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The deadbolt clicked loudly on the metal door. All curtains closed. Padlocks were next. Lights were turned low.
In a fundamentalist Muslim city known for its high number of honor killings, you can never take too many precautions.
Women in drab colored hijabs quickly entered from a side door.
War wasn’t on the way. Neither was a suspected terrorist attack. Just a women’s weekly Bible study for former Muslims.
“I watched intently as one by one the women trickled in, gleefully greeting each other with enthusiastic hugs and cheek kisses. When they settled into their chairs Miriam, the leader asked them to introduce themselves to the smiling, eager Americans. When my turn came, I asked them if they felt comfortable removing their hijabs. We tried not to allow our jaws to drop as we saw their beauty unveiled before our eyes, their smiles widening as they were fully seen for who they were.”
JoAnn recounts, “I asked them if we could hear their stories, for I knew each one had endured more than we could ever imagine. I listened to more firsthand accounts of Jesus’ miracles in one place than I’ve ever heard in my life! Jamilla went first, Miriam translating for us.”
The Death Sentence
My fate was announced. It was too late. I was set to die and there was nothing I could do about it. Even if I could move… it was no use.
My life was over, and I was going to depart this world from Deir ez-Zor, Syria like so many others in this miserable war.
It wasn’t the Islamic State that read my death sentence.
It was Dr. Basil Hussein, one of the most respected neurologists in Syria who told my family the inevitable.
“I’m sorry to tell the Darwish family this news… But a blood vessel ruptured and Jamilla had a massive stroke. If she only could’ve had her blood pressure medicine. I know medical supplies and prescriptions are scarce and too expensive for most people. But this was preventable. Maybe today it is not in preventable in Deir ez-Zor. I’m sad to say.
“Jamilla is paralyzed on her right side and I just don’t see how she can come out of this coma… Her vitals are very erratic. My best guess is she probably has a day or two.
“Unless Allah intervenes, that is, … I apologize for saying this, it is time to plan her funeral.”
But I heard Dr. Basil’s words clearly.
My mother and sisters who were there at my bedside burst into tears.
I was unable to talk, unable to move. In my mind, I cried at my hopeless, helpless, situation.
I was alone. So alone.
But then I was not.
Suddenly, I was not alone, the room dazzled in brightness.
He came to me and stood at the foot of my bed. He smiled and called my name.
“Jamilla, I am here with you.”
I could not imagine this in my wildest dreams, but Jesus was in my room. Even though I was a practicing Muslim I knew who Jesus was. He’s spoken about in the Koran. I’d also heard how Jesus was appearing to people in the Syrian War. I heard stories.
I remember thinking one day when life was so hard in my country, that I wished Jesus would come visit me. There was so much hate all around me. But Jesus was about love, so I had heard. Did we ever need some of that in Syria!
“Jamila, I know your longing for Me to visit you. I have heard your cries. Here I am!
“I’ve come to heal you for My glory.”
Was this really happening or was it the medication, or a just a crazy dream?
Jesus then touched me on my hand, my paralyzed hand, as heat instantly radiated through my body.
“Dr. Basil! Jamilla’s hand just moved! Did you see it?”
I could hear my mother yell and jump out of the chair she was in right next to my bed at the same time.
Dr. Basil came to stand over me with my family, looking for signs of movement. He was skeptical.
“I didn’t see her move. Are you sure Mrs. Darwish? I don’t think so.”
I could hear machines being checked for readings. Dr. Basil was in the middle of telling my family that the vitals were not showing anything that indicated any improvement, when I felt like reaching out to Jesus.
My right hand lifted up high in worship and Jesus smiled lovingly at me.
There were screams in the room and the thud on the floor as my mother passed out cold!
“Is she trying to grab someone’s hand?” Dr. Basil yelled in the chaos.
I was! I so desperately wanted to touch Jesus. Like the woman with the issue of blood that touched the hem of His garment.
Jesus could have healed me instantly. He has the power to do that you know. But it’s possible that my family might’ve thought I just snapped out of the coma and Dr. Basil was just plain wrong on the paralysis diagnosis.
Over the next few days I was progressively healed. Each time it was because Jesus touched that area of my body.
My right leg was next. Jesus came in a vision in the morning and the paralysis was gone as soon as he touched my knee with just one finger.
The next day I had full range of motion with my neck and shoulders and my face functions worked except my eyes would not open and I still could not speak.
But then in the morning my eyes and my mouth opened while my whole family was there.
I looked straight up with my eyes staring towards the ceiling as Jesus began to depart the room.
The first words I heard my father say were Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!
But my first words were “Jesus, Jesus, don’t leave me! I love you.”
