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Living the Faith Where It's Not Safe to Believe
By Tom Doyle, Greg Webster
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Tom Doyle
All rights reserved.
THE PIRATES OF SOMALIA
A SOMALI STARED at the casket vibrating by his feet in the open bed of the truck as it juddered west toward Kenya. The left front tire dropped into a pothole and jolted a rifle from the man's lap. Grabbing the barrel, he steadied his weapon, sneered, and rolled his head away from the cargo. Turning was pointless, of course. Stench from the decomposing body in the container enshrouded the vehicle, but the evasive movement helped the man feel a measure of control over his dismal mission. He wondered how he would endure the hours-long drive that remained. Perhaps a stop for noon prayers would help. He scowled back at the man-sized box.
Inside the coffin, Azzam Azziz Mubarak stifled a retch. The three-day-old corpse on top of him pressed breath from the stowaway's lungs. Inhaling required not only physical exertion but mental resolve to convince the nostrils that taking in the putrefied air was necessary. Threads of the burial cloth peeled off Azzam's sweat-drenched cheek as he turned his head in an effort to find more breathing room. He shifted his left leg, the one body part not covered with a dead man. Regardless of the inconvenience the deceased had undoubtedly endured in life, Azzam was thankful that the corpse's missing leg, which would have lain on top of him, now gave him a spot of relief from the crushing weight.
I will suffocate before we even get to the checkpoint, Azzam thought.
The living man in the box struggled to raise his head to the top of the casket. With the back of his skull pressed against the end to support his weight—and that of the body on top of him—he pushed his right index finger up against the cover and raised it an inch. Azzam winced as daylight blasted through the gap. He squinted toward the guard, who was busy resettling the gun in his lap. The man checked to make sure the safety was on, then twisted his head away from the truck bed and spoke to the driver at his back. Azzam made out the words "noon" and "prayers." The driver nodded, and the truck swerved to the side of the road and jerked to a stop.
Azzam silently lowered the coffin cover. The truck rocked as its guard scrambled over the side. Azzam heard the driver's door slam shut and listened to their conversation fade as the two men walked toward a cluster of shacks about a hundred yards to the right of where they had parked.
Once both men were gone, Azzam freed his arms, torso, and head from the dead man's weight, propped himself on his right elbow and pushed up the casket lid with his left hand. He stretched his head into the open air. Compared to the stench he'd been breathing for the past several hours, the outside air felt like a fresh mountain breeze. He even noticed the fragrance of bread baking over an open fire next to one of the distant shacks. Food would be wonderful, but for now that was impossible.
His thoughts shifted to the prospect of escape. Should he make a run for it? No; he instantly brushed aside the idea—he still had too far to go. Even by truck, it would be nightfall before he made it to Kenya.
Azzam leaned back in the coffin, the lid still raised to let in as much air as possible, while keeping an eye on the shacks to watch for the return of his chauffeurs. In the relative comfort of his half-sitting position, he mused over this bizarre situation. What a crazy world, that he is safest traveling in a coffin under a corpse. The preferred transportation system for the underground network of Bible smugglers, it was a magnificently strange way to put Muslim drivers to work for the gospel. No follower of Allah would dare open a casket, let alone look beneath the remains. Although touching the dead was not specifically forbidden, superstition runs strong among Somali Muslims, and dead bodies were kept as far away as possible.
Under dead people, Bibles could get to believers and saints in Somalia, and endangered believers and saints (as if they weren't all endangered!) could get out to Kenya. Not once had anyone been caught. But more than a few times when the coffin reached its destination, there had been two corpses inside. Azzam assured himself he would not be one on this trip—or on his return to Somalia in a week or so with more Bibles.
Azzam heard the men arguing before he saw them round the closest shack to the truck. He couldn't tell what had upset them, but he took one last breath of fresh air and ducked again into the darkness of the casket, still musing over how his lot in life had come to this.
A few months earlier, Azzam had needed spiritual guidance.
"The man you see in your dreams is the devil. Don't listen to him!"
Azzam stood silently as Imam Hussein Mohammad berated him. In a harangue that lasted several minutes, the village spiritual master reviled Azzam and his story in every way possible.
"These visions—or whatever you call them—are false. Every one of them! I hear this all the time. Do not be one of the deceived ones. When you have a dream of the Great Prophet, come see me."
"But I've had seven visions about the man who calls Himself Jesus. Why do I keep having them? What is He trying to tell me?"
A backhand to Azzam's face answered his questions. The blow from the village imam hurled Azzam onto his back in a pile of shoes left by the faithful at the mosque entrance. The cleric glared fire at the dazed inquirer on the floor. Friday prayers occupied the throngs inside the sacred building, and no one noticed the semiconscious man lying among their shoes.
Prayers droned in Azzam's thickened brain. He lay motionless, eyes shut, until Imam Hussein turned and joined the faithful in prayer. Still dazed, Azzam rose to his hands and knees and crawled out the doorway. What if I'd told him the last time I saw Jesus was in this very mosque? Azzam wondered as he pulled himself to his feet and stepped into the sunlight to begin a slow walk home. I'd probably be dead.
