Friday, December 30, 2016

Conversion of a Muslim Côte d’Ivoire National to The Catholic Faith

Through God's divine providence Mamery Kone searched for answers to his intellectual journey away from Islam and toward The Catholic Church through our parish here in Sioux Falls, South Dakota! I (Jeff) became his sponsor as he made his way toward the Truth present in the fullness of the Christian Faith in The Catholic Church. It has been a privilege beyond description to become a spiritual father to my son in The Faith, Mamery.  We have waited to share his journey through the blog to protect his assylum here in the United States.  All praise and glory belong to our Triune God for the mercy our government has granted him through an extension of his stay here in the United States.  Our parish has taken on Mamery's case before the immigration courts thanks to the generosity of a local immigration attorney and the parish community of the Cathedral of St. Joseph.  Here is his story that we compliled and edited with him.

Chapter One: Early Life
                My name is Mamery Kone.  I was born on April 6, 1980, and I am the oldest of six children. I grew up in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), West Africa.  I am part of the Mande tribe of Africa and 99% of the Mandingo tribe is Muslim. Because I was raised in a Muslim tribe, I practiced Islam in my tribal duty.  I also practiced Islam because of my career in importing and exporting.  My career as an importer/exporter allowed me to travel throughout West Africa and beyond.  I was a successful business owner, I had a lovely fiancée, and I had the security of my family.  But my soul was unsettled; I was not inspired by Islam. I had always believed there was a God even though I had doubts about the Muslim religion.  It was  the desire to know the Truth that finally led me to The Catholic Church.  How does one find Truth in a part of the world that is opposed to Christianity?
                Islamic fanaticism has in many ways possessed the Muslim world view of The West.  Christianity and The West are one and the same in the mind of an uninformed Muslim.  Therefore, if a Muslim or a group of Muslims join with the forces of militant jihadists  (a holy war undertaken as a sacred duty by Muslims) they can easily inspire their fellow tribesmen to persecute any Christian, and by "Christian" it is anyone who is not Muslim or Jew.  The world has witnessed the rise of Islamic terrorism over the last century since The West colonized what used to be tribal borders into national borders.  The deep resentment and anger toward  The West by radical Islamists has polarized  the Muslim world and festered Jihad.  This may help you understand what Muslims who are trying to understand the worldview of non-Muslim nations are up against if they remain under the influence of fanatical Islam. This is what I was confronted by in my investigation of Christianity. Yet I was determined to know more about Christianity so I quietly and persistently investigated the religion.
                My investigation into Christianity began before I could really comprehend it.  As a student in the French educational system (Côte d’Ivoire was colonized by France in the late 19th century) I was exposed to French culture by what I learned through my education.  Côte d’Ivoire had Centre Culturel Français (Multi Cultural Center) where I would go to study and read while I was in high school at Lycée technique d’Abidjan (1997 till 2000).  The center also included a library, concert hall and museum.  I spent many hours  at Centre Culturel Français.  It was a privilege to me to be able to browse the library.  While I was still in high school I came across books that had prayers by St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi.  I did not know at the time what saints were or that they were Christian.  But I did know that my mind and my heart came alive as I read the prayers.  I have included the two most significant prayers:

Morning prayer (St. Francis of Assisi)
LORD,
In the silence of this new day,
I come to ask for PEACE, WISDOM, and STRENGTH.
Today, I wish to look at the world
With eyes beaming with love.
To be understanding, meek, and wise.
To see your children beyond appearances
As You see them yourself.
Close my ears to all calumny.
Guard my tongue from all malice.
May only thoughts that bless
Dwell in my spirit.
May I be so kind and so full of joy,
That all who come near me may feel your presence.
Clothe me with your beauty, Lord
That throughout this day I may reveal You.
AMEN.

