“I tell you keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan of this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:38-39).

These are the wise words of Pharisee Gamaliel, spoken to a council of Pharisees that had arrested the apostles, and after a hearing were debating what to do with them. We know now over 2,000 years later, that no one was able to overthrow them—even though most of them would die for their faith. Using the logic of Gamaliel alone, we know their movement was indeed of God. 

They could not be stopped! When religious leaders and governments tried to stop them, they prayed all the more for boldness in their approach and refused to stop preaching Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected, Messiah and Lord. When they were warned by above said council to cease, Acts 5:41 says, “They left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name [of Jesus].”

“ Christianity is the world’s most persecuted religion across all nations. ”


We as Americans often take the ease of our Christian lives for granted, rarely stopping to realize just what the apostles dared to accomplish in Jesus’ name. We are comfortable sitting in cushioned church pews every Sunday, participating in largely unopposed ministries, and living the good life from the vantage point of jobs that pay well, easy-to-come-by possessions, and safe homes in which to dwell. What we fail to take much notice of are the over 103 million displaced people (many of them our fellow believers) in the world today (according to the UN refugee agency). Or the extreme persecution of Christians going on throughout the world. 

Pew Research Center reports that “Christianity is the world’s most persecuted religion across all nations.” Yet, it is the world’s largest religious group, and it continues still to grow. Persecuted yet growing, just like during the apostles’ ministry at the beginning! Open Doors, an advocacy group for persecuted Christians says that in 2022 at least 360 million Christians were subjected to “high levels of persecution and discrimination,” 20 million more than in 2021. That group also lists the number of Christians killed for their faith in 2022 at 5,898. 

Even though ten of Jesus’ disciples would ultimately be killed for their faith, along with many other first century believers, today the number of Christians being killed and persecuted is at an all-time high. In areas such as Asia and Africa where persecution is heavy, the church continues to increase rapidly, while here in America and most of western Europe where persecution seems almost non-existent, church membership is stagnant by comparison.

“ Much of what she had to endure through these years growing up in a Muslim country would have left most of us defeated. ”


Mariam Ibraheem was born in a refugee camp in Sudan. Her mother who had fled war-torn Ethiopia was a Christian, her father a Muslim. In Sudan, Mariam grew up under the Muslim law of the land: sharia law. Despite a childhood of domestic violence and poverty, she was able to receive a formidable education and became a successful businesswoman. Much of what she had to endure through these years growing up in a Muslim country would have left most of us defeated; but in Mariam we see an overcoming spirit, perhaps encouraged by the Christian faith she had learned from her mother, emboldened by Christian peers as she grew to an adult, but most of all gifted from the Holy Spirit that dwells within her. Mariam tells her story in a book published last year titled, “Shackled: One Woman’s Dramatic Triumph over Persecution, Gender Abuse, and a Death Sentence.” 

Eventually Mariam married a Christian man and gave birth to a baby boy, unaware of a turn of events that would lead to her arrest on Christmas Eve 2013. Because her father had been Muslim, Mariam was being forced by the Sudanese government to renounce Christianity and become Muslim. She was jailed with her 9-month-old-son, and while incarcerated discovered she was also pregnant. Throughout her time in prison, her ankles were shackled in chains that left her unable to walk freely, shuffling with short steps and dragging the heavy chains behind her. A lengthy and completely unjust trial (by American standards) followed. 

When Mariam refused to embrace Islam, she received a sentence of 100 lashes (which was implemented while she was pregnant) and execution. The execution was delayed for two years, but Mariam and her children were to remain in prison those years so that she could nurse her baby. Then after her execution both of her children would be placed in a government-run orphanage. This two-year delay allowed time for those who knew of her situation to work on her behalf; and after international press coverage, and the birth of her daughter, in the summer of 2014, the Sudanese government finally allowed Mariam and her family to go to Europe where she lived for some time before coming to the United States.

The initial decision to take the path of submitting to the Sudanese government was difficult. Mariam felt she had four options. She could accept Islam, abandon her family, and go live with a family that claimed she was related to them through her father—although she had never known them or known of them. Second, she could listen to a Christian friend and mentor who said he could get her to Italy. She would be running from Sudan for the rest of her life if she did that. Third, she could deny Christ publicly but continue to live as a Christian privately. The least desirable option was the one Mariam chose—to stay in Sudan, stand for her faith, not accept Islam, and accept the consequences, one of which would surely be death.

