"Encourage one another daily" (Hebrews 3:13).
A daily, Bible-based perspective of hope, encouragement and exhortation.
THE FAITH OF DONNIE LAMA
(Terror of Night In A Dark Cell)
A True Story
It was a case of mistaken identity. I was jailed by mistake, but looking back on that experience I know that God had a purpose for my being there.
The Saudi authorities were looking for a murderer and initially thought that I was the one they were looking for. Later on I would be freed of those mistaken charges, but during the raid the authorities confiscated a photograph. It was an unacceptable photo in Saudi Arabia since it showed me serving Communion to Christian believers. The following story begins with the police raid that drastically changed my life for the next eighteen months.
The Police Raid
On the evening of October 5, 1995 I had just arrived in my rented apartment in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia that I shared with two other Filipinos around 11 PM. Suddenly there was a loud pounding noise coming from the door. As I was approaching the door I heard some men repeatedly commanding in Arabic, "Open the door!" I realized by the tone of their voices they were the police.
Knowing that these police officers could make arbitrary arrests I quietly walked away from the door praying that they would think no one was in the apartment. The men were more determined than I had anticipated and tried to gain entry until 2:00 the next morning. All their attempts were futile so they finally left.
During those terrifying hours I took refuge in a secluded area and recited Psalm 91 to myself as I sought protection from God. "He that dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the Shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, He is my Refuge and my Fortress, my God; in Him I will trust…"
After a turbulent night the day finally broke and I decided to remove items that could be used as evidence against me should they come again. I took my Bible, cassette tapes, videos, and Christian pamphlets and placed them in safe keeping in the house of a close friend. I kept the photo albums that had pictures of my wife and children, my home and other special events.
By 5:00 PM I had to return to my apartment to prepare for a tennis tournament. As I was telling a friend on the phone about what happened the night before a knock came on the door. Absentmindedly, I hung up and rushed to the door.
To my great surprise, five Saudis in civilian clothing were standing outside the door. They quickly entered my apartment and immediately handcuffed my hands behind my back. Since they gave no explanation as to why they were arresting me I protested, "No, you can't handcuff me! What's my violation? What's the problem?" "You are the problem!" shouted the man who turned out to be a Muttawah (Religious Policeman.) Then they started doing despicable things such as kicking, slapping, and spitting in my face. I continued to protest but they began strangling me until I could barely breathe and I nearly passed out. I couldn't believe what was happening.
As I was being manhandled others on the police team began to trash the apartment as they went through all my belongings, but found no incriminating evidence. The only thing they kept were my photo albums.
One of my roommates was in his room at the time so he also was handcuffed when he came out to find out what was going on.
We were brought to the Sulaimaniah Police Station and upon arrival we were immediately separated. I was forced to stand facing the wall for five hours still handcuffed and my feet were chained to prevent me from moving. If I attempted to move they punched my body and beat me. I felt blood rushing to my head and I almost fainted. My entire body was in terrible pain from the manhandling. Any move I made to ease my pain only gave the guard reason to slap me again.
Upon interrogation, I was charged with having a fake passport. When I told the officer that my sponsor was Saudi Airlines I was charged with another crime, "You know the murderer!" Not knowing what murder he was referring to, I answered back, "No, I don't know anything about it. I am telling you the truth!" For this, I received two hard slaps on both sides of my face.
I remembered that my friend, when he picked me up at the airport, told me that a Filipino was murdered by an unidentified killer. But I didn't think any more about it since I didn't personally know the Filipino.
Probably aware that I was innocent of the murder, my interrogating officer dangled a photo in front of my face. I was flabbergasted to see a photo taken from one of my photo albums showing me with outstretched arms in front of a congregation leading in prayer.
"You are a priest!" he accused. When I denied this, I was ordered to show my priest's license. I denied his charge again. Then I was charged with preaching Jesus as God. I did not deny that I preached the Gospel, but I denied that I was a priest.* When asked about the whereabouts of the people in the photo, I answered that I did not know.