For Ordering a Life Wisely (St. Thomas Aquinas)
O merciful God, grant that I may desire ardently, search prudently, recognize truly, and bring to perfect completion whatever is pleasing to You for the praise and glory of Your name.
Put my life in order, O my God.
Grant that I may know what You require me to do.
Bestow upon me the power to accomplish Your will, as is necessary and fitting for the salvation of my soul.
Grant to me, O Lord my God, that I may not falter in times of prosperity or adversity, so that I may not be exalted in the former, nor dejected in the latter.
May I not rejoice in anything unless it leads me to You; may I not be saddened by anything unless it turns me from You.
May I desire to please no one, nor fear to displease anyone, but You.
May all transitory things, O Lord, be worthless to me and may all things eternal be ever cherished by me.
May any joy without You be burdensome for me and may I not desire anything else besides You.
May all work, O Lord, delight me when done for Your sake and may all repose not centered in You be ever wearisome for me.
Grant unto me, my God, that I may direct my heart to You and that in my failures I may ever feel remorse for my sins and never lose the resolve to change.
O Lord my God, make me submissive without protest, poor without discouragement, chaste without regret, patient without complaint, humble without posturing, cheerful without frivolity, mature without gloom, and quick-witted without flippancy.
O Lord my God, let me fear You without losing hope, be truthful without guile, do good works without presumption, rebuke my neighbor without haughtiness, and—without hypocrisy—strengthen him by word and example.
Give to me, O Lord God, a watchful heart, which no capricious thought can lure away from You.
 Give to me a noble heart, which no unworthy desire can debase.
Give to me a resolute heart, which no evil intention can divert.
Give to me a stalwart heart, which no tribulation can overcome.
Give to me a temperate heart, which no violent passion can enslave.
Give to me, O Lord my God, understanding of You, diligence in seeking You, wisdom in finding You, discourse ever pleasing to You, perseverance in waiting for You, and confidence in finally embracing You.
Grant that with Your hardships I may be burdened in reparation here, that Your benefits I may use in gratitude upon the way, that in Your joys I may delight by glorifying You in the Kingdom of Heaven.
You Who live and reign, God, world without end. 
Amen.

                I know now that God used these prayers (especially St. Francis' prayer) to guide me in my investigation of Christianity.  In the years between 1998 and 2002 I would pray the Morning Prayer every morning.  I also started searching for more writings by St. Thomas Aquinas on the internet since he inspired me, it seemed that when significant life events happened to me St. Thomas' words would help me--the time of my mother's death in 2002. It was then that I had to leave my studies in electronics  at Group LOKO University (Private School). My father had already died and so it was up to me as the eldest child to care for my 5 siblings. I eventually returned to my university studies in 2007 at ESIG (Ecole Supérieur des Sciences Informatiques et de Gestion) to earn my diplôma  in Computer Science. 
                St. Thomas' words came alive to me again in 2014-15 when I realized that my investigation into Christianity was going to cost me everything, perhaps even my life. My investigation spanned several years while I earned another diploma at Jules Verne Picardie and started my own business, SPEEDEX (SPEED EXHANGE N RCCM CI-ABJ-2014-B-12146. (My diploma in Méthodologie d’Importation is what inspired me to become an importer/export business person. This is what I was doing until my eventual decision to flee Côte d’Ivoire in order to safely pursue Christianity.

