“It was supposed to be a four day visit. It turned into a 445-day imprisonment. And if God had not intervened, he would have been there for the rest of his life.”
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. For today’s review, I pick a book about a Christian who was imprisoned with ISIS and lived to tell the tale.
There is a reason for picking this book. Last week, I watched boys fall from planes and girls scream behind airport fences. Later, I read this Gospel Coalition article by Mark Morris:
I listened as an Afghan pastor spoke through tears about his friend, a faithful believer, whose village was taken by the Taliban three days earlier. This dear brother’s 14-year-old daughter was ripped from his arms and forced into sexual servitude in what the Taliban would dub as “marriage” and her “dutiful Islamic privilege and responsibility.”
I want my children to have an understanding, suitable for their age, of what is happening in the world. For the past few Sundays, my family would watch an episode of Torchlighters. It’s a cartoon series featuring heroes of the faith.
After Kabul fell, I chose the episode on Richard Wurmbrand. Wurmbrand was a pastor in Communist Romania. He was imprisoned for 14 years. Upon release, he wrote of his experience and started The Voice of the Martyrs, VOM for short, an organisation that serves persecuted Christians around the world. Torchlighters, the cartoon series is a part of VOM’s work to shine a light on persecution.
Today’s book opens our eyes to persecution: the evil, the people and the God who preserves the faithful. Today I review Imprisoned with ISIS: Faith in the Face of Evil by Petr Jasek.
Petr Jasek was the VOM man in charge of Africa, who oversaw more than 300 projects all over Africa. In December 2015, Jasek was in Sudan at Khartoum airport, in a queue eagerly waiting for his trip back home to Prague. Jasek writes:
Just as I began to move, I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. “Sudanese security,” a man said in stern, broken English. “Please come with us.”
What was supposed to be a four day trip in Sudan became 445 days in its prisons. Imprisoned with ISIS tells Jasek’s story in 223 pages, published in June 2020 by Salem Books.
In the Face of Evil
We are strangers to Sudan. Anticipating this, there is a short orientation prologue titled “Sudan in a Time of Violent Islamization”:
While millions in Sudan have struggled to live through extreme poverty, famine, and political instability, those who follow Jesus Christ in a nation governed by Sharia Law and Islamist leaders have long faced a much harsher existence. For three decades, the Sudanese government has targeted Christians, along with those who aren’t ethnically Arab, for extermination.
Since former President Omar Hassan al-Bashir rose to power in 1989 through a military coup and established a strict form of Islamic law throughout Sudan, his brutal regime intimidated, arrested, imprisoned, and tortured Christians. It also demolished and bombed church buildings, seeking to further Islamize the country.
VOM was needed. That’s why Jasek made a quick and quiet visit. But there were imposters among the pastors. The Sudanese government were expecting him. They picked him up at the airport. Interrogated him. And when Jasek refused to reveal VOM’s work and its people, he was charged as a spy and a threat to the government. They then placed Jasek in an overcrowded prison cell.
The cell was designed for one but it housed six others. Describing how he got to know his cellmates, he writes:
“We have no newspapers,” someone said. “What is new in the world?”
The first thing that came to mind was the November 13 terrorist attack in Paris, which had happened less than a month earlier. “Through coordinated attacks in several places around the city,” I explained, “one hundred twenty-nine people died.” I added that ISIS had claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings and mass shootings.
The room fell suddenly silent—then erupted with frenetic shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” I sucked in a quick, startled breath. My eyes widened. The men jumped up from the floor and embraced each other in jubilant hugs. They raised their arms in triumph and danced around our crowded cell, slapping each other on the back and smiling. I inched toward the closest wall, my hands becoming suddenly clammy. Beads of sweat rose on my upper lip and forehead, and I tried not to shake.
This moment gives the book its title, “Imprisoned with ISIS”. It’s not imprisoned by ISIS but with ISIS. The Bashir government had no love for ISIS, seeing it as a threat to the state. Hence, we have this hellish incongruity of a VOM worker, a man who helps persecuted Christians, sleeping and eating together with six ISIS members and sympathisers, people who persecute and kill Christians. Keeping to their reputation, they persecuted Petr Jasek.
Jasek describes one of his cellmates:
The ISIS fighter bragged that he was among those who had beheaded twenty-one Egyptian Christians on the Libyan shore in February 2015, a videotaped execution that had been viewed all over the world. “I could kill anyone in seconds,” he told me, winding the fishing line around his hands almost mindlessly. “If you were a Russian or an American, I would kill you on the spot.”
Let’s take a step back and consider: What would you do O Christian in his situation? Run and hide? It’s a confined space, there is nowhere to run or hide. Keep your head down, make no waves? That sounds wise, I would do that. Or would you consider it a ministry opportunity? A chance to present the Gospel?
When Jasek saw them praying to be released and returned to their families, he writes:
In other countries like Egypt, I had met former Muslim extremists who had become believers. Seeing the vulnerability and humanity of these ISIS militants gave me hope, and I decided to focus many of my prayers on asking Jesus Christ to reveal Himself to them as Lord, Savior, and God.