The photo, taken in 1984, was being used as evidence against me for violating the Kingdom's strict law that no other religion except Islam should be practiced therein.
Probably realizing that I was about to the end of my tolerance level, undergoing tremendous physical abuse and having nothing to eat, the officer took me to an underground isolation room. It was the worst place I could ever imagine. It was a small, filthy and foul-smelling cubicle, which was just big enough for one person to lie down on the floor.
That night there were two of us sharing the cramped and filthy cell. I could not even stretch my beaten body and weary legs. In addition to the pain I was also suffering from hypertension. My head felt as if it were going to explode. With no concrete evidence against me I was finally released at 11 PM that Friday evening.
The Terror repeats itself on Saturday
My gut feeling told me that my problem was not yet over. For this reason, I reported for work the following day despite my beaten-up condition. I explained what had happened to my manager. He assured me that there was nothing to be afraid of and he would do his best to help me out.
At 2:00 the same afternoon I got a call from the police station asking me to report. When I reported to the station I was subjected to the same brutality. This time they claimed that they found incriminating evidence against me in the form of three bottles of perfume which were supposed to have belonged to the murdered Filipino. They indicated that they were found in my apartment.
Since I knew nothing about the perfume bottles I denied that I had any knowledge about them. Probably aware that they again had not established a case against me, I was pinned down once more for the photo that made me appear to be a preacher. "You are a preacher! You have been preaching here for fifteen years!" I was accused over and over while they repeatedly beat me.
"You are a priest?" said the Muttawa. I vehemently denied that I was a priest. Realizing that the interrogation was going nowhere, the officer said, "Your friend told us that you are a very religious person!" The friend the officer was referring to was my second roommate who was arrested, released with me, and then re-arrested again.
As I found out later his statement was taken out of context. What he said was, "Donnie is a good man! He is a very religious person!" He was indicating by these descriptive words that I was incapable of murdering a human being. Whether by sheer ignorance or plain opportunism, the Muttawah decided to detain me indefinitely.
I was sent back to the isolation cell. For several weeks the Saudi Authorities pulled me out of my isolation cell and interrogated me, subjecting me to the same terrorism every time. The pain was so excruciating that I could barely move. My body was covered with black and blue marks and I was terribly swollen all over. I could hardly wait for the ordeal to end. On day seven I was called again. Being vulnerable I was surprised when my interrogating officer said, "We will let you go if you will sign this paper. If not, you might as well die here." Anxious to withstand further beatings I hastily attached my thumb mark to the document written in Arabic, not knowing what I was signing.
I was returned to my cell and waited with anticipation for the next seven days. Besides my bad physical state I was down emotionally. I felt devastated, bitter and disappointed. I needed someone to comfort me and someone I could talk to. But nobody had visited me since my second imprisonment. I felt like I was abandoned, alone and deserted. Like the apostle Paul, when he appeared in court, he felt as if he was deserted. In my heart I understood why my friends could not visit me since they could face a 24 hour imprisonment with interrogation. Maybe they were praying for me at home.
For sure, I was isolated in the real sense of the word. It was indeed solitary confinement for me. I had only prayers to comfort me. During my lowest moments it was prayer that provided me with hope that everything was not doomed. My only source of comfort was God. All I could do was pray and I prayed the whole time. I'd find myself saying to God, "Lord, help me go through this suffering. I don't know Your purpose for allowing this to happen to me. I only ask that You give me the strength to endure it."
I dreaded the nighttime. Over and over I would recall 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." These verses really ministered to me.
I was summoned to court. When I was presented to a Shariah Court the judge informed me that I admitted that I had been preaching Christianity for fifteen years as shown on a document with my thumb mark affixed to it. I was returned to prison not knowing how long I was to stay there.
