How would you react if you were suddenly snatched away from the life you knew and the people you loved? American missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham, lived this nightmare as captives of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group with ties to Osama bin Laden for over a year. Forced into a life on the run through the Philippine jungles, they faced near starvation, exhaustion, brutality, and cold-hearted murder. When the day of rescue finally came, Gracia had one more trial to face-the death of Martin. Gracia provides a unique perspective on the methods and motives of a radical terrorist group and how they, with God’s help, responded to evil.
LG: Gracia, I have read your book, In the Presence of My Enemies, in which you chronicled the 376 days you were in captivity and the faith that sustained you. You were serving in the Philippines as missionaries…
Gracia: Yes, we were in the Philippines for 17 years. Martin was a missionary pilot. We worked with New Tribe Missions to reach tribal people who basically live out in the middle of nowhere. All three of our children were born there.
LG: You were celebrating your 18th wedding anniversary at a resort when you and other guests were kidnapped for ransom by a militant group of Muslims. You were told repeatedly that you were in an atmosphere of high morals-even while other hostages were beheaded, Martin was chained to trees, and you were being starved.
Gracia: It’s like they had this code of chivalry that they were so proud of: Would we ever touch your women? Of course not. The Koran forbids it. Would we ever steal from you? Of course not. The Koran forbids it. And, we relaxed because these were “honorable Muslims”, but one by one those lofty ideals that they set up for themselves fell by the wayside. You know, it just goes to show that you can’t keep the law. Scripture says you can’t keep the law, even if you make up the law yourself. Everyone’s a sinner. As long as they were involved in Jihad, they could do no wrong. The Mujahideen (holy warrior) is everything, they said. If something happens to a Muslim, it’s an “atrocity”. If they do the very same thing back, it’s your “destiny”.
LG: You were considered their “booty of war”. What does that mean in the Muslim world?
Gracia: We were told: These are your options if you are taken captive by a Muslim. (1) We can kill you.(2) We can make you our slaves; (3) You can convert to Islam and live with us in peace; (4) You must pay taxes to us and can continue to practice your religion in secret. There were no other options, and as aggressive Islam gets more prominent, this is going to be a problem.
LG: You and Martin also would have theological discussions with your captors…
Gracia: They called Islam a religion of justice. We had a greater concern to pray for them for their salvation after we heard Allah described as being “the most merciful”. Yet, Muslims were not expected to imitate that quality. In their minds, a merciful person equals a weak person. I think the longer we were in the jungle the more we saw the oppression of Islam. It is a very oppressive religion. For example, our captors were teenage boys for the most part. Did you know that a Muslim can never sleep in? They’ve got to be up before the sun comes up washing so they can be clean enough to start their praying. I told Martin no wonder they’re chopping people’s heads off! There have to be Muslims who aren’t morning people…they haven’t even had their coffee yet! There would be this kid in his hammock and everybody would start in on him, “Get up! It’s time to pray! Get up-do you want to go to Hell?” So this kid has to decide does he want to go to Hell or does he want to get up when it’s cold and do his praying? And, if he chooses to stay in his hammock one day, he’s already slated for Hell. So, what do you do if, in the judgement, you’re already behind the 8 ball and you’re going to Hell? You join Jihad because if you die in Jihad you go to Paradise. So, here they are knowing they are destined for Hell because they know they haven’t been good, they haven’t followed Allah’s laws, and they haven’t done everything perfect. Their only hope for Heaven is to join Jihad. They told us that.
LG: There are those that say that there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim.
Gracia: That’s not true. That is so not true. The lady you see shopping in America wearing a burka? Who knows why she’s wearing the burka? She may be forced to wear it. But, what she wants and what you want is the very same. She wants a safe place for her children to grow up and she wants life to be better for them than it was for her; she wants “them” (militant Muslims) to keep their hate over there. Now, for the most part that’s what Muslim people want. I’m not saying that Islam is a religion of peace because I don’t believe that at all. But, what the normal Muslim wants is peace. They want freedom and they want prosperity. To take those “haters” (the guys that bombed Boston and those that committed other acts of terror), and put that on every Muslim is so unfair-so very unfair. But, there are so many Muslims that if there’s a small percentage of them that are bent on Jihad-that’s millions of them. So, that’s what our world is going to have to face. We have to deal with aggressive Islam.
