In photo: Saree* from India
Saree* is a 12-year-old girl from a rural part of India. She’s tall for her age, slim, and has a beautiful smile that she shows too little. She often squints her eyes, which gives her face a dark, almost scary look. As if she’s carrying a heavy load – which of course, she is. Her parents forced her to choose between Jesus and them. She couldn’t make that choice. Her father made the choice for her and threw her out of his house.
(Written by an Open Doors worker visiting India)
I meet Saree in a safe location, far away from her hometown. The meeting has been arranged by local church partners of Open Doors. Our donors make it possible for our partners to reach out to people like Saree and here I can see firsthand the impact of those visits to persecution victims.
As a child and a young girl Saree is particularly vulnerable to persecution. She is a symbol of a much larger trend that I’ve seen developing in India over the years. Fifteen (15) years ago, when I started my work for Open Doors, I noticed a lot of attacks on pastors. During later years, other Christian men were beaten as well. In recent years, Christian women are being assaulted too.
It seems that now it’s the children’s turn. Reading through a list of persecution incident reports, it’s not difficult to see that children are directly persecuted. They are beaten, sometimes even raped and killed. Often not for their own faith, but because of the faith of their parents.
Saree’s case is a little different though. You see, Saree came to faith after being practically deaf for many years. “I was bullied at school for being deaf,” she said to me in her still voice. “They scolded me: ‘You are deaf!’ It made me so sad. I also couldn’t listen and study at school properly. My parents tried everything to heal me. We went to the hospital, to Hindu temples and even to people who practiced witchcraft. Nothing helped.”
The first time she set foot in a church
One day, an aunt approached Saree. She said, “Your family members are not believers in the true God. But I am. Come with me. My God will heal you.”
It was the first time Saree set foot in a church. “The people were singing songs,” Saree says. “And the preacher taught from the Word of God. I heard a little bit of sound, so I could understand a little of what was being said and sung. The songs made me happy. After the preaching, the pastor and a few other people prayed for me. First they called me to the front. I was a bit afraid and actually wanted to run. But I still went to the front. While they were praying, I could hear sounds. Slowly the sounds became louder and louder. I also felt something coming to me. It came closer and closer. It was the presence of God. Then the sounds became really clear. I could hear everything. I was incredibly happy.”
How did people react?
Saree looks at her feet while she answers. “My aunt was there and she was equally happy that I had been healed. She brought me to her home and explained what I needed to know about Jesus. Then she told my mother about Jesus Christ.”
I’ve interviewed dozens of persecuted Christians from India. Many of them come to faith after being healed from a disease. And usually at this ‘conversion through healing miracle’ part of the story it is where the interviewee explains that the entire family came to faith.
Your God isn’t our God
This wasn’t the case with Saree. Sure, her parents were happy she could hear properly. But, as Saree’s mom said to Saree’s aunt, “Your God is not our God. We are not going to believe in your God. People in your church die too. So we won’t go to that church.”
Later, Saree’s mother warned her not to go to church. “The villagers can cut us off from the village. We won’t be able to buy any food or drinks any more and nobody will talk to us.”
How long ago was this? I ask.
Saree’s eyes shoot to me when I speak, then to the interpretor when he translates my words. “One year,” she says finally.
The look on her face is so grim that I ask her if she’s willing to tell us the rest of the story. She doesn’t have to. “I want to tell it,” she says. Then waits until I ask another question.
Did you go to church by yourself?
“Yes, many times. I went secretly. My elder sister was the only one who knew. But my brother also found out. He caught me many times on a Sunday after I came back from church. He beat me and dragged me into the house. One time, I was carrying a Bible. He took it, threw it into the mud and beat me with a stick. Later I collected the Bible, wiped it clean and gave it to another believer. He kept it safe for me.”
How old were you when this happened?
“I was only 11.”
Were you beaten often?
“Almost every time I went to church. My brother and father beat me.”
Then what happened?
“About three months ago, they were fed up with me. My brother and father yelled at me: ‘If you continue to go to church we will punish you!’ They beat and kicked me badly. Then they gave me some clothes and pushed me out of the door. My father said, ‘You are not our daughter anymore.’”
Saree had only one place to go, her Christian aunt. After two days, suddenly Saree’s parents turned up. They accused the aunt of keeping their daughter and threatened to beat her as well. For some reason, they didn’t take Saree home. Instead, she received some money from her aunt and walked for ten kilometers, then took a bus another ten kilometers to reach the house of another aunt, who was also a Christian.
‘She only goes to church! Let her go!’
