It was set to be an exciting week. Students of the IFES movement in Israel, FCSI, were gathering for their Bible conference. The focus? Understanding the Old Testament context and bigger story that points to Jesus. Alongside the local and resident international students, a group of 17 German students had flown in to attend. But then the coronavirus struck…
Staff worker Lavinia shared more:
“The Ministry of Health updated new regulations nearly hourly. Shortly after the guests’ arrival, the government decreed that all tourists needed to go immediately into self-quarantine. Fortunately, there were different houses on the campsite so the German students were able to stay there. We gave them the material and instructions, a guitar, and brought them every meal as they were not allowed to leave the house. What a mess!
As best as possible, we continued the conference. Despite it being the most chaotic conference, it became one of the most blessed as well, and helped lots of students. One told me afterwards that just a few days later a topic from the Old Testament came up when talking to her Muslim roommates. She felt equipped and strengthened to share her new knowledge and this opened up a great conversation about faith.”
Praise the Lord for the way He reminded FCSI that He is on the throne and sovereign in every situation; His plans are unthwartable and He is utterly faithful and good.
Pray that many more FCSI students would have opportunities to share what they learned at the conference about Jesus and the Old Testament with their non-Christian friends.
Karim* walked into the small room. It was cold. Seven students sat together on the floor. There were no chairs and no furniture. They couldn’t afford it. Any spare scholarship money had already been spent on paying the rent for the room. Some had been surviving on just bread and water. Yet it was a sacrifice these students were willing to make. This was a place where they could meet in safety to study the Bible.
Karim, an IFES staff member the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), was visiting this remote Muslim city to see Asafu*, one of the students. They had met seven months earlier, at the IFES national movement conference. There, Karim had heard Asafu’s story…
Asafu had moved from Sub-Saharan Africa to a large Muslim city in North Africa a few years earlier to study. Life was different, but not too hard. There was already a good-sized Christian student fellowship there, made up mostly of other international students. But then Asafu heard about another city on the other side of the country. It was much more remote and had no Christian presence at all. Perhaps I could go and start a student fellowship there, he thought.
So he had gone, hundreds of miles from the nearest Christian friend, to start something new. But the move had been harder than he’d expected, and discouragement was setting in. With a heavy heart he had set off for the IFES national student conference.
A turning point
It was at the conference that things started to change for Asafu. He met Karim and other brothers and sisters who listened to him, prayed for him, encouraged him. After a few days together, Asafu returned to the remote city, hope rising once more. Karim agreed to visit him later that year.
It was a huge encouragement for Karim to see Asafu now meeting each week with six other Christian students! Moved by the sacrifice and need of these students, Karim and the MENA region decided to buy them some chairs and tables, and a small bookshelf for their books.
Five months later, Karim returned again to visit Asafu. By this point the group had grown to 15. Most were international students – some from a nominally Christian background, some who had come to faith through the group. After another couple of years, the group had grown again to 30! They couldn’t all fit into the rented room and had had to rent an apartment instead!
Today there is a thriving student ministry in this remote city, with around 60 students. The group also helped initiate the re-opening of a local church building, which now has a pastor and weekly services.
Give today to support IFES pioneering initiatives in North Africa and around the world:
I stared at the face in the mirror: I hate you, I said.
I did. I hated myself. I hated my
life. I hated my father who beat me. I hated my lonely childhood. I wasn’t safe
or happy at home or at school. From Grade 1 to Grade 12, I was bullied – just
because of my name. Every other child at school had a Muslim family name, while
mine happened to be Christian. But it was just a name! I certainly wasn’t a
Christian. None of my family were. I didn’t believe in God and I hated the idea
of a God being a Father.
Speaking to God
Somehow during my first year at
university I found myself going to a Christian camp. The speaker was an
apologist. I was fairly well-read and knew enough about evolution and other
scientific theories to argue against the existence of God. Or so I thought. But
this man had answers to my questions. All of them. One by one, he broke down my
objections, corrected my misconceptions and found holes in my reasoning.
The next morning, I spoke to God: Maybe you’re here. But I didn’t see you in
any place I’ve walked in my life. Where are you?
As soon as I’d prayed, it went out
of my mind. But that night, the speaker turned to us and said: There is someone here who has asked God if he
was there in his life. God is answering you today: he is here.
I went to a quiet place and cried. I spoke to God again: I want to be with you.
From 5 to 50
Life was not suddenly easy after
that. I still had a lot of problems. But God was at work in my heart and life.
My friend and I were encouraged by
an IFES staff worker to start a Bible study on campus. We began with five and
grew to 50. The Christian students in that group later left university and
became a church. Now I work part-time in psychology and part-time with the
small IFES movement here. We have between two and three hundred students
involved: Christians, nominal Christians and Muslims.
Help for the helpless
I met a student at a conference
recently. She had been sexually abused by her brother and felt like her life
had ended. Eight times she’d attempted suicide. I listened to her for two
hours. It was a desperate and, humanly-speaking, helpless story. I didn’t say
much, but I promised her that Jesus was able to help her. That day was the start
of a new life for her. Today she believes in Jesus and is studying psychology
overseas because she wants to help others who have been abused.
