In Lebanon, a convert to the faith from an unlikely place
BEIRUT -- The first time Thomas stepped inside a church, he was overcome with emotion.
"This was my dream, to see a church," Thomas recalled. "I entered, I forgot myself. I couldn't control myself from crying."
The Muslim man and his Ethiopian Orthodox wife had just arrived in Lebanon from Yemen, Thomas' homeland, seeking freedom of religion.
They stayed in the church two hours and then, mustering up his courage, Thomas approached the priest and asked to be baptized, unaware of the extensive preparation involved.
Realizing the couple's predicament -- refugees with no money, no jobs and no contacts -- the priest guided the couple to Father Martin McDermott, an American Jesuit who serves Lebanon's Afro-Asian migrant community.
The couple shared their story with Father Martin and, later, with Catholic News Service.
To protect their identities because they are at risk of being killed by authorities in Yemen, the couple asked Catholic news Service not to report their real names. The Yemeni man asked to be called Thomas, the name he chose for his baptism, and his wife requested the name Nardos, which means Mary Magdalene in Amharic.
They met several years ago in a computer class in Yemen, where Nardos was working as a house maid. Although they could not date openly, as it is forbidden in Yemen, they were able to meet in public for coffee. The couple soon fell in love, but Thomas knew his family would never accept Nardos because she was Christian.
Thomas says he was Muslim "just by name."
"I hated going to the mosque. I was not happy there," he said.
Six years ago, he met a Christian man who was working in Yemen. That opportunity sparked his interest in Christianity.
"I used to ask God: 'I want to see a church,'" Thomas recalls. "I would feel something inside, telling me to be strong," giving him the perseverance to wait and be hopeful.
In Internet cafes, Thomas often searched to learn about Jesus and the Bible. When he met Nardos, he already knew the story of the loaves and fishes and had a deep respect for Mary, as do many Muslims.
But the authoritarian hand of the Yemeni government was evident: When he tried to open those Christian websites again, they would always be blocked.
The couple's relationship took a turn when Nardos became pregnant.
About six weeks into the pregnancy, Nardos was suffering from severe bouts of nausea and vomiting. When asked by the hospital admitting desk if Nardos was his wife, Thomas lied and said yes. But hospital officials wanted to see the papers proving the marriage. Thomas lied again and said he would go home and get the papers. Meanwhile, Nardos was admitted.
Outside the hospital, Thomas was grabbed by four undercover police and pushed into a car and taken to a building. Each time he tried to explain himself, he was beaten. They then prodded him with questions: "Who is the girl, she's your wife? Tell the truth. Is she Christian or Muslim?" He told his accusers that he was ready to marry his girlfriend.
Back at the hospital, the doctor told Nardos that she had to perform "an operation."
"You are not married," the doctor told the patient before forcing an abortion. Nardos' eyes welled with tears as she recounted the incident.
Within 10 days, the couple got the necessary permission to get married, under one condition: Nardos would first have to become Muslim. Under duress, the couple agreed.
As Nardos stood before the Islamic committee, a meeting of about two hours, one of the men instructed her about Islam telling her, "Jesus is not the Son of God."
She said she does not remember much beyond that, except that the session concluded with Nardos giving a hand signal confirming she had become Muslim. Committee members also told her to read and study the Quran every day and not to go to the church.
"I hated to change my religion," Nardos says. "I felt, inside, like I'm lying to my God. But what could I do?"
Although she could still pray in private, it pained Nardos to stay away from church. Prior to her "conversion" to Islam, she attended a special Yemeni church, masked by a storefront, for Ethiopian migrant workers.
"I missed church, I wanted to pray," she said.
One day she followed her longing and went to the church, a visit that did not go unnoticed. Her husband received a phone call: "Where's your wife? We want to speak with her."
That was the trigger for the couple to plan their exit from Yemen.
Once they were in Lebanon, Father Martin helped the couple to get settled. He found a Lebanese family from his parish with whom the couple could stay and helped to arrange an interview for them with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
"If we had not found Father Martin that day," says Nardos, "we'd be sleeping outside (on the street)."
And, convinced of Thomas' sincere desire to become a Christian, the priest set out a course of study for the Muslim man, first using the New Testament, then the Catechism of the Catholic Church, broken into volumes.
"Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East where it is legal for a Muslim to become a Christian, aside from Israel," Father Martin explained, adding that, in some countries, the laws against conversion are not strictly enforced.
To study, Father Martin offered Thomas the use of a small room next to his office where children of Afro-Asian migrants learn the catechism on Sundays. There, the couple would spend about four hours on weekdays, Nardos quietly reading her Amharic Bible, as Thomas took notes from his readings and made lists of questions for Father Martin.
"I think he believes in God even more than I do," Nardos said of her husband. "If I get discouraged or confused, he tells me: 'Depend on God. Don't forget God. He gave us everything.' He's teaching me, because he's strong in his faith."
One of the most impressive things about Catholicism, Thomas said, is the forgiveness of sins.
"In Islam, if you make a mistake, you are doomed," he said. "So you hide it inside and don't tell anybody. In Christianity, it's all about peace."
Back at "home" in the evening, Thomas and his host, a former seminarian, would review what Thomas had studied and often have discussions about the faith until the wee hours.
This continued for nearly four months. On Sundays, the couple attended Father Martin's Mass and soon made friends among the other migrant workers from Africa and Asia. From the Missionaries of Charity nuns who attend Father Martin's Mass, Thomas learned that three sisters from the order were killed in Yemen in 1998.
Getting to the study room at the church each morning was becoming more and more of a challenge for the couple. Although just a half an hour walk away from where they were staying, it would sometimes take them more than an hour to arrive, as they dodged police because of their illegal status.
Each day, when Father Martin would knock on the door of the study room, Thomas answered expectantly, hoping the priest would have news of his baptism date.
Father Martin wanted to be sure the candidate was well prepared. Typically, a convert from Islam must meet with the bishop to receive the bishop's approval before being baptized. However, the bishop told Father Martin that he trusted the priest's judgment.
Finally, the date was set for Pentecost Sunday, May 27.
During his homily, Father Martin explained that Thomas would be baptized and that he would be one of six to be confirmed. Thomas would also receive his first Communion during the Mass.
"Your baptism is the greatest day of your life," he reminded those at the Mass. "Be ready to follow the Lord at whatever cost. In many parts of the world, it is costing them (Christians) their lives. Spread the Gospel, mostly by how you live out your life," he said.
Clothed in his white gown and beaming with joy, the newly baptized Thomas told Catholic News Service after the Mass: "Now I'm free. For six years I dreamed of this." And his reaction to receiving the Eucharist for the first time: "I felt a jolt, as if I had put an ice cube in my mouth. I'm alive, awakened."
"He amazes me, because from where he came (Yemen), I didn't think Christ can make disciples," said his godfather, the former seminarian with whom the couple lived. "He has a spirit of being truly Christian. So it shows us that God can make his disciples anywhere."
Becoming a Christian means that Thomas can never again have any contact with his family nor return to Yemen because, under Islam, he should be killed.
"I lost my family, forever," Thomas says of the day he left Yemen without saying goodbye to them.
Even in Lebanon, although such a sentence is not officially carried out, "if he's among Muslims, they 'should' kill him," added Father Martin.
Thomas and Nardos are awaiting a second interview with the UNHCR in October, praying that they will get resettled to another country where they can legally begin a new life. In the meantime, Thomas has found a janitorial job and the couple is renting a small room. After he pays the rent from his monthly salary of $350, there is $25 left over for the rest of the month.
Nardos chose to become a Catholic so she could be one spiritually with her husband. On Trinity Sunday, June 3, Nardos made her profession of faith, and the couple was married during the Mass that Father Martin concelebrated with an Ethiopian Catholic priest.
Someone from the parish lent Nardos a beautiful wedding gown to wear for the occasion, and the Afro-Asian parishioners planned a celebration for the couple after Mass.
"This is a story for us to tell our children someday," Nardos said.
- Convert sex-abuse shame to repentance, papal preacher says
- Caritas Lebanon seeks shelter for refugees fleeing Syrian violence
- Pope to visit Lebanon, meet Christians, Muslims in September
- In Lebanon, Pope Benedict's presence was the message
- Lebanon's Catholic leaders call for dialogue amid region's instability
- News »
- Papal News
- Religious Liberty
- Living Our Faith »
- Church Teaching »
- Opinion »
- Year of Faith
- Special Sections »