I stepped into the simple office from the dark hallway. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a man sitting against the far wall, quietly. I didn’t know it yet, but I was about to meet Mohammed Hegazy, one of the most infamous converts to Christianity in Egypt.
After he converted, he insisted on legally changing his religious status from Muslim to Christianity. While his case languished in the courts, Mohammed and his family had to go into hiding after extremists began calling them with death threats. He’d come out of hiding to share his story.
Four years later, with no progress on changing his status, Mohammed, who also goes by Bishoy Armia Boulous, was arrested. He continues to be held illegally in one of Cairo’s worst prisons.
One of my roles at VOM is to manage our Prisoner Alert site, where anyone can compose a letter to one of the prisoners featured on the site. I love the whole concept of Prisoner Alert, because it’s such a simple and tangible way for believers to personally reach Christians suffering in prison because of their faith. All it requires is the use of a computer and printer, a stamp and a little time.
The idea of writing letters to prisoners reaches all the way back to our founder, Richard Wurmbrand. Pastor Wurmbrand was sometimes able to receive letters during his 14 years in prison. Not only did he use them to write coded messages to his wife, they were also shining beacons of encouragement from the outside world, in deep contrast to the darkness he experienced almost constantly.
After Pastor Wurmbrand’s release and after he and his wife Sabina founded VOM (formerly Jesus to the Communist World), they realized that letters would be a huge encouragement to Christian prisoners in Russia. Letter-writing campaigns have long been a part of VOM’s history.
Today, PrisonerAlert.com helps believers reach across language barriers by providing translated phrases to choose from. It also tracks how many letters has been sent, and allows users to write letters to various embassies and UN offices on behalf of Christians imprisoned for their faith.
However, the world has changed drastically since the days of the Iron Curtain, and it is again changing through globalization and extremist ideology. Before, most of VOM’s work was in countries under communism, where communist governments arrested and imprisoned Christians.
Today, fewer and fewer governments are the main persecutors of Christians, and when they are, they are very aware that the world is watching their actions. Instead of arresting Christians, they apply “squeeze” persecution by making it difficult for Christians to operate businesses, send their children to school, or meet for worship. This form of persecution is less dramatic than throwing someone in jail for years, and officials can hide behind regulations. In short, there are fewer Christians in prison because of their faith activity.
Another challenge for maintaining Prisoner Alert in this modern era is security risks. While it’s great that the internet can facilitate this type of tool, it also means that everyone in the world can see it. When VOM learns of a Christian prisoner and requests permission (from family members, ministry leaders or someone close to them) to share their information on the site, sometimes people are hesitant to share. In some situations, publicizing information works in a prisoner’s favor; other times it works against them.
We post all prisoners on a case by case basis. If you know that hundreds of Christians are imprisoned in Iran, you may wonder why so few are featured on the site. In Iran, especially, families and church members are worried about government retribution. One Iranian believer, Fashid Fathi,has been very vocal during his imprisonment, even having open letters to the world smuggled out from prison. He’s been targeted by guards as a result. His sentence was also extended by a year recently, though of course we don’t know if this is a direct result of his outspokenness.
So what’s the future of prisoneralert.com? For now, we’ll continue to maintain it. We see it as a vital ministry for encouraging prisoners and for helping Christians in the free world connect to their brothers and sisters. And we’ll continue to search out prisoners’ stories that we can share with you. And together, we’ll continue to watch how God continues to work in our changing world.
Dory P. has worked with VOM for eight years. She grew up in Ecuador, met her husband while working with another mission organization, and now lives in Oklahoma. Between Dory, her husband, four-year-old son and one-year-old daughter, the family shares seven passports. Dory helps tell the stories of the persecuted through VOM's newsletter, and her husband serves with VOM's international department.