Chapter Two: The Investigation of Christianity and the Influence of Christians
                I will explain how three influences in my life guided me to Christianity and The Catholic Church.  As I mentioned to you before, St. Thomas Aquinas' writings had a profound effect on my mind.  I recognized that his writings had a universal affect on every human that wants to live a life of integrity. But there are two people's influence that I attribute to my eventual decision to become Christian.  Early in 2014 I met Bandama Zacko Virginie through my business dealings. Madame Zacko asked me some questions about Islam that I could not ignore.  Because of her consistent pursuit  I broadened my investigation of Christianity by learning more about The Catholic Church.  I could not ignore the long history of The Church. I was compelled by the integrity of The Catholic Church's Doctrine on the Christian Faith.  Madame Zacko was very persistent and I must confess that there were times I would evade her by misleading her about how serious I was in my investigation.  I was a successful businessman and my travels and commitment to expanding my business often took priority over my investigation of Christianity. That was until a conversation we had one day about the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for every person's sin. 
                Islamic practice relies on the father of the family sacrificing a goat once a year during TABASKI, Aïd el-kabir (Sacrifice Feast), to purify the members of the family who properly practiced Ramadan (Fasting month). I told Madame Vasko that  I don’t need Jesus Christ as my Lord, ALLAH is my lord. And then she presented a question that deepened my curiosity about Christianity.  She asked me," Do you know how many sins you make per day, per week, per month, per year even those that are small? I replied, "I can’t count?" She pressed me more by asking, " If one goat is for one sinner and one sin, how many goats should you kill to take away your sin and for the whole family each TABASKI? I couldn’t answer. As a Muslim  I needed answers. I started an intense investigation from January to June 2014.  I knew that there are many verses in the Quran who refer to Jesus Christ and to his mother, Mary.
                It was during this time that the second person who assisted me in understanding Christianity came into my life.
I discovered a video testimony of an Imam who had converted to Catholicism.  I accessed the testimony of a former Imam of Islam, Joseph Mario, through:  http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/former-imam-recounts-torture-after-christian-conversion-29404/  Over and over I would listen to Joseph Mario.  It was my turning point from an investigator of Christianity to a seeker of Christianity.  He testified that it was reading the Quran that convinced him of Christianity.  The evidence for the Truth and of Christianity can be found in the Quran.  Mohammed was the prophet that initiated Islam, but he was just a man. We read in the Quran that Jesus Christ was declared a  "god" though not the Son of God.  The Quran describes Jesus as a holy man who was a miracle worker and that  he was crucified for being a holy man. The Quran also tells of Jesus Christ being resurrected from the dead.  The Quran also speaks about Mary, the mother of Jesus.
                I have included some of the details of Joseph Mario's testimony so that you can see that when a Muslim like me starts to doubt the integrity of Islam we can start with what we know from the Quran. Joseph Mario considered some points in the Quran about Jesus Christ and Mary’s life which I never knew really understood when I was practicing my Muslim faith:

Some of the scriptures on the Mary, the Mother of Jesus:
Quran chapter 3: AL IMRAN:
"Behold! The angels said: 'O Mary! Allah had chosen thee and purified thee chosen thee above the women of all nations.'" 3:42
"Behold! The angels said: 'O Mary! Allah gives thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honor in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah'" 3:45
"She said: 'O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man had touched me?' He said: 'Even so: Allah created what He willed: When He had decreed a plan, He but said to it, 'Be,' and it is!'" 3:47
"Behold! Allah said: 'O Jesus! I will take thee and raise thee to myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow the superior to those who reject faith, to the Day of Resurrection: Then shall you all return unto me, and I will judge between you of the matters wherein you dispute'". 3:55

In Quran chapter 19: MARIAM (MARY)
"He said: 'Nay, I am only a messenger from thy Lord, (to announce) to thee the gift of a holy son'". 19:19
"She said: 'How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?'" 19:20
"He said: 'So (it will be): Thy Lord said, 'that is easy for me: and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us: It is a matter (so) decreed.'" 19:21

Some of the scriptures on the miracles of Jesus Christ:
Quran Chapter 3: AL IMRAN
"He shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. And he shall be (of the company) of the righteous." 3:46
"And (appoint him) an apostle to the Children of Israel, (with this message): 'I have come to you, with a Sign from your Lord, in that I make for you out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by Allah's leave: And I heal those born blind, and the lepers, and I quicken the dead, by Allah's leave; and I declare to you what you eat, and what you store in your houses.'" 3:49. Joseph Mario said in his testimony that surely in the Quran there is a sign for you if you believe what the Quran taught.

                I realize that the Quran teaches that not just Allah can give the breath of life. Jesus Christ can give the breath of life too. I then had to confront that Muhammad, Islam's great prophet couldn't give breath. He didn't perform miracles. He wasn't crucified and resurrected. It was a great revelation for me! For me, there was no doubt about pursuing my way to become Christian and know more about Jesus Christ. Allah remains a mystery to Muslims because he did not come to live as man to show us himself. But everybody knows who Jesus Christ is, even the scriptures of the Quran reveal him. Nobody in a mosque had taught me in that way.  
                The testimony of Joseph Mario and the prayers and influence of Madame Zacko and the parish of Communauté Mere du Divin Amour (http://www.cmdaci.org/) gave me confidence to follow Jesus Christ as my Savior. For my salvation, I was confident that I was doing the best choice to leave everything I built in my country in order to enter The Catholic Church.  I was convinced by events that my life was in danger if I converted to Christianity so before dying suddenly because of the threats. I knew that I must leave the influence of my Muslim tribe and the threats of terrorism against me before I could receive baptism, confirmation and communion in The Catholic Church.
                It was the integrity I witnessed in the lives  of Bandama Zacko  and  Josef Mario that opened my desire to worship at The Catholic Church. I was very inspired and I continued to worship at that church when I was able to be in Burkina Faso. I became as involved as I could as a Muslim who wanted to convert to Christianity. Late summer of 2014 I wrote an article entitled DE l’Islam à la Chrétienté : Stop à la persécution for the local newspaper. In it I called for there to be tolerance between the three major religions--Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  That was when my real troubles began.  I had not felt any fear about my decision to pursue Christianity until I experienced the persecution that came after the publication of that article.