Azzam plodded into his room. His plan to throw himself onto his bed for the rest of the afternoon was cut short by the sight. He leaned his shoulder against the doorframe and stared at the object in his bed. "How can this be?" he whispered to himself. The wooden cross was three feet long and drenched in blood.
"Who put that in here? Someone set me up. If father saw this, he would ... If anyone saw this ..."
"My blood is still fresh enough for you, Azzam!" Azzam startled at the words from nowhere. He glanced up and around the room. Jesus' voice—he had heard it enough by now to recognize it immediately—was loud enough to be heard anywhere in the house. Azzam looked again at his bed, now covered in blood.
The shock of the vision finally brought Azzam fully alert. He raced out of the room and grabbed his mother, who stood, otherwise undisturbed, in the kitchen. He pulled her to his room, his younger brother, Hajj, following close behind.
"Mother! Who put the cross on my bed?"
"What cross? Azzam, have you lost your mind? There's nothing on your bed." She pointed toward the mattress. "But what's the smell of blood in here? Did you get into another fight? Have you finally killed someone?"
Though two years younger than Azzam, Hajj was already a powerful young man. He grabbed Azzam's shirt and threw him to the floor. With his bare foot, he kicked Azzam in the face. Hajj sneered at his spiritually deviant older brother and huffed as he left the room. He would find their father and tell him everything.
Alone with his mother, Azzam pleaded, "Mother, Jesus was here—again! You believe me, don't you? You have to. Why would I make this up? Didn't you hear Him?"
Rawia Mubarak looked her oldest child calmly in the eye. "Leave, son, and don't come back."
Azzam had walked, almost without stopping, the twenty-five miles to a village where he knew friends would protect him. He arrived well past midnight on the day after the cross had appeared on his bed. Now, after three weeks in hiding, Azzam felt certain his father had a general idea of where he was, but Azzam was wrong; his father knew exactly where he was hiding. A warlord and pirate as effective as the senior Mubarak knew the whereabouts of any person of interest within his domain.
"Package for Azzam Mubarak!" A man shouted from just outside the safe house.
Azzam appeared in the doorway. The deliveryman lowered his voice and said gravely, "It's from your father."
Azzam stared through the man, then fixed his eyes on the package the stranger had placed on the ground. The man stepped back from the parcel as Azzam spoke, only half addressing the courier. "My father? Why?"
Azzam scanned nearby houses. The village seemed unusually quiet. No one was on the street. Was this a setup? A bomb in the package? Would pirates move in for the kill as soon as its recipient picked up the box?
Azzam blinked three times as possibilities raced through his mind. Or has my father had a change of heart? Maybe this is a peace offering. He once told me I was the next in line. Perhaps he is giving me a second chance. Azzam had already proven himself as a pirate. His father should welcome him in his footsteps as a warlord.
The deliveryman backed further away as Azzam approached the package. Azzam knelt, placed a hand on each side of the box, and rocked gently. The weight felt strange but lacked the mechanical quality he would expect from a threatening device. He peeled open the stout box.
Nothing he had imagined prepared Azzam for the contents. His head jerked involuntarily away from the sight. Inside a clear plastic bag, human body parts formed a gooey mass of red tissue and brown flesh. It was his mother.
Retaliation was standard operating procedure among Somali warlords, but that his father would butcher his mother because she helped him escape had been unthinkable even to a young man steeped in the often-grisly profession of piracy. As if to emphasize the unfeeling execution, a photograph had been laid atop the bag of human remains. It showed his mother kneeling in front of two men Azzam recognized, their knives raised over the tearful woman. So, Mahdi and Yasin had been the designated killers. They had done their job well.
Across the bottom of the photo in his father's handwriting was a message for Azzam: "If you try to bury your mother in Somalia, we will dig her up and feed her to dogs."
The next day, Azzam carted his mother's body to the coast and buried her at sea.
Oval. Three. Right. Slash.
Azzam Mubarak's life as a pirate ended the day he opened the package from his father, and shortly after, his life as a bold follower of the One he now knew to be more than just a Great Prophet began. The courageous son of a warlord strode with purpose down the middle of the dusty village road. A dozen eyes read his hand signals but none acknowledged.
Fifteen minutes later, twelve people gathered furtively in one of the village homes. Three knocked, in turn, at the back door. Several others scrambled through a window on the north side of the house. The rest crawled through the south-facing window. No one entered by the front door. This was the second meeting of Somali believers in the village ten miles south of Mogadishu. Until two months earlier, the population had been 100 percent Muslim.
Now the group leader, Azzam spent many nights wide-awake in candlelight meetings—answering questions and telling the story of a mysterious, bloody cross in his bedroom. After the first meeting, the Jesus followers had paid a staggering price. Azzam survived, but six were executed the week after they met. They had been dragged from their mud-and-dung homes in the middle of the night and decapitated. The foregone sentences were announced and carried out so the whole village could hear each gruesome killing. It was meant to end any future conversions. Jesus was not welcome here.