Well I must say, that certainly quieted the room!
My family was shocked and not able to comprehend the words. They hung in the air.
Boom! Suddenly, we were interrupted by a massive explosion that shook Deir ez-Zor.
In my city, peace is short lived. Even after a great miracle like I experienced, reality set in.
Oil fields are in Deir ez-Zor on the ancient Euphrates River. In eastern Syria, there is no city that is more coveted by the international powers and people groups. Iran, Russia, and America are there. The large Conoco Oil facility is as well.
The Armenians were slaughtered in Deir ez-Zor in 1915 by the Turks to show that Islam “triumphed over Christianity.”
The Islamic State had a strong presence in my city also to prove that they were the new “champions of the Muslim faith.” Chaos, carnage, and confusion were normal in Deir ez-Zor.
After Jesus healed me, the war got worse and my family had to flee Syria. We could either go north to Turkey or south to Jordan.
The border in Northern Syria was too hard to get through with Turkey’s battle against the Kurds, so we went south.
The streets in Jerash, Jordan didn’t look much different from the streets in Deir ez-Zor. So many men were not working during the day. Refugees have nothing to do. But I had an assignment because I was on a mission.
I wanted to find Jesus. But how? Where could I go to ask questions about the man who healed me? Of course, I could not talk to anyone with my family present. They often talked about the healing in my life, but they gave the credit to Allah, not Jesus. I knew the truth.
One day in the outdoor market, I saw a woman who was wearing a cross necklace. In Deir ez-Zor, you could get killed for wearing one. But this was Jordan.
I started following her hoping I would have the courage to ask her a question. I had my chance as she was selecting cucumbers.
I must’ve startled her in my burqa by asking the question I blurted out.
“Jesus healed me of paralysis when I was in a coma. Do you know how I can find out more information about Him? I’m Muslim, so I think I have a lot to learn!
“Marhaba, my name is Jamilla, what’s your name?”
Though I startled Maria, she gathered her thoughts and responded with such kindness to my attention getting, awkward question.”
Did Jesus ever lead me to the right person! Maria was so warm and gracious, and we became good friends. Over tea the next couple of weeks I asked her every question I had about Jesus. Of course, I was convinced that Jesus had all power and was the Savior of the world, but I had to know what it would be like to become a believer in a radical Muslim family.
Maria told me that I was the one sent by God to reach my family.
After she said those words, I was ready. I gave my life to Jesus; it is the day I will never forget!
Maria was right! Over time, all of my family, including my father, came to faith in Christ. This is rare that a family who all practice fundamentalist Islam all became believers. I am privileged and blessed beyond all that I could’ve imagined. Jesus used the miracle of my healing to open the hearts of my family.
It was a long process, full of spiritual warfare, but all of them are in the family of God now. Can you imagine that? A Muslim family from Deir ez-Zor despite our sordid history, now loves Jesus!
But my family was there and saw the miracle of my healing. How could they deny it? And, how could they deny the transformation of my life? I used to be negative and caustic. Now I am filled with the love of God.
JoAnn: “After that incredible miracle, how could we go on? But there were more stories to hear. So, we worshipped Jesus, encouraged the group with reading special passages in Scripture, then all gathered around Jamilla and prayed for her. Lost in all of this is that she and her family are refugees in Jordan. After several years of Syrians streaming into the country, the refugees are now despised and rejected. But you would never know that by looking at Jamilla’s joy-filled face.”
“Heba, would you share your story?”
Running to the Light
It all started with my tenderhearted son.
“Mommy, why is that building glowing? Can we go in and see?”
My little Ali was just six years old and I didn’t want to answer his question. Go near a church? No way!
The church was in the area we lived as refugees and on a main thoroughfare. I could not avoid going by it. Ali saw the bright light every single time we walked by the church. But I didn’t. He would say it was glowing from the inside, and so beautiful. He continually begged me to let him go inside to see it up close.
“Ali, we are Muslims, that building is a Christian church, we don’t ever go into a church. It’s haram! I would not be caught dead in a church. Don’t ask me again!” I thought what my husband Hassan would think if he knew I was even having this conversation with his little pride and joy.
Ali meant everything to his father. As a fervent Sunni Muslim, his dream was for Ali to become a respected imam. My husband was a fanatic Muslim. That’s why we had to flee Syria in the first place. He opposed the government and if we stayed, I would have surely been a widow.
At times, that didn’t seem like such a bad thing. My husband was incredibly harsh and cruel to me more often than not.
But my objections about visiting the church with the light coming out of it did not stop my dear, sweet little son. His begging went on for a least a month.
