On the morning of June 9 in southern Yemen, Saeed woke to the sound of screaming. He shot out of bed, pushed panicked family members aside and saw his wife stumbling out of their kitchen, engulfed in flames.
His wife, Nazeera, had been preparing breakfast at about 9 a.m. when she poured liquid from a cooking oil bottle into a hot pan. The liquid flashed, and the bottle exploded. While her four children watched, screaming, Nazeera was being burned alive.
“I rushed out of the room,” Saeed (full name undisclosed for security reasons) told Morning Star News, weeping. “I couldn’t even speak to ask her what happened. All I could think about was putting the fire out and then getting her to the hospital. But my 16-year-old son, he couldn’t stop himself and held on to her, hugging her while she was burning. He got hurt, and I had to pull him away from her.”
About two weeks later, Nazeera, 33, died as a result of her burns. When Saeed returned to his home in a village (undisclosed for security reasons) after her death, a relative told him the unthinkable – members of both his family and hers had taken the vegetable oil out of the bottle and replaced it with gasoline. Saeed knew the reason – many years ago, the two had become Christians and refused to return to Islam.
Nazeera receiving hospital treatment after fire attack. (Morning Star News via Saeed)
After living in hiding in Yemen for several months, Saeed was able to flee to the relative safety of another country, he told Morning Star News.
Before the attack, Saeed and his wife had already decided to flee their families and the 99 percent Muslim country on the Arabian Peninsula. They got their travel papers two days before the sabotaged bottle exploded.
After doctors said there was nothing more they could do for Nazeera, friends of the couple were able to secure a room in a hospital in Egypt for further treatment. Nazeera died that day, before they could go.
Saeed was with her when she died. Among her last words to him was not to worry and to take care of their children. Saeed left the hospital and took the two-hour trip back home. There a relative told him that one of his brothers and one of her brothers had conspired against them to punish them.
“I was told by one of our relatives that it was a set-up, and they replaced the cooking oil with petrol, which caught flames as soon as she poured it out,” he said.
When Saeed went to police for help, officers told him to bring witnesses who could testify about the alleged conspiracy to sabotage the cooking oil bottle. His children only saw the explosion and could not testify regarding sabotage, and Saeed’s relatives refused to incriminate the alleged conspirators, their own family members.
“No one will be a witness for us,” Saeed said. “And my family told me that if I was killed and cut into pieces, they wouldn’t do anything to help or be a witness on my side.”
Saeed buried his wife and tried to sell everything left in his home, but family members blocked his efforts. Initially his four children lived at his mother’s house after the attack, but he secretly took them to another country before relatives could take them from him.
His last image of home was his relatives descending on his house, he said.
“I lost the way to support myself and everything we had,” he said. “And when we were leaving, I was trying to sell things we had, but some of my family members stopped it so I wouldn’t get anything. Even the day I took the children to leave [the country], they attacked our house and divided our things among themselves. They destroyed the rest.”
A New Faith
Saeed, 45, was born into a Muslim family in a small village in south Yemen that he would not identify for security reasons.
As a high school Arabic teacher, Saeed read a lot of newspapers to incorporate current events into his classes. In 1997, he was reading an article about a member of the Yemeni Parliament doing something seen as a sin in Islam. Later he was struck by a columnist’s article about the incident urging forgiveness.
“A local journalist wrote an article saying, ‘Why don’t you forgive him like Essa [Jesus] said. If you forgive other people, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive other people, your Father will not forgive you,’” Saeed said. “I heard this verse and was amazed that God talks about forgiveness, and I wanted to know more about Him, but as you know, you can hardly find Bibles in Yemen. I waited, and in 2003, I heard one of my students talking about a Christian radio station that broadcasts for half an hour a day in the Yemeni dialect. That’s how I came to know about Jesus.”
Saeed married Nazeera in 1998. By 2003, when he began drifting from Islam to become a Christian, he had two sons and his wife was pregnant with their first daughter. All of them, including his wife, followed him in his newfound faith.
When people in his village started to notice a change in the way he acted, they started harassing him.
“I was also punished at work,” Saeed said. “In 2003, I was suspended for being a Christian from my work for a year, and then when I returned, instead of putting me back in my place as a secondary school teacher, I was demoted and placed in a primary school. Instead of working in a school about 100 meters away from my house, the new school where I taught was 5 kilometers [3 miles] away, which I had to walk to every day.”
At the primary school, things got worse. He was suspended once, he said, for refusing to donate 500 rials (US$2.40) that the school was collecting from every worker for Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic organization designated as a terrorist group by the United States and other nations.
In March he refused to give a donation at school to a charitable Islamic association affiliated with another terrorist group. A member of the charity accused Saeed of being an “infidel” and then encouraged another teacher to assault him. The teacher beat him in front of more than 1,000 students. Saeed did not fight back, he said.
Persecution from Nazeera’s family was no less severe. They essentially kidnapped her three times in three years in hopes of convincing her to leave “the infidel.”
“But she kept saying that she wanted to be with me, and that she believes in what I believe, and that no matter what, she won’t leave me and the children,” Saeed said.
At least one human rights group that advocates for persecuted Christians and a group of Christians assisting Saeed have confirmed the details of his ordeal. One religious freedom advocate said that while today’s headlines are full of stories about terrorist groups brutalizing Christian communities in the Middle East, the day-to-day life and death struggles of converts often go forgotten.
“Though clearly an extreme case of persecution, this incident illustrates the pressure converts are under,” said the advocate, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The killing was “a huge tragedy,” he added. “That is not anything anyone should have to go though alone. It is the worst place to be.”
Defying common logic, Saeed said God allowed the atrocity to take place to “strengthen our faith and use us more in His Kingdom.”
“We ask people to pray for us, as we are all alone in this new place,” he said (Morning Star News has confirmed the country, undisclosed for security reasons). “Pray for my children, as now I am their mother and father and only friend. We need prayers for God’s strength and to give us strong faith. I want people outside to know that even if we get cut into pieces, we won’t leave Jesus Christ.”