Jeff Benedict: Christian convert's beliefs hold up through violence, threats, imprisonment

Published: Monday, Nov. 11 2013 8:30 a.m. MST

I know countless Christians. But until three years ago, I had never met one who had been persecuted — beaten and threatened with death — for believing in Jesus Christ.

Nor had I given much thought to how my own beliefs would hold up if I faced imminent violence and my only escape was to deny my religious convictions.

Then, something happened that forever changed the way I look at religious liberty. I learned about a Nigerian-born Islamic fundamentalist named Muhammad Awal Momen. He lived in Ghana and was looking for someone to help write his life story.

His father had groomed him from birth to be a powerful cleric capable of leading a jihad, or holy struggle, to convert non-believers to Islam. He even dubbed his son “the chosen one.”

The boys that Muhammad had grown up with in his village had eventually become followers of Osama bin Laden. But Muhammad ultimately became a Christian and legally changed his name to Tito (the Italian version of Titus, Paul’s missionary companion). For that, he was branded an infidel and reported to the authorities. After being arrested on unrelated charges, he was persecuted for his Christian beliefs and spent 15 years in prison.

Three weeks after first learning about Tito, I flew to Ghana to meet him and commence work on his memoir. I knew very little about Islam. I had never read the Quran. I don’t speak Arabic. But Tito and I bonded quickly.

With a video camera rolling, I suggested we start at the beginning with his earliest childhood memories. He said he grew up in a compound and he could see the mosque from his bedroom window. His training started on his fifth birthday. That was the first time he entered the mosque to pray with his father. From that day forward, the ritual of praying was repeated five times per day.

Muhammad also got a birthday gift from his father — a stack of notebooks and his own Quran. His father instructed him to memorize the Quran by copying it word-for-word in the notebooks.

All other reading was forbidden. No nursery rhymes. No children’s stories. No books about African history, animals, world geography or sports. Muhammad’s childhood revolved around memorizing scripture and prayers. He never saw television, never colored a picture with crayons, never was photographed, never listened to the radio. Art, photography and music were all considered evil.

Muhammad never saw his father kiss or hug his mother, either. Nor did he ever hear his father say the words “I love you.” But he had seen his father strike his mother on plenty of occasions. Marriage in his village was not predicated on love; it was about duty and discipline.

Muhammad hated seeing his mother cry after being hit. But he learned to accept it. That’s the way it was in his village. He figured it was that way everywhere.

At 17, Muhammad’s father sent him to a private boarding school in Syria, where harsh clerics with extremist ideas indoctrinated him and other young men to despise Christianity, Judaism and anything associated with the West. But when Muhammad arrived in Cairo a few years later for college, he made a startling discovery. There were lots of Muslims who were quite different than the ones he’d grown up with. They read the Quran, attended mosque and believed in Allah. But they also wore Levi’s, listened to Michael Jackson and watched Hollywood films. Some of them even smoked cigarettes and consumed alcohol.

Muhammad’s new Muslim friends introduced him to Western culture. Through them he also met some Christians. Most of them were Coptic Christians. But one of them belonged to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was the only one who didn’t smoke or drink. Curious, Muhammad asked if he could visit his friend’s church.

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