I was transferred to the Malaz Central jail, also in Riyadh. The transfer was an improvement for me since Malaz Prison had better facilities and I would no longer be in isolation. I found being able to interact with other prisoners far better since I could share the Word of God with them.
I shared a cell occupied by Ruel Janda and Arnel Baltran, two Filipinos being accused of crimes of which they were not guilty, punishable by beheading.
The temptation in jail is great. During the initial days of my imprisonment the idea of converting to Islam was presented to me. The officials claimed that doing so would make me a free man again. I was offered immediate freedom if I renounced my faith and embraced Islam, but I did not, since this would mean turning against my Christian faith. Enticing as being released from jail was, I did not do it. Not even more suffering could make me renounce Him even unto death, because I knew that only Jesus could set me free!
The prison official told me that if I would embrace Islam, he would release me soon to see my family. "If you don't you might face a terrible punishment or you might die here as well." I told him that "Even unto death I will stand up for Jesus." I also told him, "If I die, you will also die, it's a matter of time. We will all die. If I live, I live with Jesus. If I die, I die with Him. Whether I live or die, either way I belong to Him."
As would be expected I was prohibited from talking to other prisoners. They feared that I was going to preach Christianity, thereby threatening Islam, but I disregarded this rule. In my own way, I started ministering to the Filipino prisoners such as leading prayers groups of two to three people. We synchronized our prayer time while the Muslims were praying.
With God nothing is impossible
I wanted very badly to communicate with my family and people who could help me. When I found out that the wall of the visiting windows had tiny holes leading to the waiting area for visitors, I devised a way to smuggle out my letters. I collected soft drink straws, rolled my letters very thinly and inserted them inside the straws.
Trusted visitors already knew what to do if they saw a straw protruding from one of these holes. With one visitor acting as a guard, the other would quickly pull the letter from the straw and send it to the addressee. When the guards became suspicious, they sealed all the holes in the wall except one.
Do you know that I was able to smuggle a complete Holy Bible into the Malaz prison? I was allowed to have visitors so I asked my close friends to bring me a page of the Bible every time they visited me. They would place a page of the Bible inside the crumpled Saudi Riyal paper money that they usually gave me to buy personal items. One time a prison guard whom I had befriended handed me several pages without even knowing what he was doing. I kept the pages of the Bible that I'd accumulated in an empty box of detergent until I was able to complete the whole set.
It was a good thing that my secret activity was never detected during the time I was compiling my Bible. Even as some prison guards became suspicious of my practices, they were never able to discover what I was doing. The Bible helped me very much in ministering the Word of God to the Filipinos in prison.
But this doesn't mean that I didn't get caught. Some prisoners tipped off the prison warden of my illegal activity. With two other Filipino prisoners, we were punished by being placed in an isolation cell.
Later on a demented Saudi prisoner accused of killing his brother was placed in our cell. My terror returned when this lunatic shared our prison cell. We never had a single moment of peace since he continually harassed us. He would defecate and scatter his feces all over the place. We even feared sleeping because we knew that he was capable of killing us with his brute force.
We petitioned the guard to tie us like animals outside the isolation cell so that we could distance ourselves from this lunatic prisoner. Of course, the authorities didn't give into our request. They knew that putting us together was an effective way to make us suffer. We found our own solution to the troubling situation.
During one of his mad moments my two prison companions and I imitated what he was doing. We pretended to be having a mental illness attack, imitating his every move all the while singing Psalm 91: "Blessed be the Lord, blessed be the Lord, the God of mercy, the God who saved. I shall not fear the dark of night, nor the arrow that flies by day. He will release me from the net of all my foes. He will protect me from wicked hands. Beneath the shadow of His wings I will rejoice to find a dwelling place secure."
The lunatic broke into laughter at what we were doing. From thereon, he treated us as friends, giving us a chance to sleep at last. Two months later we were returned to the main cell but not without a stern warning that we were not allowed to minister inside the prison.