Her background is not unusual. Many
students in this country are struggling with the pain of broken families,
divorce, abuse and addictions. I would love our movement to be a place where
students can bring their problems and find freedom, healing and hope in Christ.
They began with Genesis 1. The Muslim students were transfixed:
“It said that things were good and very good, but something went wrong. It can’t have been the trees or the animals. I bet it’s us! We’re the problem.”
The girls were left wondering where the story would go next week. One of them had never read the Bible before. Another had only looked at a few passages in Mark. She commented:
“I was confused last time, starting in the middle of the book. This makes so much more sense. I can’t wait for the rest of the semester.”
These students go to university in a closed country in the Middle East. There are many challenges in being a Christian there, and even more in becoming a Christian. Most will face opposition from family and friends, emotional or physical abuse. They need our prayers:
Pray that these students would continue to read through the Bible this semester. Pray that they would put their trust in Jesus, despite the immediate risks of doing so.
Pray for opportunities to meet new students and reconnect with old ones, as the new academic year gets underway.
Pray for next month’s student weekend conference on evangelism, often attended by many non-Christians. Pray for many to come, for believers to be strengthened and for non-believers to come to faith.
No decision to follow Jesus in the Middle East is an easy one. For Saheena* and Noreen*, saying yes would mean losing friendships and family members. Perhaps even their own lives. A local IFES worker shared the stories of these two students following Jesus, whatever the cost.
Saheena: finding Jesus after all
Saheena had been secretly exploring the Christian faith. She had dreamed of studying overseas in a country where she could go to church and learn about Jesus. But her father is a devout Muslim and wouldn’t allow it. He insisted she stayed in the Middle East, safe from possible influence.
But in God’s kindness, Saheena ended up with a Christian roommate at university. She was introduced to the Christian group on campus and later came to faith. Saheena has been sharing the gospel with her friends, even though they mock her. She longs to tell her family about Jesus, but the risks are great: given her father’s position in the community, there could be a very credible threat to her life. Her family have noticed the change in her, but don’t know the reason for it. Her mother told her: “If you ever choose a different direction in your life, I would have failed as a mother.”
Noreen: burned, beaten and thankful
Noreen is in her final year of university. She came to faith from a Muslim background, a few months after meeting an IFES staff member in the food court at university.
Since then she has faced a lot of opposition from her father and sisters (her mother passed away a few years ago). A few months ago, her family found a Bible she’d hidden in her room and got very angry. “How dare you betray and dishonour your family like that? How stupid of you even to consider another faith! It’s all brainwashing!” They told her that they would forgive her and forget all about it if she denied Jesus and went back to Islam.
In the midst of this, Noreen kept trying to witness to her family. Her dad got so angry he poured boiling water on her. Even then she refused to be silent: “Please, you have to read the Bible for yourself – everything it’s saying is true”. Her sisters beat her unconscious. The next thing she knew she woke up in hospital. Her burns were so severe that she had to stay there eight days. No one visited her during that time. When they discharged her, she got a taxi home only to find that her family had moved house while she was in hospital. The family house was completely empty apart from a cardboard box with a few of her belongings.
Noreen has kept clinging to the words of Jesus that we are to expect suffering and persecution if we follow Him, and that anyone who loves their father or mother more than Him is not worthy of Him. She said that even though so much has been taken away from her, she still feels thankful that she knows Jesus. And thankful for her church family who have provided her with clothes, food and a place to live. Jesus’ words ring out through Noreen’s story:
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” Mark 10:29,30
Lord of the nations, draw near to these two girls and to each Christian student in the Middle East, suffering for their faith. May they know Your presence, love and provision in profound ways. Keep them trusting in Your Word and following You faithfully to the end, whatever the cost. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Bareera* is a psychology student in the capital city of a country in North Africa. She started going along to a small IFES Bible study group for seekers, and professed faith in Christ four months ago. Bareera is probably the only believer at her university.
She’s also the only believer in her Muslim family. She now faces the dilemma of when and how to share her new faith at home. If she takes off her hijab and stops going to the mosque, her family will be furious. Her place at university is at risk, as her parents might refuse to pay her tuition fees. Her place in the family is at risk; her reputation, her safety – everything.
Bareera needs our prayers. So do the other handful of Christian students in this country. Each of them faces huge challenges because of their faith in Christ.
Pray that Bareera would keep going as a Christian in a context of hostility where there is very little fellowship or support.
Pray for wisdom and courage for Bareera in knowing how to share her faith with her friends and family.
Pray for the IFES movement in her country. Pray for perseverance, prayerfulness and protection for the staff. Pray that many students would hear and respond to the gospel this year, despite the challenges and risks.
It was a hot day. 36° maybe. Thankfully the police station was air conditioned. I glanced around the room, palms sweating. Two officers came in. Lord, help me! Give me the right words. An unmistakable peace settled in my heart. I am here, I felt God say. This is between My hands.
