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Free at last

"Free at last" Continued...

Issue: "Iraq and terrorism," Nov. 11, 2006

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

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