Knowing who these men were, Jasek still attempted to tell them of Jesus by sharing a testimony. Was he mad? Not as mad as ISIS. Their response to Jasek’s testimony was chilling. Their cruelty extreme. You can read about it in the book.
My reflection is this: Some say that evil is due to ignorance. After a life time of violence, the people just don’t know what is right or wrong. Therefore, the solution to evil is education. We teach them what is right and wrong and all will be right in the world.
If you think that, then this Sudanese jail cell proves you wrong. Jasek’s cellmates included a pharmacist. Some were highly educated, having gone to European universities. Education does not cure evil, it amplifies evil. Smart phones does not make evil obsolete, it just makes smarter criminals.
In any case, Jasek was in no position to teach his cellmates anything. They were busy teaching Jasek what it means to suffer for Christ.
A Cloud of Witnesses
In the face of such evil, how does Jasek respond? While all of us know Christ’s command to stand firm, we can preach it, hear it, sing it, pray it, we are still surprised when a Christian actually does it.
Jasek recalls as a youth coming back home to an empty house. He later finds out that his parents were taken in by the police for questioning. His father was a pastor in Communist Czechoslovakia. His mother a kindergarten teacher refused to sign a pledge to teach her students atheistic Communist ideology.
His parents prepared Jasek to stand firm for Christ. His father gave him a book saying, “This book will build your faith.”
That book was In God’s Underground by Richard Wurmbrand. Many years later, no longer a youth, Jasek recalls:
I was amazed that my prison experiences—my feelings and my theological understanding of so many passages of Scripture—were so similar to those of Richard Wurmbrand, even though our situations differed in time and place. I was imprisoned in 2016 by the totalitarian government of Sudan; he was imprisoned decades earlier by the totalitarian government of Communist Romania. But I felt an amazing connection to him in persecution. We shared a common bond, a common plight, a common Christ.
And if Petr Jasek was encouraged by Richard Wurmbrand, we read that Richard too was encouraged by other Christians. In the book Tortured for Christ, listen to this:
The memory of other Christians emboldened Richard. He was no longer alone. In his solitude, he sat in the company of thousands of pastors throughout the ages who enjoyed the presence of Christ. A cloud of witnesses enveloped Richard, and before long, he felt the encouragement of their testimonies and triumphs.
Richard Wurmbrand founded the Voice of the Martyrs to help persecuted Christians. Petr Jasek’s work in VOM led him to know the story of persecuted Christians, among them Monica and Danjuma Shankara from Nigeria, Haile Naizgi, Dr. Kiflu, and Kidane Woldu from Eritrea and many more. Their stories, and Wurmbrand’s, built up Jasek’s faith in the face of evil. And it will do so for you too.
Wurmbrand or Jasek
I mentioned Wurmbrand and his book a couple of times, so it’s natural to ask the question, “Which book is better? Jasek’s or Wurmbrand’s?”
Richard Wurmbrand is the more famous writer with the more famous story. His book has more heart-wrenching tragedies, more death-defying triumphs, more God-glorifying moments. I finished Tortured in Christ in one sitting, devouring it through tears till the wee hours of the night. I unhesitatingly recommend the book to all.
So why would you or anyone want to read Petr Jasek’s story, a ‘lesser’ story?
Because a Christian should not read persecution testimonies for entertainment nor for self-improvement. In this review, I argue we should read this genre less for ourselves and more for others.
Let me explain. Imagine a boy comes back from school. His eyes black and blue. Lips and nose trickling with blood. His clothes stink of urine. You are the younger brother or younger sister. Out of love, you sit beside your brother and wait for him to speak. And out of love, he trusts you and tells you how and why he was beaten up in school.
As you listen, you don’t evaluate the plot, structure or delivery. He is your brother and he is hurting. Because you love him, you share in his misery by hearing him. But you can’t fix the problem. You are too small, too weak, too far away but your father can. So you listen to your brother, you share in his suffering and you bring your brother’s case to your father.
I read Imprisoned with ISIS for the same reason I introduced Richard Wurmbrand’s story to my kids. I wanted their voices to be heard. Just as Jasek’s father wanted to build his young son’s faith up, I want to build my children’s faith up. And yes, my faith as well. When we hear their voices, our faith is built up.
So which book should you read, Wurmbrand or Jasek? Once you have the right attitude to reading and receiving their testimonies, you may want to read both.
However, Jasek does offer one thing that Wurmbrand does not. That is, immediacy or proximity to us. Wurmbrand was arrested in 1948, Jasek in 2015. From him we learn that Christian persecution is not ancient news, lions in coliseums or fires on stakes. In Sudan, they confiscated Jasek’s laptop and camera. These are the tools of his trade, just as they are for us as well. More than 100,000 signed an online petition requesting then President Omar al-Bashir to release Jasek. Open up your browser and you can view that petition today and other petitions like it. What happened to Jasek happened in our lifetime, not our parent’s or grandparent’s, but our lifetime . What happened to Jasek still happens to believers around the world.
Thus, the book Imprisoned with ISIS is a call to action in our time. It is the time to pray.
