Maryam* is a final year student in a city in Central Asia. Academically she’s doing well. With good results, she has a guaranteed place in a master’s programme in the top university in her region. Most of her friends think that she is cheerful, fun to be with and that her life is good. But that is far from the truth.
Nowhere to turn
Maryam wept continuously when we met up recently. She told me about recent happenings in her family. Her mother and sister have been arrested for wearing a veil and imprisoned for five years. Her father has been arrested for going to the mosque. She was not going back home for the holidays as there are no family members left at home. Her uncle tells her to concentrate on her studies and not think about things at home; there is nothing she can do about her family’s situation anyway! Maryam is afraid to discuss what’s going on at home with anyone in her dormitory as she does not know who she can trust. It’s likely that most of her friends also have family members or friends who have been arrested or taken away to re-education centres. They’ve also been told not to talk about it.
Maryam and her friends are Muslims. They belong to a people group which is experiencing much persecution at the hands of the authorities. Everyday life for them is unspeakably tense and full of sorrow. The future looks bitter and bleak. They struggle through each day, living in the shadows.
Keep quiet, keep safe
Life is less tense in the city where Maryam is studying than back in her village. However, she still faces regular checks on her phone to see if there is any sensitive material on it. These checks can take place in the dormitory or out in the streets. What constitutes ‘sensitive material’ is unclear. No-one really knows what is allowed and what is banned. They know that there are certain subjects and certain words they must never discuss. Terms such as ‘Muslim’, ‘Quran’ or ‘Islam’ used on social media can lead to one being detained for a few hours, if not longer. Officially these checks are to protect the public against terrorist attacks.
Books buried or burned
Recently Maryam was told to dispose of any ‘illegal’ books in her language. Villagers have been burning books or burying them in their backyards. Living in the city, the only choice is to throw them in the rubbish. With libraries closed, accessing books has become a real challenge for many students. Maryam’s not sure how she will be able to complete her dissertation.
I have known Maryam for four years. I am from outside her region. That’s why she trusts me. I have prayed with her several times and she has even studied the Bible with me a couple of times. However, in the current climate she is unable to spend much time with me, and she’s scared to be seen coming to my home. I have considered lending her a Bible to take back to her dormitory to read in her own time, but that could well get her into trouble. Downloading an app with the Bible in her language on to her phone would also be dangerous. A couple of years ago I went to her village and stayed with her family. That was a valuable time of building trust with her family and led to more open conversations than we had had up to that point. Now though, with all the new regulations in our region it is no longer possible to stay with locals.
It is not possible to hold mission events on our campus. It is not possible to hand out any literature. It is not possible to post apologetics material on social media. Even when people are interested in learning more about the gospel, they are afraid of meeting other people in case they are informers. Many things are not possible. However, there is nothing stopping me from loving her, praying for her and sharing short stories from the Bible when the opportunity arises.
Many workers have been forced to leave this area in the last year. Thankfully however, there are new workers moving into the region. What we really need are people ready to stay here longer term, to enter into the lives and suffering of the students. There are unlikely to be great results to report. But what we are looking forward to is the Lord greeting us on that day with the words ‘Faithful servant’. Before that though, a text I received recently from Maryam encourages me to keep on going: ‘Thank you for remembering me and continuing to meet up with me even though you know all the issues I am going through. I am grateful for you concern.’
Please pray with us for Maryam and thousands more in her situation, living in the shadows:
- Pray that students like Maryam would see the peace and joy that is only possible in gospel.
- Pray that more believers would be willing to come and live in this region long term, learn the local languages and culture, and have the steadfastness to suffer lovingly alongside the students here.
- name changed