Imprisoned Saudi OFW forced to convert to Islam

Testimony of Donnie Lama

Donnie Lama was an OFW in Saudi Arabia of being a murderer and preacher. Jailed at the Al Malaz Prison, they forced him to convert to Islam in return for freedom. His story of torture and abuse among Christians in the Middle East opened the eyes of the world to modern-day Christian persecution happening in several Muslim nations.

The Saudi authority was looking for a murder suspect and Donnie was a suspect. They raided Donnie’s apartment but found nothing incriminating except a photograph of Donnie leading a Bible study. He was charged for preaching Christianity.

Looking for the murderer

It was October 5, 1995 at 11 pm when I heard the police banging on the door. They’ve arrested people without a warrant and the only thing I can do was to pray and keep silent in the hope they would think I wasn’t home. They left by 2 am.

Knowing that they might return the next day, I took my Bible, cassette tapes, videos, and Christian pamphlets and asked a friend to hide it for me except the family photo albums. Shortly after returning home, five men in civilian entered just when I was about to go out for tennis.

The torture begins

What is my violation, you cannot just do this to me? One of the men was a Mutawah (religious policeman) who shouted back, “you are the problem!” They kicked, slapped, spat, and strangled me. The policemen trashed my apartment. Although they didn’t find anything illegal, they confiscated my photo albums and my and my roommate was brought to the Sulaimaniah Police Station.

Brutal interrogation

We were separated and forced to stand against the wall for five hours. Handcuffed, our feet were also chained, it was difficult to move. Each time I moved parts of my body to rest, they punched and beat me. Blood was streaming from my head, I almost fainted.

During interrogation, they charged me with possessing a fake passport. When I said that Saudi Airlines was my sponsor, they charged me with anew. “You know the murderer!” they said. I replied, “No, I don’t know anything about it. I am telling you the truth!” then they slapped me on the face.

Incriminating evidence from a photo

Previously, a Filipino was murdered and since the police had no lead, they suspected anyone. Realizing they probably got the wrong person, they accused me of another crime. An officer dangled a photo on my face. I realized it was from my photo album that showed my hands outstretched in front of a congregation while I led a prayer.

Accused of preaching the Gospel in Saudi Arabia

“You are a priest!” said the policeman. I denied it and when they couldn’t get any confession, I was instead charged with preaching “Jesus as God.” Naturally, I did not deny that I preached the Gospel. As a result, the photo, taken in 1984, was used to incriminate me for violating the Kingdom’s strict law that no other religion except Islam should be practiced therein.

Afterward, I was taken into an isolation room. A tiny, filthy and foul-smelling cubicle enough for one person to lie on the floor. But there were two of us sharing the cramped cell. I could not even stretch my beaten body and weary legs. With no clear evidence against me, I was released that evening.

The next day, I was asked to report to the police station. They pretended to have discovered an evidence linking me to the crime which I denied repeatedly. Realizing they couldn’t incriminate me, they accused me anew. “You are a preacher! You have been preaching here for fifteen years!” “You are a priest,” said the Mutawa, and they beat me again. I was thrown in jail for two months.

The legal system of Saudi Arabia is based on ShariaIslamic law derived from the Qur’an and the Sunnah (the traditions) of the Islamic prophet Muhammad

Summoned in a Shariah court

Realizing that I wasn’t a troublemaker, they gave me a deal. “We will let you go if you will sign this paper. If not, you might as well die here.” Desperate, I hastily attached my thumb mark to the document written in Arabic, not knowing what it meant. My heart was filled with bitter disappointment, I felt abandoned. My only source of comfort was God and all I could do was pray. I meditated on Psalm 91…

Whosoever goes to the Lord for safety, whoever remains under the protection of the Almighty can say to Him, ‘You are my Defender and Protector. You are my God; in You I trust.’ He will keep you safe from all hidden dangers and from all deadly diseases. He will cover you with His wings; you will be safe in His care; His faithfulness will protect and defend you. You need not fear any dangers at night or sudden attacks during the day or the plagues that strike in the dark or the evils that kill in daylight.”

Al Malaz Prison Jail in Riyadh

A week after, I was brought a second time to the Shariah Court. The judge told me that I confessed through a document I signed, that I have been preaching Christianity for the last fifteen years. I was formally sentenced and transferred to the Malaz Central jail in Riyadh.

I shared a cell with fellow Filipinos Ruel Janda and Arnel Baltran. They were accused of another crime punishable by beheading. I feared for my life as I was facing beheading myself, but I held on to God and used my time to share the Gospel with others.

