Martyred for Reaching His People

Martyred for Reaching His People

Abdiwelli’s work in Kenya among Somali Muslims helped many come to faith in Christ, but it also cost him his life. 

Growing up in Garissa, Kenya, Abdiwelli Ahmed (Abdi for short) was wholly committed to Islam. 

He descended from a long line of devout Muslims from Somalia, where “to be Somali means to be Muslim,” and was taught that Islam was in his blood. Staying true to his family’s expectations, Abdiwelli served as leader of his high school’s Islamic society. 

But in 1993, while in college, Abdiwelli began to wonder if there was a different way of getting to heaven. “Deep down in my heart I was facing some emptiness,” Abdiwelli said in an interview years ago, “because in Islam there is no peace, eternal security or satisfaction in the individual’s heart.” 

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Islam is considered to be an important part of ethnic-Somali culture. Professing faith in Christ cuts Somalis off from both family and tribe.

While comparing the Quran with the Bible, he found more than 500 errors and contradictions in the Quran. He also started to see the Prophet Muhammad in a new light. 

Seeking Refuge

The more Abdiwelli read the Bible, the more he fell in love with it. The Creation story in Genesis, the love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13 and Jesus’ farewell discourse beginning in John 14 each moved him deeply. After further discussions with a Christian friend, he eventually placed his faith in Christ and found the eternal security he had long desired. 

When other students and faculty learned that Abdiwelli had left Islam, they considered him a danger to the faith of other students. “I was beaten up,” Abdiwelli said. “All sorts of bad things were done to me. My life was in danger.” 

One day, as he met with leaders of a campus ministry, someone hit Abdiwelli in the head with a stone, causing severe bleeding. He ran to his mother’s house to hide, but days later he saw a mob of about 40 people approaching the house. He then fled again, this time to a friend’s house: he knew people wanted to kill him. “They were like a cat, and I was a mouse in my hometown,” he said. 

After receiving more death threats, Abdiwelli traveled six hours northwest to seek guidance from a relative, Pastor Ibrahim, who planted churches and shared the gospel with Somali Muslims in Kenya (see the December newsletter (link). Ibrahim eventually took him to a campus ministry center in a town about an hour north, where Abdiwelli was introduced to a woman named Helen. 

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Helen, Abdiwelli and their three sons before his death.

A Marriage of Ministries

Helen, who grew up in Nigeria, came to know Christ as a young girl. She felt called to ministry during college, and upon completing her master’s degree she founded a missions organization in the United Kingdom. After being trained in how to share the gospel with Muslims, she traveled to Kenya, where she met Pastor Ibrahim and, through him, Abdiwelli. 

Helen still remembers meeting Abdiwelli when he came to the center with Ibrahim. He carried boxes for her and spoke passionately about his faith in Christ. “When I first met Abdiwelli,” Helen said, “he told me, ‘I love the Lord and I’m ready to die for Christ.’” 

The two soon began dating and eventually decided to marry. The couple first served Somalis in Ethiopia through an agriculture-development ministry and, when the opportunity arose, shared the gospel with them.  

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Abdiwelli, below left, was martyred in Kenya. Ibrahim, below right, said, “He was my son in the faith, and he was a fearless evangelist.”

Hunted Down

Abdiwelli later began visiting other neighboring countries, sharing the gospel with every expatriate Somali he could. “Our desire is to know God and to make Him known, so many Somalis can become Christian, discipled and return back to their homes,” he said at the time. 

Somalis who leave Islam are accused of rejecting not only their religion but also their national identity. Inside Somalia, where it is illegal to convert from Islam or share the gospel, Christians are actively targeted and killed by the terrorist group al-Shabab and by family members. And they are often pursued by hostile Somalis even after leaving the country. 

At noon on Feb. 7, 2013, 20 years after Abdiwelli placed his faith in Christ, his pursuers caught up with him. Three assassins shot him to death as he talked with a pastor in the center of town. 

Grieving and in shock, Helen and her two sons fled first to Nairobi, Kenya, and eventually to her native Nigeria. She had lost all trust in Somalis, including those who called themselves Christians. “I do not want to renew contact with them,” Helen said after fleeing. “I cannot tell their level of commitment.” 

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Inset: Christians are targeted and killed by members of the terrorist group al-Shabab. Below: Abdiwelli and his wife, Helen, served Somalis through an agriculture-development ministry and shared the gospel with them.

Life After Death

VOM had supported Abdiwelli as a front-line worker before he was killed, and a VOM worker continued to encourage and support Helen and her sons after they fled Kenya. “We found hope because [the VOM worker] made us feel like we are human,” she said. 

Despite her great loss and sadness, Helen told a VOM worker that she knew God would use her husband’s martyrdom to advance His kingdom. “We have a triumphant God,” she said. “We know He is going to triumph in this situation.” 

Helen said that in the years after leaving Garissa, God drew her and the boys closer to Him. “We studied the Bible deeper than when Abdi was with us,” she said, “and we have found hope and encouragement over the years to share … with the hurting world that is lost in sin.” 

After seven years away, Helen and the boys visited Garissa on June 21, 2020. Helen had not wanted to return to the city, but she felt led to do so. They have visited several times since, most recently in February 2021. “For me, it was just good to be back where God wants us to be,” she told VOM workers earlier this year. 

In Garissa, Helen was surprised to learn that Abdiwelli has gained a certain fame and that “every Somali knows his witness.” His influence is also felt throughout the Somali Christian community outside Garissa, as a VOM worker confirmed. “I have had a unique opportunity to meet many Somali communities all over East Africa, … and even in Europe and in Minneapolis, [Minnesota],” a VOM worker said. “I don’t think I have ever been in any of those places where I haven’t met someone who was influenced by Abdi in some way.” 

Recently, Abdiwelli’s brother asked Helen if she would join a medical mission to help Somalis attacked by a local tribe over a land dispute. “I told him we are Christians and we shall come with the gospel and medicine,” she said. So far, she has received donations of wheelchairs, clothes, a month’s worth of food and other necessities to help those affected. 

Helen is resolved to continue following Christ and serving Somali Muslims, just as her husband did. “We should never stop reaching out to the lost and dying world until Christ comes,” she said. “A friend of mine who is afraid to go to the northeast told me to be careful. I told her, ‘If I try saving my life, I will lose it.’” 

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After her husband was murdered, Helen suffered a period of near-paralyzing grief. Now, she and her three sons are back on the frontlines of ministry, hoping to reach the people who killed her husband with the message of Christ’s redeeming love.