But this warning did not make me relent. With all the ordeals I had undergone and survived, I knew that nothing could stop me now. I was convinced more than ever that no matter what happened to me inside the prison I would stand up for Jesus, yes, even unto death. I was ready for anything. I knew this was my way of serving my God.
After a year of imprisonment at the Malaz prison, I was again summoned to court. The first question the judge asked me was, "Did you convert to Islam?" Though fearful upon his questioning I was more than proud to tell him that I had not. In anger the judge said, "You are bad!" Then he pressed on, "Where is your license as a priest?" I had to declare all over again that "I am not a priest." Not able to get what they wanted from me the judge decided to again study my case.
By this time my friend and brother in the Lord, Dermot O'Neil got wind of my plight. He appealed my case to the Ministry of Interior through the American Embassy with the support of the Canadian Embassy.
A month later I appeared again in court. When the judge asked me if I was still a Christian I told him "Yes!" I was sentenced to eighteen months of imprisonment with 70 lashes. This sentence was definitely harsher in comparison to others found guilty of a similar crime. When I was asked if I wanted to appeal I told them "No."
I spent the rest of my sentence in the same prison as my unjust imprisonment had been exposed in many parts of the world. Exactly one month before the end of my sentence, I was brought to the flogging area to be flogged 70 times. It was Feb. 2, 1997 at 9:00 AM. I was wearing a flimsy T-shirt and jogging pants. I knew that it would be a terrible physical pain so I asked God to help me endure. Then I recalled the words from I 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."
As I received every blow of the excruciating whip I rejoiced in Jesus' name for I was sharing the agony He experienced when He redeemed humankind. The whip was 1 ½ meters long with a heavy lead attached to the tip. Some fell on my back and my neck. When it struck my feet I would fall to the ground, but the authorities would pull my body up again so they could continue the flogging.
The lashing reminded me of Stephen at the Temple following the sermon he preached in Acts 6 & 7. He was drug out to be stoned and yet he did not pray that the Lord would save him. Instead he prayed, "Lord, do not hold their sins against them." He had compassion on the people who stoned him to death until his last breath. So Stephen followed in the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.
My accusers were laughing as they continued to flog me. As I caught sight of them my heart was filled with pity. "Lord enlighten their mind and forgive them" I prayed. I was amazed to find myself still alive after the 70th lash.
Reporting to the Riyadh Police Station I was very disappointed to find that I had to stay longer than expected. My employer could give me a plane ticket for my flight home but I first needed to secure a court decision that would enable me to receive my company benefits. If the court found me guilty I would not be able to claim any benefits. Waiting for the court decision delayed my release for another month.
While waiting I had no choice but to suffer again in a cramped cell at the Police Station. My impatience grew during the long, uncomfortable wait. Other Filipino prisoners who also had to secure clearance were able to leave after only three days. I prayed asking the Lord, "Why is it taking so long? I am the only Filipino left in this police station. What is Your purpose for delaying my release? I need Your comfort. If You have a purpose for this delay, could You please show it to me even in my dreams, just so I will know?" I began crying out to the Lord.
Two hours following this time of heartfelt prayer a Filipino prisoner was thrown into the cell. When he saw that I was also a Filipino he began to cry. He told me his story of being accused falsely of robbery. I comforted him and said, "Don't worry. Have faith in God. Trust Him that He will remove you from this prison. Let's pray together." We prayed in our native language so that the rest of the prisoners would not know what we were praying.
Three days later my new friend was released. He promised to send me food and he did so the next day. "He must be all right by now, but not me," I sighed to myself.
Another week passed and still no word from the prison official. My heart was breaking from the agony of waiting and I simply could not understand why my case was being delayed. Yet deep in my heart I knew everything was in the Lord's hands; I just wanted to know the reason. The answer finally came at dawn when another Filipino, Ruel, joined me in my cell.