Chapter Three: Persecution and Escape

                I now knew who my savior is, I could not remain a practicing Muslim.  I thought I had convinced my fiancée to come with me to a new life in France.  I had graduated from  Jules Verne Picardie/France University. So the prospect of a new life in France was absolutely certain because of our French citizenship. The bonus would be that we could explore the Catholic Faith more freely. I looked forward to learning more about following Jesus Christ as a Catholic Christian.
                However, the people that  surrounded me (my family/tribe and my fiancée's family) were angry. In February 2015, two weeks before our travel to France, my fiancée gave in to the incredible family pressure against Christianity.
Her brothers were very aggressive with me, they tried to force me to end my relationship with my fiancée by threatening me. They threatened me by informing me that if I did not stop my pursuit of Christianity, I would never forget the day they retaliated against my decision.  
                During this time I had also written an article in a Christian local newspaper in which I encouraged a good relationship between the three world  religions--Judaism, Islam and Christianity. My first installment of the article was published in July 2015. I challenged Christians to not give up on our faith in Jesus Christ because of the new terrorism of the that was threatening West Africa by MUJWA (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) and Boko Haram.
The article made it clear that my conversion to Christianity was official.  My family took a copy of the article and presented to the Imam of the community. The intention of this action was to save me from evil and bring me back to Islam. The Imam made copies of the article and gave it to the congregation so that they would pray for me to Allah.
                According to Muslim tradition, when the religion was attacked by neighbors or unbelievers  inside the cities Mecca and Medina where Islam started, people were converted through coercion or force. The prophet, Muhammad, instituted a holy war (JIHAD), to establish and consolidate the unity of Islam against enemies. In this period all Muslims were called to defend their religion. Those who decided to fight were named Jihadist, the holy soldiers. And those who were killed during this war went directly to the paradise, because they fought for Allah’s Glory. For their loyalty, each martyr received 72 virgin women as spouses as a reward in paradise.
                Today that tradition is perpetuated. As a Muslim when you feel your religion is threatened, you must defend it wherever you live, because your reward is paradise. That’s why fighting against JIHAD terrorism is difficult. You don’t know who can turn into a Jihadist.  I began to fear this reality among my people not only because of the threats of my
fiancée's family and the local Imam's actions. As a businessman in economic trade I was keenly aware of how the infiltration of AQIM was leading to significant Islamic radical jihad in West Africa. My international import/export brokerage business gave me access to the countries as my success increased and enlarged my business. My business and economic degrees served to enlighten--terrorism in Côte d’Ivoire was inevitable.  As I would travel in parts of West Africa I would observe how Islamic radical jihad wasn't just effecting business, it was threatening the stability of the cultures.  I knew that terrorism was a real threat to anyone who did not give allegiance to AQIM's power in West Africa.
                I made the decision to leave my home to get to the United States where I had a Christian friend living in Massachusetts.  My plan was to stay for two weeks to consider my next action in removing myself from the threat upon my life as a Christian. I have learned that God's providence led me to where he desired me to travel.  During my preparation to leave Côte d’Ivoire on September 24, 2015, I had a conversation with my cousin who lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He invited me to reconsider my plans to go to Massachusetts and to come stay with him.  I accepted. I left life near the Equator to live in the North.  I could not comprehend the changes that were ahead for me. The difference in the climate would be unbelievable to me if I hadn't made the journey! Everything else was different, too. Language, culture and the realization that I was a minority among many minorities in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Chapter Four: On the steps of the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Sioux Falls, South Dakota
                Adjusting to life in the United States was not easy, but I had one goal that I was determined to achieve during my stay--find The Church where I could learn more about Christianity and be baptized! My search for the Catholic Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota led me to the steps of The Cathedral of St. Joseph. I arranged to meet with Joe Rutten, Director of Faith Formation. My purpose for the meeting and Joe's purpose for the meeting makes me laugh yet today.  Joe did not know I was Muslim, he assumed I was a Catholic who had moved into the area and desired to register with the parish. He had a form prepared to fill out during our meeting. He was asking me for answers to questions about me. He came to the question of my baptism, I replied that I was not baptized. He looked at me with an odd expression. Then I said, I am Muslim and I desire to be Christian. He paused, smiled, and pushed the form away. He said, "You are Muslim?".  I said, "Yes".
                The conversation I had with Joe after I had clarified my purpose for worshipping at the Cathedral of St. Joseph. Joe became the first white American that provided hope and direction for me in my pursuit of Christianity.  I am still amazed that this godly man has taken me in as a Christian brother.  He is responsible for many more life-changing events that awaited my in Sioux Falls, South Dakota!
                The first step for me in my conversion to Catholic Christianity required me to attend weekly RCIA (Religious Catechism Initiation for Adults) classes at the parish.  The classes were in English, that was a big challenge for me, but it helped me become more fluent in English. The classes taught me the Sacred Scriptures and the Christian Doctrine that formed The Catholic Church.  There was so much to learn, I found great peace and assurance as I learned. I knew that I finally had made my way to The Church.
                I had prayed that the LORD would not abandon me like I had been abandoned by my people. I prayed that someone would help me as I learned more about the Christian Faith. God answered my prayer in Joe Rutten and then he answered my prayer through another man.  Another part of RCIA is a relationship with a sponsor who could guide me as I was learning so much. There are no words to explain the happiness I was feeling about having a sponsor. The day I met my sponsor, Jeff Heron, was an amazing day for me. I had been led to believe that Americans are too busy to help anyone, especially foreigners.  I now know this is very wrong. I spent many, many hours with my sponsor not only learning about Christianity, but learning about life in America.  Jeff witness before me what a Christian is to be. I could see in his life and his relationship with his wife, Lois, the evidence of how faith in God influences marriage, family, work, and being a neighbor.
                There are other parishioners who became friends with me. Josh and Desiree and their twin boys,  Josh and Erin, and Joe Rutten's family loved me and included me in their lives. I felt welcomed and accepted. God had answered my prayers and I am so grateful for my new life as a Christian. I completed RCIA and Joe Rutten received special permission for me to be baptized on March 6, 2016 instead of waiting until Easter Vigil when my fellow RCIA students and Catholics around the world are baptized into the Christian Faith. I will explain the reason for this favor soon. But I must first tell you about the incredible day that I was baptized, confirmed and received my first communion. The mass that day will stay in my mind forever as the day I was born again, at last! The congregation even applauded my decision. As I faced the congregation that day, I say many faces that were white, black, and brown. I saw the faces of Christ's Church and I felt the love of Christ come over me.

