Christianity Today, Week of September 5
'It was God who saved me,' Haji declares.
By Barbara G. Baker | posted 9/6/00
Yesterday, four days after they flew out of Yemen, Somali Christian convert Mohammed Omer Haji and his family arrived for permanent religious asylum in Auckland, New Zealand.
"This is a very far place here," a sleepy Haji told Compass by telephone today.
More than 24 hours after their arrival, the Somali refugee said he and his wife Sarah were still sleeping off the four marathon days and nights they had spent in planes and airports between Yemen and New Zealand. After the initial leg of their journey to the Eritrean capital of Asmara, they were routed through Jeddah, Bombay, Singapore and Sydney.
"Really it was God who saved me," the former Muslim told Compass. "I am happy that all the believers prayed for me everywhere, Christian people," Haji said. "It's a miracle that I am free."
Haji, 27, was released from a Yemeni prison in Aden on August 24, seven weeks after a local judge threatened to execute him for apostasy if he did not return to Islam. The case was halted in the courts after it was reported in the international press.
After extended negotiations with local representatives of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), under which Haji had official refugee status, the government of Yemen agreed to allow Haji and his family to be deported for resettlement elsewhere.
A refugee living in Yemen since 1994, the Somali had converted to Christianity two years ago and adopted the name George. He was first jailed last January by Yemeni security police, who reportedly beat him and tried for two months to coerce him to return to Islam. Haji was later rearrested and put on trial in June for apostasy, a capital offense under the strict Islamic law observed in Yemen.
"There is no religious freedom in Yemen," Haji commented. "Nobody knows about Jesus, and it's a sin to believe in Him."
The former Muslim had been given a one-week ultimatum at his July 5 trial to recant his faith in Christ and return to Islam, or face execution. Four days later, he told Compass, the judge at a closed-door July 9 hearing on his case offered to "give me everything I wanted" if Haji would come back to Islam.
"I don't want everything, I want Jesus Christ. I don't want anything else. If I die, I die with Jesus. He died for me and also for you," he said he told the judge. Although UNHCR staff were present at this hearing, Haji's court-appointed lawyer was neither informed nor invited.
According to the Somali refugee, one of the many miracles he experienced while in jail for his Christian faith was actually forgiving the Yemeni policeman who had beaten him the most. "That man, he beat me so much," he said. "But I forgive him, because of Christ."
Haji and his wife and son are being housed temporarily at the New Zealand Immigration Service's refugee resettlement center in Auckland. Several local churches have applied to sponsor the Haji's resettlement process since the New Zealand government offered the family asylum in late July.
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