Every now and then I am reminded of the foolishness of Southern Baptists dividing and separating over trival issues while other Christians around the world are in fear of their very lives. Missionaries overseas have recently made me aware of the story Hazem Hanna, a Christian man in danger of imprisonment, torture or even worse if deported to his birth country of Egypt. Hazem himself has requested that I print his story - with an accompanying photograph - so that more people in the west are aware of his situation, knowing his only hope is that Christians in America will speak out before he disappears for good.
Hazem Boutros Hanna lives his life looking over his shoulder and sees a life as broken as his right hand; gaining on Hazem is the threat of deportation back to Egypt. Deportation carries the probability of more imprisonment and torture and the possibility of death. His story, and the haunting image of his broken fingers, should give every Southern Baptist pause before anyone looks at a fellow Southern Baptist as an enemy. We are brothers, and we best get focused on helping our evangelical brethren in the battle they face for their very lives.
Trouble has been with Hazem since he was eight years old when his father, Makram, a cultural Coptic Christian, began searching for meaning in life and found it in the Protestant church. His religious awakening coupled with an insatiable thirst to learn the Bible led him to share the message of Christ with anyone who would listen. In 1974, when Hazem was 12, his father was murdered for baptizing a former Muslim. One evening the Cairo police brought Makram’s body to his shocked wife and three sons. He had been savagely beaten and his all of his teeth had been removed (a torture practice favored by state authorities). To make matters worse the police refused to investigate Makram’s murder and the family was treated as pariahs by their neighbors.
At 15, Hazem began working in the one goldsmith shop that would employ him. It quickly became apparent that he had a gift and when he graduated high school he opened a little shop of his own. That success would last only three years until a Muslim family whose daughter had been baptized by Makram would beat Hazem and destroy his shop. All of this happened while the police looked on doing nothing to stop the family.
Hazem’s mother terrified for her son, said to him, “I see you will end up like your father—they will kill you.” Soon afterwards she scraped together enough money to send her middle son to Italy to study art.
While studying in Italy, Hazem worked in a vineyard to feed himself. One day in the blistering sun he thought to himself, “Why don’t I find a job as a goldsmith?” Hazem went from one shop to another trying to find work until an old man amused by the brash 20 year old, asked him, “What do you know about goldsmithing?”
Hazem replied, “I know everything.”
The old man laughed at him and told him he was crazy, but still gave Hazem an opportunity. Hazem impressed the old man enough to be hired and eventually given more responsibility around the shop.
Finally the old man asked Hazem, “Where do you live?” Sheepishly, Hazem answered, “I live at the train station.” The old man found Hazem a place to live and took him on as an apprentice. Hazem, to his mother’s dismay dropped out of school and worked full time at the goldsmith shop.
A couple of years later, Hazem returned to Egypt to be with his mother and brothers. Work was difficult to find and a return to Italy was impossible to find since Hazem had violated his student visa rules by dropping out of school and working full time. Over the next few years, Hazem worked illegally with goldsmiths and jewelers in France, Greece, Cyprus and South Africa.
He arrived in Morocco with a wealth and variety of experience. Morocco is well known for its gold and diamond markets and he quickly caught on with a man named Reva Jakob, a respected Jewish jeweler in Casablanca. Jakob took Hazem under his wing and taught him the business side of jewelry and gold. Thanks to Jakob’s connections and reputation Hazem’s work became noticed by many influential people including the security detail of Moroccan king, Hassan II.
After years of working secretively and hiding in the shadows, Hazem had seemingly found the good life in Casablanca. His craft had earned the respect and patronage of customers all over Morocco. Things were going so well for Hazem that he had opened a shop of his own and had built a house. His success was noticed by the Egyptian embassy and the consular told Hazem, “We are happy to see Egyptians doing so well.” Hazem’s good life would end soon when he received a phone call from a childhood friend.
The words, “I want to meet you,” would push Hazem from a life of luxury and respect into a life of pain and suffering. The caller was Hasem Farid, the son of a Coptic Christian priest who had grown up with Hazem in Cairo. Quickly into the meeting, Hazem realized that Farid wanted more than to catch up. Farid explained that he was part of the Egyptian secret police and pleaded with Hazem to work with the government, “Your country needs your help… we know everything—what happened to your father; we can make it right.” Farid eventually explained that he wanted Hazem to spy on the Jewish community. Farid asked Hazem to plant listening devices in the homes of the Jewish families and Egyptian expatriates. “We can use this information to kill troublemakers to Egypt.”
Appalled by the proposal, Hazem told Farid, “You’re a Christian! Jesus was Jewish and half your Bible is Jewish!” Hazem also couldn’t stomach the idea of betraying the man who had given him so much “I would rather steal from my friend Reva Jakob than do what you’ve asked me to do.”
In spite of the pressure put on him, Hazem refused to spy on Jakob and for two months things were quietly stressful. Farid returned to bring Hazem the news that his mother was gravely ill. With the news he also brought a list of Egyptians living in Morocco and a thinly veiled threat, “We’ll do what we can to make sure no one harms your mother in the hospital.”