We were ready. One of the officers opened up his notebook and looked over at me:
“Are you still a Christian?”
And so the questioning began…
Abdullah* works with the IFES movement in a Muslim country in North Africa. He converted from Islam to Christianity himself as a student, and now spends his days telling students about the hope he found in Jesus.The ground is hard.Students who convert to Christianity are considered traitors to their country. Theycan expect to face severe opposition from family. Some might lose their place at university; some might be physically abused.
Student ministry in this context is an uphill struggle. Last year, it got even harder for Abdullah when he was called in for questioning by the police. He shared his story of life on the frontline.
Yes. I’m still a Christian. I tried to answer calmly, confidently. I plan to be one for my entire life.
The police officers were surprisingly friendly, but they had a job to do. The interrogation continued for three hours. They wanted to know about my church, my activities, my wife – names, addresses, dates, details. That was the first of four visits to the authorities. Always the same questions. On the last occasion I spoke with the Chief Police Officer. He told me to repent and go back to Islam. You don’t have a place in this country as a Christian.
They came to search my house as well. They went through my belongings. They wrote down the names of the Christian books and tracts I had on my shelves. They confiscated my passport for several months. I missed important IFES meetings. When I was finally allowed to go to the passport office to get it back, I had to queue up alongside men who had been involved in terrorist activities. They consider me a traitor too, I thought.
It was a difficult season. One of the hardest things was seeing the impact it had on the Christian students I knew. They were afraid the same thing would happen to them. Some wanted to have less contact with me. It was painful. Yes, I trusted God. And I wanted to rejoice in my suffering. But I also struggled. My wife struggled too. We had an opportunity to leave and move to a much more open country. But we decided to stay. I didn’t want to leave this baby ministry. I wanted to see it grow. I wanted to stay and see people take the steering wheel after me.
Commitment or compromise
We see a lot of students drift away. They feel the sting of persecution or sacrifice and wonder if it’s all worth it. Day in day out, they’re surrounded by strong Islamic – and now also secular – influences at university. Many young believers are already involved in political or religious movements when they hear about Christ; many are in relationships with Muslim boyfriends or girlfriends. It feels like a lot to give up.
Suppose we have contact with seven professing Christians in a year: three will be committed; four will stay on the fringe, pursuing the path of compromise.
Another huge challenge is that even after a student has professed faith in Christ, they are reluctant to commit to a church family – and even fewer want to be involved in a student fellowship group. They come from a Muslim background where there is no obligation to attend one particular mosque consistently. On Fridays, a Muslim may go along to any mosque they choose. So in young believers you often see a casual attitude towards fellowship. It’s a two-stage process: first they must be convinced to join the Christian faith; then they must be convinced to join a Christian community.
Discipling these young people is challenging, particularly for those who are geographically isolated. There might not be a single church in their region, or any other Christians on their campus. For some, there might be one or two other believers at their university – often international students – and we try to link them up. Fellowship is a challenge because they speak a different language, but it’s better than nothing. I travel to meet them when I can, but it’s not easy to reach those who are 200 or 300km away.
Slow, but steady
I’ve been involved in student ministry for several years now. I never expected big things – but I didn’t think it would be this hard. And yet, in the midst of the uphill struggle, there is grace. I see God at work. I remember He says, this is between My hands. Growth is slow, but steady. Each year, a few students turn to Christ. That keeps me going. Some who profess faith drift away, but some hold on. It’s deeply encouraging when you see Christian graduates go on to serve in their churches or other ministries. It wasa blessing to be part of the student ministry, they say.
So we press on, sowing seeds, praying each day: God, make workers for this huge harvest field.
Lebanon is now home to around 100,000 Syrian students. Although it’s not home for them. They are refugees, seeking safety in Lebanon; their homes lie in ruins back in Syria.
There are a particularly high number of refugee male students who would have been forced to join the army, had they not escaped. Five of them joined a student Bible study group organised by LIVF –the IFES movement in Lebanon. They have all lost loved ones and witnessed the brutal destruction of their homes and cities. For them, this fellowship group is like a family.
Many Syrian students find it hard to enrol at university because the documents and certificates they need to register are back in Syria. Others are delayed by the need to first learn English before they can continue their studies.
The student movement LIVF is keen to reach out to these Syrian students. TheGeneral Secretary explained:
“We try to help our dear Syrian brothers and sisters cope with their situation and build a firm foundation based on biblical teaching. We have minimal resources, but we pray that we’re able to keep up with the students’ needs and direct them to our Saviour.”
Join us in praying for the ministry of LIVF Lebanon:
Pray that LIVF would know how to mourn with those who mourn, walking with these refugee students as they struggle with grief, loneliness, enrolment issues and language barriers.
Pray that, in the midst of their suffering, many Syrian students this year would come to know God as the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort.
Praise God that the president of Lebanon is a Christian – the only Arab country with a Christian president. Pray for continued peace throughout the country and for doors to stay open to the gospel in universities.