One day we walked down the street and Ali abruptly let go of my hand. He started running. I knew where he was going. I couldn’t catch him.
When I reached the front door of the church, the Christians were singing. I scanned the worshippers for Ali, but he had gone in, sat down, his tiny body blended in with the crowd. I couldn’t find him.
After a few minutes, I stopped looking as the words of the music washed over me and drew my heart like moths to a flame. The sound was something from heaven. That is the only way I can describe it. My feet rooted at the door, my mouth gapping in shock.
Finally, a woman came over and said: “Please join me!”
So, I did, and I sat there…
I just sat there…
After a few songs, I felt someone put their hand on my shoulder, it was Ali. What an ear to ear smile he had brightening his darling face. I hugged him and told him I was glad he ran into this place so filled with love.
I could’ve stayed all day. But after about 30 minutes a pastor stood up and opened the Bible. I certainly wasn’t ready to listen to that. With all I’d been told about the Bible being corrupted and changed, I hesitated and got scared.
I scooped Ali under my arm and told him it was time to go. I thanked the nice lady who invited me to sit next to her. She kissed me on both cheeks, then we dashed out the door.
The singing I experienced that day moved me in my heart. It did something to me, it gave me a longing to know God and love him like these Christians did. The words echoed over and over again in my mind:
Jesus, Name above all Names, Beautiful Savior, Glorious Lord. Emmanuel, God is with us, Blessed Redeemer, Living Word.
On the way home from the church, Ali said: “‘Um, I can’t wait to tell baba all about the singing! I have not seen you smile so much al’umu.”
This was exactly the reason I didn’t even want to peek into the building! If Ali even breathed a word of this to his father, I would pay a heavy price!
My mind was racing at the horror of what would happen to me and Ali if Hassan heard about our visit to the Jerash church.
“Ali, we’ll tell baba later. But for now, let’s keep it our special secret ok?”
The next Sunday night, I could not stop thinking about how much I wanted to be at the church. Living in Jerash was a real problem since the church was right next to a mosque. What if I were spotted?
Ali and I went for a walk and we barely got out of our of apartment and he asked about going to the church. I thought what if I just went in for a couple of minutes this time. It was dark outside and the two of us could sneak in and then go on to the market just down the block and Hassan would never know.
“‘Um, the light is so bright from the church tonight! You see it now, don’t you?”
Ali said loudly, right as we were walking by the mosque!
“Habibi, I do not see the light. I wish I did see what you see but maybe God has given you special eyes to see this… well… miracle. This must be supernatural!
“Ali, we’re going to slip in and out quietly, but you must keep our special secret. We can’t tell baba about this. Promise?”
“I promise ‘um! I don’t think baba is ready for a church visit. I think he might get angry.”
Ali’s response caught me off guard. Did he understand more than I thought he did?
He went on and explained.
“I heard baba talking about Christians and he said he hates them. He was with some men and they were saying all the problems in the Middle East are because of Christians. Is that true ‘um? Because the people in the shiny building seemed nicer than the people in the mosque!
In the church nobody was cranky or angry. Did you notice that?”
“Oh, Ali I did notice that. They were all smiling, weren’t they? But we must be careful when talking about this. Shhh!!!”
I was sad that they weren’t singing when we walked in. But a man named Osama was speaking from the Isaiah book and the John book. I did not know that there were many books in the Christian Holy Scriptures. Within a few minutes, all the things I’d been told about the Bible faded away. The words that Osama spoke were like nothing I’d ever heard before. I felt my heart melt like honey, the expression on my face must have been noticeable to others around me.
JoAnn: “Heba was still telling her story when Pastor Osama actually walked into the room from his office and joined the conversation. I wondered if the women would quickly wind their hijabs around their heads, hiding themselves from this man. But they didn’t. Interestingly enough, they all smiled and welcomed Osama into the circle.”
Osama continued the telling of Heba’s story, reminiscing of the day several years before. “Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Heba enter the service. My wife raised her eyebrows and tilted her head toward the door when you walked in Heba. I got her signal! You were not hard to notice in your black abaya and tightly wound hijab. I immediately shifted from my sermon in the book of Revelation to a Gospel presentation. I sensed you and your son truly wanted to be there. I remember seeing you sit on the edge of your seat. Ali was looking right at me listening intently.”
He has come to bring good news to the poor. He has come to bind up the brokenhearted. He has come to set the captives free. He has come to comfort all who mourn. He has come to give you a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning. He has come to give you a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. He has come to set you free.