Ruel must have come straight from the hospital since he was still wearing a hospital gown and smelled of medicine. He cried when I started talking to him. He was imprisoned because he tried to commit suicide by drinking poison. Ruel wanted to take his life because of so many problems at home and at his work. I took pity on the man as I could easily see his loneliness and confusion. Only the Lord could meet his needs.
In the early hours of the morning I entrusted him to the Lord, "Lord, here's a man who seems to have lost his way. Please forgive him as he asks you for forgiveness." The man bowed his head and cried out the Lord, "Lord, I want to return to You. Forgive me for what I have done wrong to You." Then Ruel threw his arms around my neck and began to cry. We both cried at the joy of experiencing the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus. Before falling asleep, I thanked the Lord, for now I knew why my release was delayed.
Since I was supposed to have committed a crime against the Saudi laws, I lost my entire end of service privileges except for a return ticket. But this also meant being returned to the deplorable circumstances of the Sulaimanaih Prison at the Police Station. This was compounded by the fact that the processing of my papers there took four additional weeks to finish when the normal processing time is only three days.
Preparing for Departure
Upon boarding my return flight I had to undergo one final test. I suffered a terrible case of hypertension and was having difficulty in breathing. I asked the flight attendant to give me a glass of water. Upon seeing me she called the doctor to check me out. The doctor recommended that I not fly since he discovered that my blood pressure was 185/120. I begged him to permit me to fly since staying would mean being taken to the prison again. He took pity on me and consented. He assigned the nurse to look after me. Because of my health dilemma the nurse and I were transferred to the business class.
In the middle of the flight one passenger from economy class approached me and handed me an envelope. It contained money that was collected by passengers during the flight. I was speechless as tears welled up in my eyes. I thanked God that in spite of the terrible tests I had endured He showed His love and compassion through His children even in the flight.
The flight attendant insisted on taking me to my residence. My family was there awaiting my arrival. When my wife saw me approaching our house she rushed to meet me. She threw her arms around my neck and we both began to cry.
It was the day before Easter, but to me, it was already Easter when Jesus was resurrected and He rendered powerless the gates of hell. The tearful reunion with my family was a celebration for my own victory over death. Before the flight attendant left our house, she handed me another envelope containing money contributed by the entire flight crew. She gave a friendly farewell kiss and left our house.
Despite all the things that happened to me I still consider myself blessed. I was able to return to my home and be reunited with my family. This was not true for Bro. Ruel who accepted Christ in the prison cell. A month after my release he was tragically beheaded. He was given the offer to renounce his faith, embrace Islam, and he would be released. But He remained faithful to the Lord until his last breath.
The testimony I have shared with you was a tremendous testing of my faith that most Christians will never experience. It is because of this testing that my belief in God is all the more reaffirmed. I had served Him well and will continue to serve Him against all the terrors in this world.
Footnote about "being a priest"
*When I later had time to reflect on this experience, I realized that the religious police were correct when they accused me of being a priest. In I Peter 2:9 we're told that "We are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation." Indeed, I am a priest by the Biblical definition. By Islamic law I should have been beheaded. But I praise God that He stood by me through the entire ordeal. He comforted me when I was lonely. He helped me to trust Him when I was afraid. He gave me rest when I was tired and weary, healing when I was sick, and strength when I was weak. I experienced what Paul wrote about in II Corinthians 4:8-9, "I was pressed from every side but was not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed."
This true story of Donnie Lama was taken from a manuscript Donnie sent to us. Due to his first language being Filipino it was very difficult to understand parts of his story and continuity was greatly lacking due to this. Donnie gave me permission with his blessing to better translate it into English and sharpen it editorially. After doing so I sent him a copy and it is with his approval and blessing that we make this available to our readers. Perhaps there are others who would benefit from reading his story and you can pass it on to them with a personal note.
Personal Mission Statement: "I am created by God to bring Him glory. Through God's Son Jesus Christ I have been redeemed and I make it my life's goal to please the Lord. My mission in life is to honor God through my faith and obedience and to prepare myself and all whom I may influence for eternity."
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