Believe in Prayer
This book is soaked with prayer. Jasek prays. We learn from him how to pray in our day to day trials and tribulations. But there is a less obvious lesson that I want to draw from this book.
As I mentioned earlier, I would like readers to adopt a listening posture to a suffering brother. Many suffer still. If you listen attentively to them, you will grow to care. And if you care, you will pray. To pray for the persecuted Christians.
On 27th August, Randy Alcorn posted a Q&A article from a source inside Afghanistan. The question is “What can we do to help the believers?” The answer: “Literally the only thing they currently ask for is prayer. That’s not strange or overtly spiritual. If they had a thin layer of protection and justice, it’s now gone. Jesus is literally all they have left. The Christians are seeking ways to stay safe and to survive. We stand with them in their time of greatest need.”
A reasonable question to ask is: “How does praying in the cushy comfort of our homes equal to standing with them in their time of greatest need?”
Jasek’s book reminds us of a truth we know but don’t believe enough.
In this passage that I’m about to read, the ISIS prisoners are viciously beating Jasek. Listen to this:
Suddenly, for a fraction of a second, I saw Christ before my eyes as the Jewish religious police beat Him on His head with a wooden stick after His arrest in Matthew 27:30. “Lord,” I prayed, “you went this way ahead of me and were beaten, crucified, and even died for my sins.” At once, I made a startling realization: I was aware that I was being ruthlessly beaten by my ISIS cellmates, but I did not feel the pain! I knew the Lord was with me in the cell. I would later find out that God had called forth an army of prayer warriors on my behalf—right at that very moment. But I didn’t know that then.
In a later chapter, we read of a bible study group his wife attends:
One evening, the elder leading a Bible study group closed his Bible and told the others that the Holy Spirit was leading him to stop discussing their particular Scripture passage and instead get on their knees to pray for me and the situation I found myself in at that very moment in my cell. The whole group dropped to their knees and began to declare the Lord’s victory in the cell where I was. After they finished praying, the group peacefully returned home.
God called up an army of prayer warriors when he needed prayer more than any other time in his life. Jasek reflects:
This experience in prison taught me all over again the value of interceding for other Christians around the world. Like Aaron and Hur who held up the arms of Moses during battle, we must also support those who are struggling and suffering, those who are being persecuted right now, today, at this very moment.
He concludes by saying:
God’s people must be a people of prayer.
As I said, Christians know this truth but we don’t believe enough.
We pray but don’t believe that it matters because we don’t see. Despite Jasek and many others before him testifying that your prayers and mine matter. Despite God showing in his Bible that our prayers matter. When we don’t pray as we should, as we must, are we not demonstrating unbelief?
The Voice of the Martyrs
The monsters are real and they are big. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are so small. Who hears their cries? The Voice of the Martyrs. And they make their voices heard.
Every week, VOM Radio gives you a 25 minute update on what is happening to your fellow believers in North Korea, Afghanistan, China and other parts of the world.
On top of this, they just launched the VOM Radio Daily Minute, a daily 60-second program that, I quote:
… offers powerful but brief stories of inspiring men and women who are willing to suffer rather than deny their faith in Christ. Their inspiring stories call listeners to prayer and offer encouragement for what God is doing around the world.
You can find VOM Radio and VOM Radio Daily Minute in your favourite podcast players.
The more we know of our suffering members, the more we care, the more we care, the more we pray. And the more we pray, the more we conform to God’s calling for us. Or don’t you remember? On the road to Damascus, Jesus said to that villain, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Jesus’s heart is with the persecuted, and that’s where our heart should be as well. Can a Christian who hears persecution testimonies remain uninterested or unaffected?
Even as we read the books, watch the cartoons or listen to the podcasts, be aware that many stories go untold. For now. It is my firm belief, when we are in Heaven, we will hear of their previously untold stories of faith in the face of evil. Thus, the testimonies we receive today is a foretaste of what we will receive abundantly in Heaven. Let us glorify God today knowing we will glorify God even more in that day.
It is also my firm belief, when we are in Heaven, God will reveal how the prayers of the saints, your prayers and mine, achieved his purposes. Who will be found lacking in faith to pray?
Jasek’s Answered Prayer
If all this encourages you to build up your faith in the face of evil, then perhaps Imprisoned with ISIS is an answered prayer. At the very least, it is an answered prayer for Jasek. He writes:
If God ever released me from prison, as Wurmbrand was once released, I prayed He would also give me the courage to record my testimony so that others could come to know the love of Christ.
Until I read this book, I never realised because I never bothered to think about it, how dangerous was VOM’s work. Since reading this book, I’ve committed to praying for the persecuted Christians around the world. I hope you will join me too. After today, I hope I have spurred you to know what is happening in the world, so that you may care, and pray, and thus conform to Christ’s love.
This is a Reading and Readers review of Imprisoned with ISIS: Faith in the Face of Evil by Petr Jasek.
Join me in two weeks time for the next episode, where I’ll review FaithLife’s free book for September, “Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit: Growing in Christlikeness” by Christopher J.H. Wright. And remember to tell all your friends and family of Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Thank you and God bless.