Some news just makes you feel small.
Like the story of Nurta Mohamed Farah, a Somali teen being cruelly abused by her own parents for the crime of converting to Christianity.
According to Compass Direct, a news organization dedicated to publicizing the persecution of Christians worldwide, eyewitnesses report that Nurta refused to renounce her faith during a severe beating, and is now kept chained to a tree by day, enclosed in a small room at night. She receives daily “medication” for psychiatric illness –which is what her conversion is thought to be.
Nurta is 17 and suffering a torment I try to but can’t really imagine.
Would I, at 17, have had Nurta’s faith and fortitude? Would I have it now, for that matter?
I fear not. I who fancied myself to be suffering a great trial while enduring the blistering heat and humidity of a Florida theme park vacation on my kids’ behalf recently am not under any illusions about my strength.
I don’t get very far imagining being called to suffer for my faith before recalling Flannery O’Conner’s quip about only being able to be a martyr if they killed me darn quick.
Where, then, does a 17-year-old girl who has only just learned of Christianity draw the strength to endure a protracted trial?
Nurta is not an isolated example, either. According to one Muslim source, some 16,000 Muslims convert to Christianity every day, many of them from behind the “theological iron curtain” in nations where it can mean death or torture to do so.
What motivates people like Nurta to risk their lives for a faith we in the West are abandoning in droves? What do they see that we don’t?
Perhaps the account of another Muslim convert can provide a hint.
Nurta’s story reminded me of the experience of a Catholic Army chaplain serving in Iraq reported by CNA a couple of years ago. “Fatima,” an Iraqi translator, was touched by the impartial treatment wounded enemy combatants received from Allied medical personnel. Mercy towards enemies was a thing unknown to her.
“Tell me about Jesus,” she inquired timidly, “because that can’t happen with us.”
When the priest described Jesus and his life, the thing that most caught her attention was Christ’s kindness to who she called “the two Marys.” The story continues: “Fatima was moved to see how Jesus deeply loved Mary, his mother, who was sinless, but also how Jesus deeply loved Mary Magdalene, who was ‘a great sinner.’ As these discussions continued, Fatima reached a point where she said to [the priest], ‘I want to become a Christian.’”
When her relatives discovered her impending baptism, they threatened to disown her. The chaplain, fearing for her life, advised her to think carefully before entering the Church.
Her response: “Do you give up so easily on Jesus?”
The chaplain reported feeling chagrined that this brand new Christian had to teach him the importance of his own faith!
Reflecting on these things, I began to see it’s not right to think about martyrdom from the perspective of how much torture you think you might be able to endure.
In the first place, Jesus advises us in the Gospels to pray such trials don’t come. If they do, he will give us the grace we need at the moment we need it, and not before – much as I didn’t give my littlest kids the tickets for those expensive theme park attractions until just before entry.
More importantly, though, what Fatima, Nurta and the thousands like them who are just meeting Jesus for the first time are discovering is his great goodness and beauty –and discovering it, they can’t help but love Him. How can you turn your back on someone you love?
In the West we have the luxury of lingering cultural Christianity. That makes the faith easier to practice (no one tries to blow us up on the way to Mass), but it also makes it easier to reduce to a set of rules and practices, forgetting that Catholicism is the call to an intimate relationship with the One who is all good and all beautiful.