It wasn’t long before her mother showed up at the second aunt’s house. She invited Saree to come home. Understandably, Saree didn’t want anything more than to return to her parents’ house. It was a mistake. Her 22-year-old brother immediately resumed his threats. “Leave Jesus Christ!” he said, while beating her with a stick and slapping her with his shoes.
“I won’t leave Jesus,” Saree replied.
Her older sister tried to pull Saree’s brother away from her. “She only goes to church! Let her go!”
Eventually, he let her go, and Saree knew she had no other choice than to go back to her aunt. She has been living with her for the last few months.
But did she really not have a choice? She was only 12. It would be much easier for her to simply obey her parents and all her problems would vanish. She could go back home, back to school and back to her friends. All these things she has given up for Jesus Christ.
I think about my next question. Saree is clearly traumatized and a ‘simple’ girl. When I asked earlier – as an ice breaker – what she wanted to become when she was older, she didn’t understand my question. “These people don’t think about questions like that,” a female Open Doors church partner explained. “She comes from a small village and has never traveled far. Her world is so small. She takes life as it comes.”
Finally, I say, “You said you don’t want to leave Jesus Christ. That is a brave decision, especially at your age. But why do you feel you can’t reject Him?”
Her answer feels like a punch in the gut. “I want to leave him.”
“But I can’t. There’s something there…” She struggles to find words. “I think about the fellowship we have on Sundays. Whenever I feel depressed, I think about fellowship.”
What makes the fellowship so special?
“A believer sister told me: ‘Don’t leave Jesus Christ. We are here.’ She encouraged me from the Word of God. That strengthened me.”
She finds it difficult to express her feelings in words. But it seems that, despite her suffering, she has the unexplainable joy that the Bible speaks about, a joy that only a redeemed soul can experience. This joy leads to a perseverance that can only come from God.
Saree also reminds me of what I’ve learned from other Christians with a Hindu background: once you’ve been saved from idol worship, evil spirits, or terrible diseases – or a combination of all these things – you don’t want to go back to that ‘old life’ where you’re subject to Hindu rituals.
It’s not that Saree doesn’t want to leave Jesus. She can’t leave Him.
What is the most difficult thing for you?
“Because of my persecution, I cannot go to school. I also miss my family a lot. I’ve seen them twice after they kicked me out. I went to see them, but my father doesn’t talk to me. My mother talks a little bit with me, but only my elder sister talks nicely. I didn’t see my brother. I love my family, but they don’t accept me.”
What is your desire?
“I want to go back to school and study.”
“That’s really hard,” the interpreter shares. “We’d like her to transfer schools but that’s only possible with a signature from her parents.”
An encouragement from the Lord
I nod. Small regulations can have a massive impact on someone’s life and even future. I ask, Has God given you any encouragement?
Now she nods. “God has said that he will never leave nor forsake us. He is our healer.”
What can we pray for?
“Pray for my family, that God will lead them to salvation. Pray especially for my brother.”
I wish I could give her something, an encouragement from the Lord. But what? Saree’s parents are still alive, but it feels to me I’m talking to an orphan. I do a quick search in my Bible app for ‘fatherless’. I know that God has made promises for orphans and within a second I see many search results from the Psalms especially.
I pick Psalm 68:5 from my ESV Bible and read it to her. Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in holy habitation.
I tell her that God has made many promises for people like her, most importantly that He is a father to the fatherless. She seems to soak in these words. It’s enough for now, and I pray for Saree and her family.
Two days and one transformation later
Two days later, I meet Saree again. She has indicated that she wants to tell her story on video as well. The Open Doors partner says that she has spent a lot of time with Saree. Encouraging her, praying with her, singing with her, quoting ‘my’ Bible verse to her, being a sister to her.
We record Saree walking through a garden, doing different things with her hands, praying and reading. Then we sit her down and ask her to tell us what she wants to say on camera. While she’s talking, I can’t concentrate on her words. I can only think about my own daughter, who is about Saree’s age, and I silently pray that many 12-year-old girls around the world will pray for their Indian sister.
We don’t record Saree’s face – for security reasons – but I study it. There’s something different about her. Suddenly I realize what it is. Her eyes spark.
*Name changed for security reasons
India | Digital Encouragement Campaign
When life is hard, you need encouragement. You need to know that you’re not alone. It’s true for every Christian, but it’s especially true for persecuted Christians. In India, Christians make up less than five percent of the population, and in rural areas they can be particularly isolated. They face beatings, false imprisonment and even death because of their faith.
That’s why Open Doors launched a digital encouragement campaign for persecuted Christians in India so that they can be strengthened in their faith by their Christian family around the world.