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

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

A week later, Muhammad attended his first Christian service. He was stunned to see people of all races in the congregation. Even more surprising was the sight of women and children praying and speaking from the podium. Where he came from, women were forbidden to enter a mosque and young boys were prohibited from speaking.

When a little Nigerian boy no older than 9 stood and expressed his love for his family and God, then closed by saying, “I bear my humble testimony in the name of Jesus Christ, amen,” Muhammad watched in amazement. He thought back to his father drumming into him that Christianity was evil. Yet this little boy was humble, meek and sincere. Muhammad’s views about Christians were unraveling before his eyes.

That day, a member of the congregation gave Muhammad a Bible. At first it made him uneasy just to hold it. His father had convinced him that the Bible was not the word of God.

But when he got back to his apartment, Muhammad began reading. When he read the New Testament, particularly the words and actions of Jesus Christ, he felt something he had never felt. It was hard to describe. But it kept him up at night and compelled him to keep reading.

Then he read the Book of Mormon. When he got to the passages about Christ, he got that same feeling he had while reading the Bible.

By then, he knew he was in trouble. Deep trouble. He started to doubt all the things he’d been taught about Christianity. The gospel of Jesus Christ centered on love and forgiveness, two themes that resonated with Muhammad.

But there was no way he could embrace the Bible or Christianity. His father might kill him. Literally. At a minimum, he’d be branded an infidel. That’s not just some loose term; not where Muhammad comes from.

But the more he studied the life of Saul and his eventual conversion on the Road to Damascus, the more Muhammad felt compelled to make a change. In 1989, he legally changed his name to Tito. His father reacted by holding a public funeral for him back in Nigeria.

Then Tito got baptized, making his conversion to Christianity official. His father blamed Tito’s mother. She took so much abuse from her husband and other male members of the village that she committed suicide.

In the meantime, the ramifications of Tito’s decision continued to mount. In 1991, he was arrested in Egypt on charges of drug possession and falsifying his identity. He denied the drug charges. But he had forged a passport in an attempt to flee Egypt. He was sentenced to life in prison. He would have died there if it weren’t for the efforts of European-based Christian organizations dedicated to protecting the human rights of those persecuted for their beliefs. They orchestrated a massive letter-writing campaign that attracted participants from around the world. Diplomats got involved. A group of Christian women even made regular visits to Tito in prison.

Eventually, after 15 years in confinement, Tito was released in 2006. He relocated to Ghana.

In my initial visit there with Tito, we did roughly 40 hours of interviews. But it was much later in the process on one of his extended visits to my home in Virginia that he told me about the last time he saw his father.

A few years after being released from prison, Tito was contacted by one of his cousins back in Nigeria. “Your father is dying,” the cousin told him. “And he wants to see you.”

Tito didn’t believe it. In his father’s eyes, Tito had died in 1989 when he took on a Christian name. Still, Tito decided to make the trek back to Nigeria. Inside a hospital, he found his dying father sleeping on a bed.

His mouth was open, his breathing labored. His face was hollow and his eyes sunken. His paper-thin skin barely covered his bones. He was bald, emaciated and frail.

“This is the man I feared my whole life?” Tito thought.

As Tito stood there gazing down, his father opened his eyes. A peaceful smile came over his face. It was the first time Tito had ever seen his father smile that way.

“My son,” he whispered.

They stared at each other. Then the father reached for Tito’s hand.

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