Hazem’s life eroded even more as he was taken to the police. There he was presented a report in which a former co-worker accused Hazem of swindling a shop owner out of his building. Despite the fact that there were no witnesses or formal charges the case went to court. The Egyptian embassy which had lauded Hazem in the past had turned a deaf ear to Hazem’s pleas for help. In desperation, Hazem went on a hunger strike. Word of Hazem’s plight reached his friend, Jakob who provided a lawyer. The case was thrown out and Jakob offered more help, “Leave Morocco because more trouble will come.” Jakob gave Hazem a visa for Israel and assurance that Israel would get his mother out of Egypt. That would never happen as Hazem’s mother would soon die of ovarian cancer.
Greif stricken and guilt ridden for not having seen his mother for seven years, Hazem returned to Egypt. In the Cairo airport Hazem was pulled aside by the Egyptian secret police. They knew about Hazem’s plan to flee to Israel and encouraged him to go in their service, “We’ll teach you Hebrew so you can infiltrate the Jewish community.” Hazem agreed to think about it and is released to bury his mother. In between grieving and consoling his brothers Hazem worried about his life. Fifteen days later he was summoned by the secret police and questioned again. Soon after, Hazem bought a ticket to Malta with the intent of never returning to Egypt.
While at the airport Hazem is pulled out of line and taken to the police where he was asked, “Will you return to Egypt?”
“No, I will stay away.”
“You will not be going to Malta and you will not be going home either.”
Hazem was bound and blindfolded and put into a holding cell where he was not allowed to speak a single word. Hazem was accused of being a traitor because he had supported Jews in Casablanca. After one day in the holding cell Hazem was taken to an unknown prison where he was repeatedly interrogated and tortured. His cell was cold, flooded with water and harshly lit, making it nearly impossible to sleep.
His interrogators removed four perfectly good teeth, set attack dogs on him and electrocuted him through wires attached to his ears and genitals. “I wanted to die during that time.” Almost as excruciating as the torture was the endless repeating of the question, “How do you make your money?”
“I told them, ‘I am a goldsmith.’ But they kept asking the same question, so one day I finally said, ‘I make my money by my hand.’ And they said, ‘Okay, we’ll break your hand.’ So they took my right hand and broke every finger on it.”
In 1997, a bombing in Aswan caused a political shakeup in the Egyptian intelligence office. In the confusion, Hazem was sent to a political prison from which he was released. Hazem’s mangled right hand and his reputation as a sympathizer to Jews made it impossible to find work. Hazem quickly realized that he could not face the future if he was constantly looking over his shoulder so he bribed an airport official and left for Turkey. Two months later he went to Amman, Jordan to plead his case with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). With only one working hand and the stigma of being a refugee Hazem felt fortunate to find menial work in a restaurant.
Unable to get asylum from the UNHCR, Hazem fled to Turkey and found the same result as the UNHCR office in Ankara lost his files and documentation of his torture. Over the next couple of years a minor miracle occurred when Hazem gained use of his wrecked right hand. While his hand was still twisted and grotesque, he was able to work again as a goldsmith.
The physical scars on Hazem were obvious, but he was also wounded spiritually. Angered and disappointed by God whom his father, Makram, loved enough to lay down his life Hazem distrusted and actively ignored God. “I didn’t believe in what I learned about God from my father. I didn’t believe in God.”
All alone in Istanbul, a city of 15 million people, Hazem found a desolate Moroccan youth wandering the streets. Hazem took the young Muslim man into his shabby room and took care of him. The young man, so moved by Hazem’s concern asked him, “Are all Christians like you?” Hazem replied, “I’m not a good Christian.”
Over time the young Moroccan decided he wanted to go to a church, “Take me to church with you, it would be too shameful for me as a Muslim to go alone.” Hazem resisted at first but eventually agreed to take him to a Protestant church. Hazem went expecting nothing and found love and acceptance, both of which were at a premium in his life. The young man moved from Istanbul and Hazem found himself alone again. On an especially lonely Sunday morning he decided to go back to the church by himself. The sermon that day was about the prodigal son and Hazem realized that he was the prodigal and a tearful God was waiting for him to come to faith.
Today Hazem, sees how God has kept him through his trial and laughs at the irony of his finding his faith in Christ, “God sent a Muslim man to me so I could become a real Christian.” Besides faith, Hazem also found the power of forgiveness, “I forgive them all who tortured me because I am a Christian.” The prodigal son has returned to God the Father, but he cannot return to his home in Egypt. The prodigal finds himself in the last chapter of what seems like a spy novel stuck in limbo with an expired passport and a desperate hope in God. What can Southern Baptists do for Hazem?
(1). Pray for Hazem.
(2). Allow God to use Hazem's story in your life to help keep your perspective. May his story give you pause before you think about separating from any fellow Southern Baptist over matters non-essential to the gospel. Realize that while you argue over who is - and who is not - qualified to baptize, some Christians who simply obey Christ and baptize new believers are being killed for doing so. I wonder how many Southern Baptists in a country where you die if you baptize somebody would all of the sudden loosen their qualifications for the baptizer - and might even think themselves unqualified?
(3). Take a day and refuse to complain about your circumstances and simply do something to help somebody worse off than you. The world will be better because of it.
In His Grace,