My father named me Muhammad after the prophet of Islam. He expected me to emerge as a leader among clerics, capable of leading a jihad, or holy struggle, to convert nonbelievers to Islam throughout our entire Nigerian homeland. And though I spent more than two decades striving to fulfill his dream for me, my life took an unexpected turn when I found the gospel of Jesus Christ and joined the LDS Church—a decision that would cost me my family and my freedom.
The guards unlocked a sliding cell door that led to a common area packed with fanatic Islamic terrorists of one sort or another. They were all looking at me.
“This is the Al-Azhar student who converted to Christianity,” one of the guards announced, shoving me through the door. “This is the infidel.”
The guards barely had time to exit and lock things down before a throng of inmates converged on me. The hatred in their eyes terrified me. I dropped to my knees and wrapped my arms around my newly shaved head as they pummeled me with fists and feet.
I am the last person you might expect to become a Christian. I began memorizing the Qur’an at age five. When I was a teenager, my father sent me to a radical Islamic school in Syria. Later I studied with members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, Egypt, while pursuing a degree in Islamic studies at Al-Azhar University.
But over the years, I began to have doubts about my religion. Islam, at least the way it was taught to me, felt more like devotion to rules than devotion to God. While studying at Al-Azhar, I started to question the legitimacy of Muhammad’s being a prophet. And if he wasn’t a prophet, then the whole idea of Islam was a fraud.
If my true feelings ever got out, I’d be seen as blasphemous. My personal safety would be at risk. So rather than talk to anybody, I put my private thoughts down on paper. But my days at the university ended abruptly when my personal notes accidentally ended up in the hands of my professor. I was expelled, and my father disowned me.
What Religion Is This?
After being expelled, I continued living and working in Cairo as a DJ. With my faith in Islam shaken, I became much more Westernized and wild—I started drinking, smoking, and womanizing. One evening in 1988 I went to visit an acquaintance named Gaston, a frequent patron at the nightclub where I worked.
As soon as I arrived at his place, I removed a pack of cigarettes from my pocket and offered him one.
“I don’t smoke anymore,” Gaston said.
“Why not?” I asked. When Gaston didn’t reply, I persisted. “Is it for religious reasons or for health reasons?”
“Religion,” Gaston said.
I laughed. At the club, Gaston had been practically a chain smoker. A few minutes later, he asked me if I wanted something to drink—but then I discovered he didn’t have any alcohol, either. He explained that not all Christians abstain from liquor and cigarettes. But The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that these things should be avoided because they are addictive.
I had been raised to believe that all Christian churches were evil. Yet in my eyes, Gaston was anything but evil. I was curious to learn more about his new church.
That Friday morning I accompanied Gaston to church. At 9:30 sharp, the congregation assembled and started singing a Christian hymn. The tune was unfamiliar. So were the words. Yet as I listened to the references to Christ and love, I felt as if wind were rushing through me.
One after another, men and women of various races and nationalities expressed their faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ, along with their belief in the Bible and the Book of Mormon as
holy scripture. I couldn’t escape the feeling I had inside.
There’s something here, I kept telling myself.
At my request, I was given a Bible and a Book of Mormon. I ended up spending the entire weekend working my way through the Old Testament. I didn’t leave my apartment once. By the start of the new week, I had finished the one thousand-plus–page book and turned my attention to the New Testament.
The parable of the prodigal son hit me hard, and my eyes welled up. I had become that prodigal son. I was a drunk and a womanizer. I had strayed from everything my father had taught me and embraced many of the vices he abhorred.
Guilty and miserable, I buried my face in my hands and sobbed.
“Please, God, let this be true,” I whispered. “Let this be true.”
For the next few weeks, I attended services at the Mormon congregation. I spent every spare minute reading. When I finished the New Testament, I turned to the Book of Mormon. The part that intrigued me the most was the account of Jesus Christ spreading his gospel to a region of the world far removed from the Middle East. The latter part of the Book of Mormon describes Christ descending out of heaven and saying:
“Behold, I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world.
