On Aug. 22, Syrian police police arrested Samer, a Jordanian man. For 50 days he sat locked in a small cell, a prisoner of the government. Even today, he does not know the exact nature of his alleged crimes. (WORLD agreed to use only Samer's first name and leave out some details of his story so as not to enable targeting by Jordanian and Syrian authorities of those who helped him.)
"We heard so many stories," said the former Muslim who converted to Christianity 15 years ago. "Some said it was because of our ministry to the Kurdish people. . . . Others said it was because I was trying to get Kurdish-language Bibles into Syria, and the Kurdish language is illegal there."
On Oct. 26, just 16 days after his release from Syrian custody, Samer and his family set up housekeeping in a one-bedroom home in Texas, guests of the United States and aided by a refugee group.
America is their final stop in a two-year flight from religious persecution. The odyssey that carried his family from the Shariah courts of Jordan, to secret meetings with Christians in Syria, through the custody ordeal, and on to the Texas suburbs has left Samer with a message for Americans. "I want them to understand that there is a false image of Islam as a religion of peace and compassion. Many countries of the Middle East have a good image here in the U.S., but their rules are not what Americans think. . . . When [Islamic countries] talk about human rights and freedom, it's not true-unless you remain in Islam."
According to the U.S. State Department's 2005 report on religious persecution, Christians in many Islamic countries face hardships ranging from official employment and housing discrimination to violence and death at the hands of Muslim extremist groups and even family. In Egypt, for example, the constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and practice. But in reality, the government restricts Christians from serving in politics, education, or the military, and blocks Christians' access to state-controlled media while it subsidizes media that attack Christianity.
Saudi Arabia's government engages in torture, cruel treatment, and discrimination against non-Muslims, according to the U.S. State Department: "Credible reports indicate that the Saudis are funding . . . efforts to propagate globally, including in the United States, a religious ideology that promotes hate, intolerance . . . and violence toward members of other religious groups." The report lists at least 10 other Muslim-dominated Middle Eastern countries where the "religion of peace" promotes religious persecution.
Though Jordan is considered to be among the most moderate Middle Eastern countries, Samer, his wife Abeer, and their son, Bahaa, now 4, were in 2004 forced to flee because of their Christian faith. Over the years Samer, a butcher by trade, had occasionally been questioned by the Mukhabarat, Jordan's intelligence agency, but never arrested.
"The Mukhabarat did not care if we were Muslims or Christians or Buddhists, but they did not want us to preach the gospel to other Muslims in Jordan," he said. "They wanted us to be in secret and not to announce our faith. If you change [religions], you must be at home, and not try to convert anyone else."
The Shariah courts, however, take a harder line, Samer said. "They do not want anyone to change their religion from Muslim to Christianity. The only option they have is to change from Christianity to Islam."
In August 2004, the Mukhabarat appeared at Samer's home again. This time, they arrested him and turned him over to the Islamic courts. Each week for three months he was summoned before a panel of judges to explain himself. The judges demanded to know why he would leave Islam. They hurled down threats at each hearing: The government would annul his marriage, take away his authority to sign documents, commit him to an insane asylum. Worst of all, the court would give his son, Bahaa, to a Jordanian Muslim family to raise. Week after week, accompanied by Abeer and a small group of Christian men, Samer refused to recant his faith.
Finally, the chief judge threw up his hands in frustration. "We don't know what to do with you! You must return to Islam. We may not have the power to order your death, but we know who to tell to make sure it happens. Your blood is on your own hands!"
Samer faced conviction for apostasy and he knew what that meant: In the eyes of his country and his family, he would not be a person who had converted to a different religion. He would be a person with no religion. Jordanian authorities make this a matter of official record, requiring each citizen to declare his religion on his national identity card. There are only two choices: "Islam" or "No Religion." It is the government's way of making clear its position on religious pluralism-there is no such thing-and encouraging populist discrimination.
For example, official Jordanian policy is not that non-Muslims can't work, Samer said-but "if my identification says 'no religion,' I cannot work because [an employer] will look at my papers and say, 'If you don't have a religion, how can I put you in my shop or my company?'"
In November 2004, before the court could pronounce final judgment, Samer and Abeer fled to Syria and began spreading the gospel among the 2 million Kurds living there. Samer knew that a new country was only a temporary solution, yet he and his family could not return to Jordan because Samer no longer had legal custody of Bahaa there; the apostasy conviction dissolved his marriage. Besides, in Islamic countries it is legal for Muslims to attack and even kill non-Muslims.
Meanwhile, Abeer's passport would soon expire and their son Bahaa was written in hers, not Samer's. Without Abeer's passport the family would be marooned in Syria with no travel documents to get out. In January 2005, Samer applied to the United Nations for refugee status for his family. The first interview with a female UN employee did not go well. "Why did you leave Islam?" she asked. "Islam is so good and you should not leave it."
After an 18-month wait, the United States agreed to accept Samer and his family as refugees. That was in July 2006. But in August, just as the family's future seemed bright, the Syrian police arrested Samer and placed him in the custody of the national immigration agency. "No one beat me. There was no interrogation," he said. "The immigration officials said, 'The security people put you in this place and we can't release you until they say so.'"
Samer became the object of a bureaucratic blockade. Diplomatic officials warned that any pressure from the U.S. government would result only in Syrian officials digging in their heels. News of the case even reached Kofi Annan. As Samer languished under guard, the clock continued ticking. Abeer was seven months pregnant and Samer had no idea how long he would be held. When the family's landlord learned Samer was in jail, he turned Abeer out into the street. The date for Samer's medical exam, required for travel to the United States, came and went as he sat locked in his cell.
Once, a ray of hope came when a church recommended a man who could help secure Samer's release. But the man's price was too steep: a $500 bribe that Abeer was to deliver to the capital city alone with him, which Samer took as a sign of the man's intent to be inappropriate with Abeer. Then Syrian officials told Samer that if he paid a large bribe, they would free him-but they would deport him to another Arab country, jeopardizing the family's relocation to America.
At the moment of his greatest despair, Samer told Abeer he was nearly ready to go back to Jordan and recant his faith before the court just so they could live a normal life. But a phone call lifted his spirits and gave him peace: A Christian friend reminded him that God loved him and is completely sovereign in the affairs of men.
The very next day, on Oct. 10, officials released Samer. Using his cell phone, he called the same friend. "Can you hear the background noise? I'm on the street! I'm free!"
Just as the reasons for his imprisonment are unclear, so are the reasons for his release. Was it Kofi Annan? The daily bribes Samer was forced to pay to the immigration officials? Samer prefers another reason: God's response to the prayers of Christian friends around the world. Now he and his family are focused on acclimating to their new home in Texas and awaiting the arrival of their new daughter, Sarah, due Dec. 15.
Samer is glad she will be born an American. "I feel free now," he said. "I feel that I'm equal to each one in this country knowing there is no discrimination because of my religion."
-with reporting by Kinzi Jones in Jordan