When Hazem Farraj was 15, he became a Christian. But as a Palestinian Muslim living in East Jerusalem, he couldn’t tell anyone, especially his father.
“For almost three years I was an underground believer,” Farraj told The Media Line during a visit to Jerusalem. “I would go to the local mosque and to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and pray Islamically but in my heart I was praying to Jesus.”
Today Farraj, 27, is very public. He lives in California and hosts “Reflections,” a Christian TV show in English and Arabic. He is grateful for everything in his life, he says, but he has also made sacrifices for his faith.
Farraj was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1984. Like many immigrants, his father insisted the children speak Arabic at home. An observant Muslim, he worked hard to teach his children about Islam.
When Farraj was 12, his father moved the family back to Beit Hanina, a middle-class East Jerusalem suburb. The large family of 13 siblings studied Islam and many of them became more committed Muslims.
“Islam says to pray five time daily – I only prayed four times because I was too lazy to get up for the early morning prayer,” Farraj recounts. “Do the prayers. Memorize the verses from the Qur’an. Go to Islamic class and the mosque. It was all just actions to me. The deeper I got into Islam the more depressing it was for me.”
Farraj decided the solution was to convert some Christians to Islam. He approached his upstairs neighbors, Christians, and they began a discussion that lasted more than a year and a half.
“I said to them, “What if I told you that God can answer your prayers in the name of Allah,” he recalls. “Now he wasn’t answering my prayers but I needed something to hold onto. They told me things I was searching for like 'Cast your worries upon Jesus who cares for you' and 'God so loved Hazem that He gave His only son for him.'”
When Farraj was 15, he attended an East Jerusalem church with these neighbors. He does not want to name the church, fearing it could become a target of attacks.
“I sat in the last pew in the back corner and I saw something I had never seen,” he recalls with a wistful smile. “I saw a guy named Steve singing with a guitar and smiling as if he knew Jesus. I saw people at the altar raising their hands and loving God and it made me mad because I wanted it to be the God of the Qur’an.”
He fled to a downstairs room, where he lay a piece of carpet on the floor and prayed facing Mecca in Saudi Arabia, according to Islamic rules. Nothing happened. He went back upstairs to the church, and, he says, became a Christian.
“I started to pray in the name of Jesus and something happened on the inside that transformed me,” he remembers.
Soon afterwards, the second intifada or Palestinian uprising broke out and his father moved the family back to the US. Farraj continued to practice as an underground Christian. Finally, just before his 18th birthday he told his father that he had become a Christian. His father cut off all contact with him, and Farraj has not seen him since.
The pain hurts even 10 years later.
“You don’t ever get over it, you just get through it,” he says. “It has left me wounded even today.”
He also has no relationship with his stepmother or his siblings.
At age 18 he followed his former neighbors to Alabama, where they had moved.
“I slept for six months and when I wasn’t sleeping I was eating – I weighed 225 pounds and I was so depressed,” he recalls. “Then one day I came across a Christian TV station and there was this preacher. This voice inside me – I believe it was the voice of God – said 'I’ve called you to this.' I knew it meant that I was called to tell people about Jesus and to help them come to prayer.”
His TV show "Reflections," reaches millions of viewers around the world.
Farraj says there are “many” underground Christians in Arab countries today, and that he gets emails thanking him from around the Arab world. He also gets death threats.
David Parsons, the media director of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, says there are “hundreds” if not “thousands” of underground Christians in the West Bank.
“There’s a lot of upheaval in the Arab and Muslim world right now,” Parsons told The Media Line. “Some are saying 'Islam is the answer,' but there are a lot of Muslims who know they tried it for hundreds of years and it’s not the answer. As a Christian I would attribute it to the movement of the Holy Spirit. People are looking for different answers.”
Parsons says the International Christian Embassy has opened branches in “several north African countries.”
Farraj says his recent trip to Jerusalem was to recharge his own batteries and to meet underground Christians.
“I love Jerusalem,” he said with a grin. “I’m here to enjoy the spirituality of Jerusalem and to encourage the believers. I thought I was the only ex-Muslim in the world, but they’re really everywhere.”