“And behold, I am the light and the life of the world; and I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me, and have glorified the Father in taking upon me the sins of the world, in the which I have suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning.”
The people had fallen to the ground in amazement. Christ admonished them to stand up:
“Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world.”
Those words—“the God of the whole earth”—really impacted me. Tears filled my eyes as I visualized people touching the nail marks in Christ’s palms. I wanted to touch those nail marks myself. For the first time in my life, I wanted to be in Christ’s presence. I never thought I’d say something like that. But the words of the Bible and the Book of Mormon had stirred my soul.
But leaving Islam and becoming a Mormon would make me a marked man. I had no choice, though, I told myself. I had compiled quite a collection of sins. More than anything, I wanted a
clean conscience. I told the Mormon leaders in Cairo that I wanted to be baptized.
To my surprise, they told me no. The Church simply did not have the legal authority to baptize Muslims in Egypt, and Mormon policy prohibited it. I could attend church and act like a Mormon. I just couldn’t be one.
A New Name
Baptism or no baptism, I figured no one could stop me from accepting Christ as my Savior and living my life as a Christian. So I decided to make some big changes. I stopped smoking and drinking. I quit my job as a DJ and found a full-time job as a translator. Next, I decided I didn’t want to be called Muhammad anymore. I wanted a Christian name instead. I chose Tito, the Italian version of Titus, which was the name of a missionary companion to the Apostle Paul. The more I learned about Titus, the more I felt a connection to him. Christians initially rejected Titus for not being circumcised.
Titus was an outsider. I was too. The people made me feel welcome, but I couldn’t be baptized. And without baptism, I didn’t feel completely accepted.
For months I kept asking to be baptized, but I was told the same thing every time: Wait.
Eventually, I was told that a way had been found for me to be baptized, and arrangements were made for me to travel to a location where the baptism could be performed. After so much longing, I finally had my wish!
Soon after my baptism, the police started harassing me. My fiancée, Aaban, had also reported my Book of Mormon and Bible, and that had ended our relationship. I lived underground for the next year. I didn’t go anywhere or do anything other than part-time work as an English tutor and an interpreter while still attending church once a week. I felt I was under surveillance, and I was afraid to do anything that would get me in trouble.
I started researching immigration law in Egypt. I knew my name was likely on a watch-list, and I was looking for a way out of the country without detection. It occurred to me that a legal name change might just do the trick.
On April 7, 1991, the paperwork to officially change my legal name from Muhammad to Tito was completed at the Ministry of the Interior. But I still had to visit Al-Azhar, because I had come into the country under a student visa that was associated with the university. I started sensing a problem when the clerk who took my paperwork disappeared. Nearly two hours later, I was still waiting. Finally, a couple of state security officers showed up, and the next thing I knew, I was being hauled off campus.
I was taken to an interrogation room where an officer was seated at a beat-up wooden table. He stepped out from behind his desk.
“You don’t like Muhammad’s name? You don’t want the holy prophet’s name?” He backhanded me across the face. “You took a dog’s name.”
He pushed me in the chest, causing me to lose my balance and fall to my knees. “How could you do something so blasphemous?” he said, looking down on me.
With the officer still shouting at me, two guards in combat boots began kicking me. One blow to my abdomen knocked the wind out of me. I gasped for air. It was pretty clear why I was in so much trouble—my religion.
I was sent to a place referred to as the Investigations Prison, where accused criminals were held until they got a hearing. The jail had a ripe smell of urine. Cockroaches moved along the ceiling. I was put in a giant holding cell with more than 60 other accused criminals who were waiting for their cases to be heard.
After nearly nine months in detention, I was finally taken before a panel of judges. I was charged with drug possession and falsifying my identity. I didn’t know what to say. I had never used illegal drugs in my life. Yet there I was being accused of using cocaine and heroin.
I was in the middle of a silent prayer when I heard my case called. The judge pronounced a guilty verdict and ordered me to serve a life sentence.