Convert to Islam or rot in prison!

They asked me to renounce my faith, deny Jesus as God, and embrace Islam instead. In return, they offered freedom and even cash. Despite the physical pain and death threat, I kept my faith and chose Jesus. “If I live, I live with Christ, if I die, I die with Christ. If I live and die, I belong to Christ.” (Romans 14:8)

Smuggling letters to my family

I missed my family and to communicate, I smuggled letters through tiny holes at the visitor’s waiting area. I thinly rolled my letters and inserted them into soft drink straws. Friends waiting at the visitor’s lounge discretely pulled the straw.

Smuggling the Bible, one page at a time

Close friends also smuggled the Bible one page at a time. Each time they visit, a page would be wrapped usually with money. A prison guard whom I befriended handed me several pages without even knowing what it was he was giving. Soon, I was also able to smuggle a complete Holy Bible into the Malaz prison.

I kept the pages in an empty box of detergent. It helped me share God’s words with other Filipino prisoners. I was caught at one point when a prisoner tipped the warden. I was punished in the isolation cell.

Letters to my family were rolled and inserted in straws. Those who visited me were able to smuggle it out of the Malaz prison.

A cruel punishment for being a Christian

A year after, I was summoned to court. The judge asked if I was still a Christian or has converted. I answered, “Yes, I am still a Christian!” I have angered the court and once again by upholding my faith as a Christian, I was doomed to be beheaded.

The smuggled letters gained traction and my story began to be known around the world, many people began to pray. God intervened and instead of a death sentence, I was given 70 lashes though it was still a cruel punishment.

Whipped by three men 70 times

On February 2, 1997, I was flogged while standing for 70 times. I was wearing a flimsy T-shirt and jogging pants. The pain was excruciating. I asked God for help and I was reminded of what happened to Apostle Paul.

1 Peter 4:12.
My dear friends, do not be afraid at the fiery test that is coming upon you, as if you are experiencing something unheard of, but be glad that you are sharing to some degree the suffering of Christ in order that the revealing of His glory in you may be full of joy…”

The whip was about 1 ½ meter long with a heavy lead on the tip. Three people, each with their own whip hit me. It hit my back, neck, and when it struck my feet, I fell to the ground, but the jail guards pulled me up and continued flogging me. They were cruel and laughed at me as I bled. “Lord please help me to go through this physical pain,” and the Holy Spirit spoke to me through this verse.

Matthew 5:11-12
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Be glad and exceedingly joyful, because in heaven your reward is rich, for in the same way, they had persecuted the prophets who were before you.” For each whip, I set my mind to rejoice in the suffering of Christ.

I heard God’s voice

I was honest with God, “Lord, How can I rejoice and be glad about what I am going through, the pain is real and my body bleeding.” Then I heard a voice, “Look at me at the cross when I was crucified because of you. My hands were paralyzed by the nail, I could not even wipe the blood on my face and that blood saves you.”

Pray for those who persecute you

I remembered how Jesus suffered on the cross, how His hands were paralyzed by the nails. I said, “Lord, what is this suffering I am going through right now? If I experience this suffering in prison for years, it’s nothing compared to eternity that awaits me in heaven.” As my accusers laughed, my heart began to be filled with pity instead of hatred. I prayed for them instead, “Lord enlighten their mind and forgive them.”

After 70 lashes, I couldn’t believe I was still alive, though I could hardly walk. They brought me back to my prison cell, my body was swelling with immense pain. I could not even lie down for more than a week.

An Easter Homecoming

After my ordeal for almost two years, I was finally released from the Al Malaz prison. I immediately processed my papers so I can return to the Philippines. Upon boarding, I began to have hypertension, I couldn’t breathe. A Doctor saw me and said I couldn’t ride the plane, it was risky. I shared a bit of my story. Afraid to stay another day in Saudi Arabia, I begged them.

By God’s grace, the Doctor allowed me to board with a nurse to accompany me. We were upgraded to a business class. In the middle of the flight, a passenger handed me an envelope. It had cash on it, that came from other passengers who pitched in. Apparently, my story went around the plane. Upon landing, a flight attendant insisted to bring me home.

I arrived the day before Easter, but to me, it was already Easter. Just as Jesus resurrected and rendered powerless the gates of hell, I too have been redeemed and was reunited with my family. The tearful reunion as I celebrated my own victory over death. Before the flight attendant left, she handed me another envelope with cash from the entire flight crew.

My story is just one of many modern-day Christian persecutions, but it was one of the first stories that caught international attention. I could only thank God that in spite of what I had to endure, His love and compassion remained with me.

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