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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

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.

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.

“Now that I see you,” his father whispered, “Allah has answered my prayer. I asked Allah that if what you believe in is true, I should see your face before I died. Allah has shown me your face. So I believe in whatever you believe in.”

Tito wondered if his father was senile.

“Is it too late for me?” his father said.

He sounded so desperate, so pathetic.

By that point Tito was an emotional mess. His father had made him cry so many times in his lifetime. But this was the first time the tears were born of sympathy. He could see the fear in his father’s eyes.

“It’s never too late,” Tito told him. “Father in heaven is a God of mercy.”

He squeezed his father’s hand. “Christ died for everyone,” Tito continued. “Everyone can be redeemed, father.”

“The Lord you’re worshipping will take care of me?” he pleaded.

Too choked up to speak, Tito nodded affirmatively.

They spent two hours together that day. Tito’s father died later that afternoon.

I remember the day that I helped Tito write the closing chapter of his memoir. The emotions were so raw that writing was physically exhausting. But these words about Tito’s father and redemption emerged on the page: “The next time I see him will be on the other side. I do believe he’ll be there. At that point he won’t be a Muslim and I won’t be a Christian. We will simply be children of God.”

If you go ...

What: Jeff Benedict and Momen Tito lecture

When: Wednesday, Nov. 13, 1 p.m.

Where: Utah Valley University Student Center Room 206B, Orem

Also ...

What: Jeff Benedict and Momen Tito book signing

When: Thursday, Nov. 14, 6:30 p.m.

Where: Deseret Book downtown, 45 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City

Web: deseretbook.com

Jeff Benedict is a Sports Illustrated special features writer and author of 12 books, including the N.Y. Times best-seller "The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football." He co-wrote "My Name Used to be Muhammad" with Tito Momen.

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