Chapter Five: Seeking Asylum in the United States
                I am a Christian! That makes it even more dangerous for me to return to Côte d’Ivoire.  My travel visa was supposed to be a 12 month visa; however, when I landed in the United States I learned that it was authorized for a 6-month travel visa. I would have to return to Côte d’Ivoire on March 24, 2015. Or so I believed.  That is why Bishop Swain granted an early baptism for me. When my parish learned of this problem for me, they began to pursue legal help for me.  I am thankful to God at to the Cathedral of St. Joseph parish for how they have acted on my behalf.  Money was raised, an immigration attorney was secured and the process was started for me to seek asylum in the United States. This process is very complicated. And because I am not from countries where terrorism is causing active war, it makes my case harder to win.
                Currently we are securing all the necessary documents and expert testimonies about how Al Qaeda's North African branch known as AQIM is leading to war in West Africa.  We have until September 25, 2016, the correct departure date on my travel visa, to file my case. A long process begins after that filing. I would have a two-year extended stay while the attorney works with United States Immigration courts to prove my case.  I truly do not know what my future holds, but my soul is in God's hands. Sometimes I fear what could happen to me if I return to Côte d’Ivoire, but then I remember how God has worked a miracle for me in my investigation of Christianity and my baptism as a Catholic Christian.  I know that God will protect me wherever I am.