about God as a father. In Islam, we never heard about God is the father because God doesn’t have a child. Humans have to worship him, be obedient, but the message that God is our father was a revolutionary idea in my head.”
“For me it was clear that Jesus is the way, and through his acts, through his teaching, through his love, I can understand the father.” – Akmal
The leader then opened the Bible and read Isaiah 49:15 – “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”
“So that was God’s message and it was so close; it was like an arrow going straight to the heart. I start crying because, with all of these experiences with the father and with his message that he doesn’t need us, this was a totally different picture of the father that I dream to have,” he explains.
“As a teenager, I always dream to have someone who can teach as a father, as a leader, as someone to stand behind me, and I don’t have the opportunity to have this because of all the things that happened. But this message was going straight to my heart and I am crying and I said to this guy, ‘I want to have this father.’”
Akmal’s first prayer as a Christian was telling God that if he is the true God of Scripture, he wanted to have him as a father.
“For them, it’s a big shame. I was beaten; they said ‘you are stupid, because you bring shame to the whole family’.” – Akmal
But as he started to read the Bible without the “false glasses” of Muslim stereotypes he saw how Jesus was the exact image of God the father.
“I truly believe it was the work of the Holy Spirit because I was caught by the father and from this time I started reading the Bible very seriously and … of course, I start looking to Christ with other eyes, and more and more during reading the Bible and especially the gospels about what Jesus taught and what Jesus did, I fell in love more and more with Jesus,” he says.
“Especially in the Gospel of John when his disciples are asking him ‘please show us the father’ and he said ‘it’s not necessary to show the father, because when you see me you see the father.’ For me it was clear that Jesus is the way, and through his acts, through his teaching, through his love, I can understand the father because the father is much greater than we can understand. But as a gospel teaching us that he humiliated himself for the love of humanity, every human being, just to show how deeply he loves us. Through this Jesus I can understand how God loves us and accepts me.”
“They called my mother and told her she has to throw me out from the home because from this moment I am not her son any more.”- Akmal
At that time, Akmal didn’t understand the ramifications of his decision in a society where a Christian convert loses almost everything – family relationships, neighbourhood shame and persecution from officials.
When he told his mother about his experiences, she was horrified and strictly forbade him to even think about Christianity. So Akmal started visiting church secretly and was baptised secretly in the basement of the church.
“When I was baptised, somebody took a picture of me and … gave it to me as a gift to memorise this day. I came back to home and hid this picture and forgot about it.”
Two years later he came home to find his home was full of relatives and he assumed it was some kind of celebration, but their sombre faces showed it was not a celebration but more like a funeral.
“My grandfather showed me this picture and I understood what’s happened. So this was a hard time because they were screaming. For them, it’s a big shame. I was beaten; they said ‘you are stupid, because you bring shame to the whole family’ and they are trying to hide it so that none of our neighbours know about this.”
“From this moment I’m not afraid to visit church so it totally changed my life.” – Akmal
His uncle took him to his home and tried every day through beatings and reading the Koran to make him repent his “sin” and officially proclaim the shahada – the “creed” of Islam – in front of the family.
“After two weeks, I escaped and ran away and the whole family said ‘from this time he is not our son,’ so they totally rejected me and there was no connection. They called my mother and told her she has to throw me out from the home because from this moment I am not her son any more.”
But in what Akmal considers a second miracle, his mother echoed the words of Isaiah 49:15 and said, “he is my son, I cannot do this.”
There is a lovely postscript to this story. Akmal’s mother started reading his Tajik Bible secretly and one day she came to him in the middle of the night, crying and shaking.
“She said ‘wake up, wake up.’ I was totally scared. I woke up and said ‘what’s wrong, what’s happened?’ She said ‘wake up, your God came to me.’ I was totally shocked – I asked her again ‘who came to you?’ And she said ‘Jesus came to me.’ I asked ‘how do you understand it was Jesus?’
“She said ‘it was Jesus’ and it was so clear to her. I told her that ‘mum, this moment you cannot reject, so if God opened himself to you, you have to accept’, and she’s crying and says ‘I cannot do this because I’m afraid that the things that happened to you will happen to me, that the whole family and the whole neighbourhood will reject me.’
“But after this day she totally changed her mind because before she was against but now she started reading the Bible, visiting some church events and even she started cooking for big church events. From this moment I’m not afraid to visit church, so it totally changed my life and after that my second brother accepted Christ after this situation and become a Christian and was also baptised and my youngest brother too. He was baptised and became a church member too.”
*Name changed for security reasons.