He has come to give you life! Come to Jesus and everything will change! You will start your life over and be born again…
“For 30 minutes I preached to you, Heba, and little Ali. Everyone else there were already believers. I can still see you shaking your head in agreement with everything I said. There was a sense of excitement in the auditorium because here among us sat this veiled woman who was obviously close to salvation. We could see on your face the Word of God was deeply touching you, drawing your heart to His.
“People often say that Muslims need to hear the Gospel several times before they are ready to receive Christ. How can we say that? For God’s Word is divinely powerful. It’s living, active and able to pierce the soul! Just the very Name of Jesus can unlock someone’s heart. I had been a Muslim myself, but the first time I heard the Bible preached, I knew it was the Truth. The Spirit of God convinced me.
“Then I closed the message.”
Let’s pray, but before we do; are there any of you who feel like you’re held captive as Isaiah described. Do you want to be set free? Jesus wants to forgive your sins. Settle all of this with Jesus tonight at the Cross. Who wants forgiveness and freedom?
“‘I do!’ Heba said audibly, shocked she spoke aloud.
“Then do you remember what happened next Heba?” Pastor Osama smiled as he recalled.
“Do I? I’ll never forget! First of all, I could not believe that I answered out loud. Did those words come out of my mouth?
“Then the quiet reflective moment was shattered by the loudspeaker and the Muslim call to prayer!”
“Did they have spies in the church tipping them off when the prayer of salvation started? This was not a coincidence. Tonight, the mussein was over the top loud! I started to get concerned. Had they discovered that two Muslims were in the church?”
“But that did not stop the Spirit of God.” Heba said with glee. “Nor my longing to receive Jesus! And I did that night.
Heba’s story continues
I knew my fundamentalist husband would eventually find out about my new life in Christ. I was convinced I could hide it from him. So, when the call to prayer came each day, I would get down and pray, but to Jesus not Allah. I am ashamed that I did this for at least a month.
One day at Bible Study, Miriam read us the verse from Paul that says: I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.
I cried as my heart was pierced with shame. Was I afraid of my husband or was I ashamed of the gospel? Or both? For I wasn’t being truthful with Hassan. I was faking it like I was still Muslim. What would Jesus think? I let Him down! What about my son Ali? That was a terrible example.
The next time the call to prayer came I refused to bow down. Hassan yelled at me. But I stood strong in spite of the beatings. I recall the one time little Ali tried to defend me. That was a mistake never to be repeated, for Hassan turned his wrath on tiny Ali. I shudder when I think of how bruised and puffy his face was where his own father punched him. It’s by the grace of God his cheek and nose were not broken.
My sisters in Christ were a gift from God to me in those early days when the beatings came 5 times every day with each call to prayer. They consoled me when I would arrive with black and blue marks. We stood together because they were in difficult, life-threatening situations too. Hassan’s beatings continued, but no longer with every call of the muezzin.
Dalia is married to an imam and she survived. The threats and beatings she received were horrible. But she never lost her joy.
Rima’s own son took the house that belonged to her family and threw her out in the cold, yet she too remained faithful to Jesus, trusting Him to provide.
This was a test of my faith. Was Jesus going to protect me or not?
The bond we had as sisters in Jesus was stronger than anything, I had experienced. We prayed together, studied the Holy Scriptures, and shared our deepest fears and struggles with one another. We also held each other accountable to live as Christ Jesus and follow His teachings. James taught us to be women who are doers of the Word, not merely hearers of the Word. It is hard to live out your faith in Jesus Christ in a Muslim home, but not impossible in the strength of the Lord.
Some of my friends were able to hide their Bibles in their homes enabling them to read the precious Words of Life when the coast was clear of their abusive husbands or the watching eyes of their sons or other male relatives. But for a few of us, having a Bible in our possession was not an option. My home consisted of one room that served as both living room and sleeping room, with one of the walls making up our cooking area. There wasn’t a safe place to hide anything of value, especially a sacred and treasured possession, albeit a forbidden copy of the Bible.
This drove me to memorize as many passages and verses of the Bible as I possibly could. It was my mission. If I could not hide God’s Word in my home, I would hide it in my heart! What a gift it was, for I could carry it with me everywhere I went, sharing the truth of Jesus to anyone in need. It was if the Holy Spirit birthed in me a supernatural ability to memorize. I could easily remember whole chapters of the Bible without much effort. Memorizing the Word of God became more important to me than the food I ate. My second passion was teaching God’s word to Ali. He was like a sponge soaking up all he was learning of Jesus. He too could quote many Bible verses at appropriate times to encourage others. My greatest prayer is for Hassan to come to know Jesus as Savior.
Exhortations from JoAnn
Each of the women finished sharing their remarkable stories, all with passionate pleas for prayer.
