NAIROBI, Kenya (Compass Direct News) – A Sudanese woman who fled to Egypt after converting from Islam to Christianity is living in secluded isolation as her angry family members try to track her down.
Howida Ali's Muslim brother and her ex-husband began searching for her in Cairo earlier this year after a relative there reported her whereabouts to them. While there, her brother and ex-husband tried to seize her 10-year-old son from school.
"I'm afraid of my brother finding us," said the 38-year-old Ali, who has moved to another area. "Their aim is to take us back to Sudan, and there they will force us to return to the Islamic faith or sentence us to death according to Islamic law."
Ali said she divorced her husband, Esam El deen Ali, because of his drug addiction in 2001, before she converted to Christianity. She was living with her parents in Khartoum when she began seeing visions of Christ, she said.
"In 2004, I started to see a vision of Christ speaking to me," she told Compass. "When I shared it with my friend, who is a Muslim, she said that she used to hear these things from Christians."
This comment spurred her to seek out a Christian friend from southern Sudan, who told her about Jesus Christ and prayed with her.
"After that time, I begun to see more visions from Christ saying, 'He is Christ the Good Shepherd," she said.
Fearing that relatives might discover she was a Christian, in 2007 she escaped with her then-8-year-old son. Previously the family had tried to stop her from leaving on grounds that she should not travel unescorted by an adult male relative, and because they disapproved of her divorce.
"They destroyed my passport, but through the assistance of a Christian friend, I acquired a new passport and secretly left," she told Compass by e-mail.
Her peace in Egypt was short-lived; earlier this year, while Ali secretly attended church as she stayed with a Muslim relative in Cairo, the relative found out about her conversion to Christianity and notified her brother and ex-husband in Sudan.
They arrived in Cairo in July. She had found lodging at All Saints' Cathedral, an Episcopal church in Cairo that houses a refugee ministry, but as it became clear that her brother and ex-husband were searching for her, refugee ministry officials moved her and her son to an apartment.
Ali said her brother and ex-husband sought to kill her for apostasy, or leaving Islam – with the support of relatives back in Sudan and others in the community, members of the Shaingia tribe who practice a strict form of Islam.
"Life became very difficult for me," she said.
The Rev. Emmanuel S. Bennsion of All Saints' Cathedral confirmed that Ali's ex-husband and brother were acting on a tip from one of Ali's relatives when they came searching for her in Cairo. They went to her son's school to take him back to Sudan. It was a Christian school, and the director refused to hand the boy over to them, Bennsion said.
"Since that time, she has started hiding and become afraid," Bennsion told Compass.
Ali had received financial support from family in Sudan through the relative in Cairo who notified her family of her conversion; that support has since vanished.
Fearing forcible repatriation to Sudan, Ali tried to go to Israel; Egyptian authorities arrested her at the border and jailed her for two months. During that time, she said, her son was put in an Islamic children's home. A Muslim family had adopted him, but she was able to win back custody after leaving jail in October.
"We have stopped going out of the apartment or even going to church," she said. "My son can no longer go to school daily as before. We cannot live our lives as before. I cannot now participate in the Bible study or fellowships – I'm now depending only on myself for growing spiritually, and for prayer and Bible study."
She said her only hope for living her faith openly in Christian community is to secure asylum to another country that guarantees religious freedom.