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A Christian Convert In Lebanon

Thomas prays after receiving his first Communion during Pentecost Mass at a church in Beirut 27 May. The Yemen-born Muslim (Thomas is his baptismal name) had to flee his home country in order to become a Christian. (photo: CNS/Dalia Khamissy)  

04 Jun 2012 – BEIRUT (CNS) — 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 CNS 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.”

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Tags: Lebanon Middle East Christians Christian-Muslim relations Ethiopian Orthodox Church