There were huge requests with life and death consequences. Literally! The city they reside in is known for the vast number of honor killings preformed. The government turns a blind eye, seeing these brutal murders as a religious right. How could I, a believer from America, a free country, encourage these dear sisters in the faith? What could I say to renew their hope?
With my cheeks wet with tears, I told my sisters that I would never forget them, nor their life stories. I promised I would take them in my heart and share their journey’s in Christ with others, giving them a voice in places they would physically never visit. In so doing, countless followers of Jesus would join me in praying for them. The ripple effect of prayer would grow and expand until each one of their prayers were answered in astounding ways. For nothing is impossible with God.
In the meantime, I shared a verse the Lord used in my life to sustain me, time and again while waiting for His answers.
Micah 7:6-8 are beautiful verses full of hope God’s intends especially for you rest on.
“For a son dishonors his father, and a daughter rises up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies are the members of his own household. But as for me, I watch in hope for the LORD, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me. Do not gloat over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, the LORD will be my light.”
Though coming to faith in Jesus is not dishonoring to your Muslim family members in God’s eyes, it feels as it is to them before they come to believe in Jesus as Savior. In turn, because of your new birthed faith, your family sees you as the enemy. Thus, you suffer much at their hands; abuse, verbally and physically, persecution, and possibly even death.
Picture yourself sitting in a rocking chair, rocking back and forth as you talk to the Father about the concerns of your heart. You rock forward, gazing right to left, asking yourself and the Lord, “Is this day of Your answer?”
“But,” Scripture says in verse 7, there is more! In spite of the horrific circumstances you face, you have hope, for God hears you!
He hears every single prayer you pray!
Every time you cry out to Him, He’s listening.
Every. Single. Time!
What a beautiful promise from the Word of God.
The question is, how do we “watch” and “wait” for God to answer our prayers at the same time?
I call Micah 7:7 the rocking chair verse.
Picture yourself sitting in a rocking chair, rocking back and forth as you talk to the Father about the concerns of your heart. You rock forward, gazing right to left, asking yourself and the Lord, “Is this day of Your answer?” Watching for His divine provision. You don’t see the answer coming, so you rock back, waiting for His perfect timing, your hope firmly established on His promise that He hears you. You continue rocking forward and backward, hope continually renewed in His Presence, as you watch expectantly for His answer, then rest again in waiting while He works. One day, as you watch in hope, Jesus will fulfill the desire of your heart in ways that your mind cannot conceive. (1Cor 2:9) For His ways are higher. (Isaiah 55:8-9) His love intimate as He gives good gifts to His children. (Matt 7:11)
Two hours of scripture and stories flew by. Then we prayed. Did we ever pray! Heaven seemed closer and the presence of the Lord stunned us into silence, and then into praise. It was an hour of the intense prayer I will never recover from.
After long, tender hugs, there was only one thing left to do…
The hijabs went back on. The bolted door was opened. And the women of God walked outside into a fanatical fundamentalist Islamic city to spread the Good News of Jesus. A few of them looked back and smiled.
They had unshakeable faith in Christ. They had boldness. They had a slew of answered prayers. They had the Holy Spirit all over them. They had joy. They had each other.
And they were sent by Jesus on a mission that was extreme, unwavering, high risk … because every soul matters.
Takeaway from the Underground Women’s Prayer Meeting
So, what happens when women pray? Heaven and earth are moved in response!
The same thing happens when men pray – He answers our prayers. Matthew 7:7-11 promises us so.
Every. Single. Time!
Will you join the chorus of prayer for your beloved sisters-in-Christ?
But, women, by nature often seem to have an endurance in prayer that far outdoes what men normally have. They get a lot of practice in “praying with patience” during pregnancy. They also seem to have a holy boldness. The woman with the issue of blood, whose story is in Luke 8, is a classic example.
Will you, dear reader, pause right now and pray for the women whose stories you’ve just read. He knows every one of their needs and desires. Will you join the chorus of prayer for your beloved sisters-in-Christ? Just think, you’ll meet all of them in heaven one day, and spend eternity together, where you can hear the rest of their stories.
This excerpt is from Tom and JoAnn Doyle with Greg Webster, Women Who Risk: Secret Agents For Jesus In The Muslim World (W Publishing Group, 2021). “Hopeless─Then Jesus Arrived,” has been adapted for online publication. Used with permission.
Reach the Unreached and Stand with the Persecuted: an Interview with Tom and JoAnn Doyle
John Lathrop reviews: Tom and JoAnn Doyle with Greg Webster, Women Who Risk: Secret Agents For Jesus In The Muslim World