'When They Struck My Right Cheek, I Offered Them My Left': Christian Shares What it Was Like to Be Imprisoned with ISIS
Allahu Akbar became a near-constant sound in the prison cell. It’s part of the Muslim call to prayer, and each man repeated it incessantly over the course of the day, one hundred times each time they prayed. Confined in the tiny room, I watched my cellmates bow and listen to the words from the Koran. In the midst of all the murmuring voices and repetitious prayers, I started to worry about my mental health and felt a strong need for something besides their voices to occupy my mind.
In the final days of January, as my Muslim cellmates were praying, the Lord began to give me songs. Watching the Muslims bow their faces to the ground triggered the memory of a hymn that my father taught me when I was a little child: “Every Knee Shall Bow.”
During our underground church discipleship meetings in Czechoslovakia, we sang the hymn spontaneously and often, and in my prison cell, those same words began to rush into my mind. As the Muslims prayed, I sang the song in my mind, over and over, and it helped me to exalt the name of my Lord. Five times each day, as I stood near the bathroom of the cell to face the toilet, I remembered the refrain: “Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess that You
are the Lord.” By reminding myself that one day, every person’s knees will bow before my Lord, I began to internalize the eternal reality of my victory in Christ, and my sanity stayed intact. In moments when I was most worried about my mental health, the Holy Spirit reminded me of Philippians 4:7: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” He was guarding not only my heart but also my mind.
During each call for prayer, as my cellmates washed themselves with water from the ibrig, I systematically praised God with words taken from Revelation 4:8: “The four living creatures … day and night they never cease to say: ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’ ” If those four living creatures could say the words “holy, holy, holy” throughout eternity, then I knew I could manage to say them for one minute, for five minutes, or for an hour. I began repeating that verse over and over in my mind: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty!”
Those words made me think of God’s specific attributes—His holiness, His purity, His ability to heal. “Holy, holy, holy is God the healer.” I began praying for the healing of the persecuted Christians in Nigeria who had recently been injured during a series of attacks. “Holy, holy, holy is God who sets the captives free.” I prayed for the Christians in Eritrea, some of whom had been imprisoned for over a decade. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord,” I repeated to myself over and over again. I knew I couldn’t sing my hymns aloud or speak the words of Scripture with my voice, but I could surely sing and say them in my heart.
When I began to focus more on the holiness and power of God and less on the horrors of my own situation, the dynamics in my prison cell began to change for the worse. My ISIS cellmates did not know that I had begun silently repeating these worshipful words, but during the first week of February, the more I sang to God and exalted His name, the more harshly they treated me. Since I was the only white man in the prison, my skin had become a particularly fruitful and constant source of ridicule. “Look how dirty your feet are,” they sneered, pointing to my pale soles, “and look how clean our feet are.”
My cellmates had become so aggressive that restricting my movement in the room no longer brought them any pleasure. Whenever I was walking, they made me stop to wait until they passed by. My cellmates forced me to sit cross-legged on the floor for hours at a time—a painful position since I was unaccustomed to the Muslim practice.
They also forced me to wash their underwear and scrub the toilet with my bare hands, leaving me feeling humiliated and degraded. Nor did they let me eat communally with them. “You are an infidel,” they reminded me. They forced me to eat from a separate dish they stored near the toilet. Each time one of my cellmates relieved his bladder, my dish was splattered with urine droplets.
They called me all sorts of derogatory names, and when I failed to immediately answer to “filthy pig” or “filthy rat,” they unscrewed the wooden handle of the broom from the floor and beat me over the head with it. Each morning, I woke with fresh bruises on my body and a throbbing headache.
So far, the Lord had given me the strength not to retaliate as they beat me. When they struck my right cheek, I offered them my left one. Of course, even if I chose to fight back and tried to defend myself against their assaults, my efforts would be fruitless against six men.
There was no way I could fend them off, so I learned that if I wanted to stay alive, I needed to answer to whatever names they assigned me. The Lord gave me a special grace not only to share the Gospel with them but also to live the Gospel among them. I knew it was not my old self but that it was Christ in me who enabled me to do that.
When my cellmates saw that I consistently refused to retaliate against their attacks, their hatred and aggression grew even stronger. But I knew that we, as Christians, are supposed to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, and to pray for those who abuse us (Luke 6:27). In fact, Christianity is the only religion that teaches its followers to love their enemies.
Photo courtesy: Imprisoned with ISIS Bookcover/Salem Books
Petr Jašek, the son of a pastor who was persecuted in Communist Czechoslovakia, was well-equipped to join The Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) in 2002 to help persecuted Christians in hostile areas and restricted nations. Today, Petr serves as VOM’s global ambassador, traveling around the world to speak about his imprisonment in Sudan and encouraging believers to stand with our persecuted brothers and sisters in prayer and action.