“ No matter what, I know Jesus will be with me. ”


Mariam explains how she made her choice: “I knew from the moment I felt the Word of the Lord speaking to my heart that I needn’t be afraid.… I couldn’t make any choices based on fear. I had to trust Jesus. I had to follow His voice. My feet could not rest in both camps. I could not stand with one foot in the camp of fear and one foot in the camp of faith…. I can’t run from this…. If I die, I die. I will stand this trial and take what comes. This is the cross I have been given to carry. No matter what, I know Jesus will be with me. With those words. I felt free in my decision. I could feel the power of the Holy Spirit flowing through my body.”

After making her choice, Mariam describes the first night of her experience in prison: “Late in the night, when I was between sleep and consciousness, I felt a soft hand touch my shoulder. The hand wasn’t necessarily warm, but it warmed my body. As soon as I felt the hand, I heard a soft voice say, ‘You are not alone.’ The voice immediately soothed my soul.”

“’Who are you?’ I called out. No one answered, so I asked again, ‘Who are you?’”

“The lights were still on. It was dark outside, but it was bright enough in the prison cell for me to be somewhat certain that what I had felt and heard was not an illusion brought on by the mysteries of the dark.”

“’What are you saying?’ one of the women asked. Some of the women were still up talking to each other. They noticed I was talking to someone they couldn’t see.”

“’Jesus?’ I asked, sure it must have been He who had touched my shoulder.” Mariam goes on to tell how one inmate called the guard to report that Mariam was crazy and talking to Jesus. However, “happiness flooded [her] body once [she] realized Jesus had touched [her] shoulder in the prison cell. [She] was filled with overwhelming joy that could only be expressed in laughter. It started with a quiet, suppressed giggle, but it grew into a small chuckle, then into bigger louder laughter.”

And so began Mariam’s ministry in the prison where she would unashamedly proclaim Jesus to guards and inmates alike, loving them and leading some to Jesus. Mariam says, “I knew they might never have a chance to read a Bible and that I might be the only Bible they would ever see. Sudan is one of the most unreached places in the world. The Sudanese people need to hear the name of Jesus. If my death would bring them the good news, then I was ready. I knew Jesus was with me, and I knew that He alone had the power to release me; but if this was the time He had set for me to come home to Him, then I would gratefully die a martyr’s death while sharing His name with others. I would rather die young, embracing the name of Jesus, than live to old age having denied Him.”

“ Mariam is not angry with her persecutors. ”


What Mariam was asked to do in her decision to follow Jesus and take whatever consequences that meant, goes far beyond what any of us will experience here in this country at this present time. As Mariam’s case became known around the world, Sudan’s government, judicial officials, and prison staff were humiliated. Mariam’s persecution increased. They explained away her conviction to speak of Jesus and denounce Islam as demon possession. When it came time for her to give birth, they did not allow her into the prison hospital, but forced her to lay on a dirt floor, refusing to remove her shackles. The midwife in charge was kind, but had to obey the prison authorities. At one point, one of the guards who was always hostile to Mariam entered the prison yard where she was lying in labor.

“’I heard you had back pain,’ she said as she sidled closer to [Mariam]. ‘Does your back still hurt?’”

“Before [Mariam] could answer, she kicked her in the back with her steel-toed boots.” Later the warden cut off the electricity to the room where she was giving birth. The baby was delivered in the dark while Mariam lay shackled on the dirt floor, but Mariam had long before blacked out.

Mariam is not angry with her persecutors. She asks how she can be angry with a nation that doesn’t know what or Who love is. “They persecute…because they ‘know not what they do’” (Luke 23:34). 

Mariam continues, “The message of Jesus Christ is not for me to live a comfortable life in a Christian country. It is for me to walk in the footsteps of the disciples and sacrifice for those who have never heard.”

“God’s love is too great to be earned,” she writes, “but my love for Him compels me to follow His will.  If I am truly in love with Jesus Christ, how could I do anything but follow Him? As He said, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it’ (Matthew 16:24-25). I have certainly found a life worth living in Him.”

Mariam’s story is the stuff that our spiritual growth is made of. Every day is a test, yet every day is a glory. I must live for Jesus with intentionality, yet in the knowledge that Jesus Himself is with me, His Spirit in me, and that He is most dear to me and I to Him. Truly, I am dearer to Him than I could ever imagine. Even when it hurts.

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