But He came back anyway.
Twelve new followers sat in silence as Azzam reviewed the hand signals. "Oval means meeting. Three is for the third house. Right is the direction. Slash means as soon as you can."
Then he opened the only Bible in the village—most likely the only one in the entire province. "Blessed are the poor in spirit," he read, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Matt. 5:3–4).
Family members of the recently departed smiled. They mourned but wanted the joy their loved ones had possessed, even if it meant they would experience it here on earth for only a short time. The group sat in silence for several minutes.
Jabar interrupted the quiet. "Azzam, why did your mom order you to leave? Couldn't you have stood up to her?"
Azzam had not yet told this new group his whole story. He looked intently at the new follower. "That's the old way, Jabar. I knew I had to leave. For my father—you know him—business rules his life. A warlord who controls as much as he does could not afford to have a Jesus follower as a son. He would not have killed me himself, but I would be dead nonetheless. He would have sent his pirates, who would do the job without a second thought. It's their duty, their religion. My mother knew that, too, and wanted only to save me. They're still looking for me and won't give up—halal, you know. When my mother ordered me to leave, it was the last time I ever saw her."
Then he told a stunned assembly about the package.
"But we have each other. You are my family now. Jesus called each one of us, just like a shepherd calls his sheep. You know how it is. You heard His voice—some of you literally—and answered the call. Remember: Jesus told us, 'Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child'" (Matt. 10:21).
Unwilling to leave the group morosely pondering his story, Azzam changed the subject. "Tomorrow, I'll be leaving the country."
"What? But why?" Jabar yelled. The others winced, and several hands reached to cover the mouth of the man who had spoken too loudly.
Azzam put a finger to his lips. Only a quiet meeting could be a safe meeting. "The enemy prowls. He's tightening his grip like a hangman's noose around the neck. But we are not criminals. We've been set free. Jesus does not condemn us. Only those who hate Him do.
"I'm going to Kenya. They have Bibles there. Believers who want to give them to us have contacted me." He paused and scanned the group. "My trip will take about a week, maybe more. But when I come back, each of you will have a small copy of the Scriptures—small enough to hide easily.
"We must arm ourselves with the Word. You'll memorize as much as you can and then pass the Bibles along to others who battle is only going to get worse. Much worse."
Jabar looked sadly at Azzam. "You'll be dead before you reach the border," he whispered.
"Maybe, Jabar, but I have a plan."
The truck jolted back onto the road and resumed its journey toward Kenya. So far the plan has worked perfectly. Azzam smiled and settled under the dead body as it jiggled west.
Two weeks and a second trip under a corpse later, Azzam was home.
Oval. Seven. Left. Slash.
This time, it was Jabar who walked the village road, signaling. He resisted a smile. Within minutes, twelve believers sat on the floor of a new meeting place. They prayed passionately for an hour. Many offered prayers for Azzam's safety.
A sound at the back door halted the prayers. Eyes opened, wondering what would happen next. The door opened slowly, and Azzam stepped into the room and set a box on the floor. A dozen pairs of relieved and grateful arms rushed to embrace their returning leader.
"The Bibles are well-worn. Our Kenyan brothers and sisters have read them for years. You should have seen their joy as they gave them to me. They send them with their love."
For another hour, prayers and tears of joy anointed each copy. Finally, Azzam brought the meeting to a close. They had stayed together a dangerously long time. One at a time, the twelve believers slipped out of the house.
Two men strolled arrogantly down the center of the village road. Preoccupied over boasting about exploits with their latest girlfriends, they didn't notice a third man step silently from between two houses and into the road a dozen yards ahead of them. Their banter stopped abruptly as Mahdi and Yasin recognized the form in their path. They were not at all happy to see Azzam Mubarak again.
"I know what you did to my mother."
"Azzam, we had to. We didn't want to do it, but your father ordered us and threatened to ..." As he spoke, Mahdi's right hand moved slowly around his back.
"I know all about my father." Azzam stared at the two murderers. "I haven't come to harm you." He paused for effect. "I've come to forgive you."
Mahdi and Yasin glanced sideways at each other and then back at the man facing them, wondering whether or not to believe the words they had just heard.
Azzam continued, "You need to know that I love you and have prayed for both of you ever since I saw your picture with my mother. Jesus filled my heart with compassion for you. You need Him—just like I did. He can forgive murderers. His love is greater than anything you've done."
It was the first meeting between the three men. They met again—at night—several more times. Impelled by Azzam's testimony, Mahdi and Yasin offered their lives of piracy to a forgiving Savior. For the moment, the two new believers and Azzam told no one else what had happened.
Excerpted from Killing Christians by Tom Doyle, Greg Webster. Copyright © 2015 Tom Doyle. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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