If you want to know what it feels like to be a persecuted Christian, read the Psalms. At least, that’s what Serena, a young believer from the Middle East, says.
While in hiding for nine months, she says, “I was just reading Psalms. … Like, I’m surrounded by enemies. People want to kill me. People want me. Every situation is really hard for me. But [Jesus said], ‘OK, but you know that I’m yours. … I will save you.”
Serena was raised by Christian parents, but she didn’t know that until she was 15 years old. When she asked her parents why they were different from their Muslim friends and family, her mom gave her a New Testament.
Serena embraced Jesus soon after. But when she was in college, the family’s underground church was discovered. Serena’s parents fled to Austria. Serena had to wait another nine months until she could get a visa — to Italy.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity and Serena’s safety.
Your parents weren’t open about their faith, but you noticed they were different. How?
I could feel that we were different a little bit because we celebrate Christmas every year. It’s not common among my people. So, for me it was, like, wondering why we celebrate Christmas, having a Christmas tree. Why we celebrate Easter, you know? Easter is something that nobody even knows in my country. When I was almost 15, I think, I completely understood that we are different.
How did you become a Christian?
My mom gave a Bible to me. It was just a New Testament. I started to read the Bible, and everything was different for me. You know, my whole world changed, because it was all about peace. It was all about love. No violence.
But the most, most, most important thing that made me completely sure about Jesus was His sacrifice. When I started reading, I was thinking, OK, maybe this one is a lie like Islam. How can I be sure? And when I was thinking about that, I came across John 3:16–17. It says that God so loved the world, He sent His Son to this world. Not to condemn the world, but to save them. I thought, Why should He send Jesus for a lie?
Were you afraid of what might happen when you became a Christian?
After maybe a year and a half, two years that I completely accepted Jesus, I had years of reading and searching. And then, when I felt I was ready, I told my mom that I wanted to attend church meetings as well. But it was very dangerous, and my mom was really worried. Because in the home church, every moment, police can come and arrest you.
You don’t know. You don’t know if it’s safe, if it’s not safe. If you’re there where a neighbor understood and called the police or not. So, if you have a spy in your membership, you know, it is possible. I still don’t know who told about our church, if it was a neighbor or someone from us.
So, for sure I knew that I’m going through something very dangerous. But I really believed in Him.
How did you find out that your church had finally been discovered?
One of our Christian sisters talked to my dad. She received a letter from the government, and they explained that, “We know everything about you. We know all of you. And you should come and explain this to the court.”
You and your parents hid for a month before they escaped to Austria, and then you were alone for nine months. What did you do during that time?
My friend told me they have a small house in a small village. So, she told me, “If you want, you can go there and live there.”
It was really hard. It was harder because everyone knows everyone there. And when I moved there, I’m a young girl. I was a young girl without a husband, without a family, without anybody. So, in that situation, every night, I couldn’t sleep. I just kept my whole identity secret.
But Jesus really helped me. At that time, I was just reading Psalms. I was just reading Psalms. He talked to me in that time.
Eventually, you escaped to Italy, where you connected with TEAM church planters Cindy and Steve Thompson. Tell me about your relationship with them.
Cindy and Steve, they are really like a second mom and dad. Cindy is full of love. They have two girls. Even when I met their girls, they told me, “OK, so you are our new sister.” They accept me completely in their family, their home. Usually, all the Sundays after church, I go to their house. We eat together. We watch movies together. When we have discussions and I have questions, they always give me answers. They really treat me as a daughter.
In Italy, you finally got the chance to be baptized, by Steve. What did that day feel like?
It was a really important day, because I could really talk. I could really stand and say, “Hello, people, I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and I’m telling you my testimony, and I’m really happy for that. I am a follower. After all of these things that happened to me, happened to my family, still, I’m happy for that.”
What did it feel like to be able to just go to church and be open about your faith?
It was such a good feeling because I could have my Bible everywhere. I could read it everywhere. I could chill at the park and read my Bible. I could have my Bible in a café. And I could have it in the subway. I could freely go to church to sing. It’s just the most, most, most, most good feeling — and, like, strange feeling at the same time.
How have you grown in your faith since coming to Italy?
Before, everything was just very secret. I didn’t have the opportunity. For example, YouTube in my country is filtered. Now I can search for the word “Gospel.” I love pastors all around the world. I love to study the Bible. I had a lot, a lot, a lot of questions before. Which, a lot of them, I couldn’t find answers.
And I really need someone, you know? I really need a discussion. For example, we have two missionaries from America, Amy and Sara. They are new in our church. So, for example, I was talking to Amy, and she told me, “Yes, we can read like in a Bible school again. Start at both Testaments, too, and we can have a discussion.” So, I mean, I have a lot, a lot to know and to ask. But I know more and more, and I’m happy for that.
How should people pray for persecuted Christians? What would be most helpful?
The most important thing for this kind of church is safety. God leading them, and God watching them. And if they are discovered by the government, that they could be released. They could be safe.
Every day, Christians like Serena lose everything for their faith. Will you minister to them in their time of need? Explore diaspora ministry opportunities today!