His words just hung in the air.
At first it didn’t sink in. I wanted to bury my face in my hands. But I couldn’t even do that. My hands were cuffed behind my back. Instead, I just let the tears flow down my cheeks. I didn’t care who saw me. I told myself: The Lord knows best. But at that moment, I wasn’t sure I believed that anymore. I was trying to cling to my faith, but I felt like a man hanging by his fingertips from the edge of a high rock cliff. I lacked the strength to pull myself up. And there was no one around to lend me a hand.
I went to prison.
After 10 years in prison, I began having severe health problems. I started losing weight. I felt weak and tired all the time. I started feeling sharp pains in my chest. I feared I was going to have a heart attack. On a couple of occasions I thought I might have suffered minor ones.
I hit rock bottom. I couldn’t help thinking that I wouldn’t be in this mess if I hadn’t become a Christian. I had accepted Christ as my Savior. Since then I had lost my fianc.e. My father had disowned me. My mother had killed herself after being blamed for my choice to leave Islam. I was in prison on trumped-up charges. And after all that, my health was failing. Meantime, where was God?
I was dwelling on this one night when a guard opened my cell and pushed in a prisoner. The guy had white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. He was twenty-something. “He’s staying the night,” the guard said.
I’d seen this sort of thing before. Every once in a while a foreigner would be arrested and thrown in with the general prison population overnight. Then in the morning he’d be taken to court, and you’d never see him again. This guy was one of those cases.
His name was Simon. He was from London and was arrested as a tourist on immigration violations. I told him I was a Christian, and it turned out he knew a lot about the persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East. He said he belonged to a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Christians who are persecuted for their beliefs. The organization was called Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), and it was based in England. I had never heard
of the group. But one of CSW’s main areas of emphasis was conducting public awareness campaigns to free Christians who had been jailed or imprisoned for their beliefs.
Before this Englishman was released, he told me this group could make my situation known to Christians around the world. I was pretty skeptical. This was 1997, well before Facebook,
Twitter, and YouTube. Very few people around the world even had email at that time.
Just as I expected, nothing happened at first. Then one day a guard informed me that I had mail. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. He handed me the envelope. It was postmarked from Greece. For a moment I just stared in disbelief. I didn’t know anyone in Greece.
Slowly, I tore open the envelope and removed the letter.
Hello in Christ . . .
I always remember you and pray for you. Who knows? Maybe our Lord permitted your imprisonment so that you’ll be able to know Him better; to love Him more. His wills are unexplored. But we are sure about one thing: That He is thinking of us.
A Christian minister signed it. My eyes welled up. Some stranger in a faraway land had taken the time to write me. Her letter gave me something to do. I wrote her back.
Within weeks, more letters came. I spent my days writing back to them. The more I wrote, the more letters I received. A few letters turned into hundreds. I was so encouraged that I decided to write a letter directly to Gordon B. Hinckley, the head of the LDS Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, just before Christmas in 1998.
I didn’t actually expect to hear back. But I did. I received a letter from President Hinckley’s personal secretary dated January 26, 1999. It was sent directly to the prison and said that President Hinckley had read my letter, appreciated my expressions of faith, and encouraged me to keep the faith.
The letter was a big boost, and it came just in time. Right afterward, I suffered a stroke. A cardiologist was dispatched to my cell, and he had me transferred to a hospital on February 15, 1999. Over the next few days, I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. The cardiologist recommended open-heart surgery, but prison officials refused to approve the procedure.
While I remained hospitalized, I wrote another letter to President Hinckley. I updated him on my medical condition and thanked him for his support. Not too long after I sent it, I received a package at the hospital. It had come from Salt Lake City and contained a leather-bound edition of the Bible and the Book of Mormon. It had been sent by President Hinckley’s office.
I also received a letter from a program specialist with the Church’s Social Services office in Salt Lake City, informing me that Church headquarters was in direct contact with Church leaders in Cairo about my condition.
“Remember, Brother Momen, the Lord knows you by name. He loves you without limitation. May the Lord bless you with the faith to follow Him and do His will.”
The words of encouragement gave me the desire to persevere.
At the time I had a cellmate from Zaire, and one day I overheard him talking about a diplomat from Niger who was helping him apply for clemency. At one point he said the diplomat’s name: Muhammed Donle. I knew that name. I had attended primary school with Muhammed’s brother in Nigeria.
I immediately decided to get in touch with Donle. Within a week he showed up at the prison. He filed a petition with President Mubarak seeking clemency for me. He assured me that my medical condition qualified me for an early release under medical hardship. As he put it, my
strokes, heart disease, and diabetes were a good thing. He said I should thank God for them.
I took his advice—I thanked God.
Meantime, Donle did more than petition the Egyptian government for clemency. He went to the Nigerian embassy and started putting backdoor pressure on the Egyptian consulate. At the same time, CSW stepped up its public campaign to have me and other Christian inmates released. Other human rights organizations got involved. And thanks to Donle’s efforts, representatives from the Church in Cairo were able to spend more time with me in prison, enabling us to start mapping out a transition plan to help me settle in Ghana once my release was secured.
Before I knew it, I was behaving as if I were definitely going to be released. My whole outlook underwent a change. So did my physical appearance. My paralysis lifted. I actually regained the use of my limbs on my left side. From a medical perspective I can’t really explain this, and neither could the doctors. But men from the LDS Church administered to me, and Christians from all over the world were praying for me.
My spirits were lifted. I had hope again. Hope has a way of being self-perpetuating. Hope breeds faith. And faith produces miracles.
On April 8, 2006, after 15 years in prison, I was finally freed. The guards led me to the doors that led outside. The sun was just coming up over the horizon. It was so bright I had to shield my eyes.
“Good luck,” one of the guards said.
With the help of the Nigerian embassy and individual members of the LDS Church, I landed in Ghana shortly after my release from prison. Unlike in Egypt, Mormonism was flourishing in
Ghana. Church members there were on hand to greet me at the airport. They helped me find housing. They bought me groceries, helped me look for employment, and provided me with money during the interim. They even gave me a used computer and set me up with an email account. I had never even heard of email.
I began settling into a new life. Then, on a hot September day in 2006, I had a chance encounter with a cousin I hadn’t seen in almost 20 years.
“Your father is dying,” he said. “And he wants to see you.”
That made me suspicious. There was no way my father wanted to see me. My family had held a public funeral for me in 1989, two years before I went to prison. In their eyes, I had died when I became a Christian. What if this whole thing was a ruse to get me to go back there? I could be a dead man if I went home.
But something told me he was telling me the truth. I vowed to return home before it was too late.
I went directly to the hospital. When I entered my father’s room, I found him sleeping on his hospital bed. He was bald, emaciated, and frail.
Then his eyes opened, and he recognized me. A peaceful smile came over his face.
“My son,” he whispered.
I approached slowly. We stared at each other in silence. Then he reached for my hand. I leaned over the bed to get closer to him.
“Now that I see you,” he whispered, “Allah has answered my prayer. I asked Allah that if what you believe in is true, I should see your face before I died. Allah has shown me your face. So I believe in whatever you believe in.”
Was I hearing things? Was my father senile?
“Is it too late for me?” he asked. He sounded so desperate, so pathetic.
“Christ died for everyone. Everyone can be redeemed, Father.”
“The Lord you’re worshipping will take care of me?” he pleaded.
Too choked up to speak, I just nodded.
We talked for two hours that day. It was the best conversation I ever had with my father. He died later that afternoon.
The next time I see him will be on the other side.At that point he won’t be a Muslim and I won’t be a Christian. We will simply be children of God. I fully expect that he will open his arms and I will accept his embrace. It will be sweeter than any embrace I have felt in this life. My mother will be there, too. I expect her to be at my father’s side. She will be proud of me. She will know what I believe. And she will be forever grateful.