LG: How should we deal with aggressive Islam?
Gracia: I think Jesus gave us the answer. He said love your enemy. Bless those who curse you. Do good to those who hate you. Which is the exact opposite of what we would think. We might have Muslim neighbors-but we are not going to get near them, we’re not going to reach out to them, we’re not going to befriend them, because we are afraid of them. You always hold what you fear at arm’s length and I’m the very same. When I see a woman in a burka in the store my first inclination is to run or say, “I’m staying away from that lady!”. But, did you know that Muslim women are told from when they’re little girls, “If you’re not good you will be the fuel that keeps the fires of hell burning?” Can you imagine that? What is “being good” for a Muslim girl? It is pleasing all the men in her life: her dad,her older brothers, her uncles, the men down the street. Of course, they have to do the praying and everything. But, a Muslim woman can’t pray if it’s a certain time of the month. She’s unclean and she can’t pray. So what’s going to happen? She’s going to go to Hell. Her only recourse is that one of these men will stand up for her during the judgement and say that she was a good lady. She has to please all these men. So, you see these women wearing their burkas in the mall? Who knows why they’re doing that. They want to go to heaven, you know? They are just trying to be a good woman.
LG: You have written that the appropriate response [ to radical Muslims] is to find ways to defuse the raging resentment and hatred that fuels holy war. It is easy to say love one another…
Gracia: …but we’re not loving one another. We’re not even loving our American neighbors; the ones who think like us or the ones down the street who may not have as much as we do. We push the garage door button, we pull in, and we close it behind us and we don’t even know our own neighbors.
LG: Persecution of Christians and other minority groups has sharply increased throughout the world. Why are our churches not speaking out more?
Gracia: I think it is because we don’t want to be uncomfortable. We set up our lives and we surround ourselves to be comfortable. We carefully manipulate everything that happens to us. I was on Pandora the other day listening to music and if you don’t like a song that comes on, you push the thumbs down and you never have to hear that song again. We are setting ourselves up to be comfortable and anything that’s not comforting or causes us to feel bad about anything -we just hold it at arm’s length. When you start talking about the persecuted or atrocities that are happening, the human rights abuses that are happening, even if it’s not Christians, we don’t want to hear it because its uncomfortable. And then, if we really take that to heart -we’ve got to do something about it.
LG: So, what can do we do?
Gracia: Well, it’s going to cost us money. It’s going to cost us time. It’s going to cost us effort. And, it’s going to cost us our children and our grandchildren because we will send our children to that land to try to do something or we will go ourselves and leave our grandchildren at home. It’s going to take a sacrifice and no one wants to sacrifice. We have built these little bubbles and we are happy in our bubbles.
LG: Sacrifice is not even a word in our vocabulary anymore, is it?
Gracia: No, because we are all so worried about our retirement or having nice abs. You know, on TV you see these commercials and I think, “Are you kidding me? You’re going to live your life so you can go to the gym so you can have nice abs. Is that what life is about?” We have gotten so self-focused. What is every kid in America taught? They’re taught to make good grades in school so that they can go to a good college so they can get a good job so they can make lots of money so they can buy lots of stuff. They aren’t hearing, “See those people over there that need help? Let’s sacrifice and let’s go help them”. No one’s goal is to go into a little village in Africa and make it a better place. The only way to combat someone who has been taught to hate all their life is to step into their world and better it for them. If you do good to them, if you go as an American into a Muslim village and help them drill a well when they’ve been walking all day to go get water- if you do a kindness to them-then what they’ve been taught is going to crumble in their minds.
LG: What do you think our government’s response to the terrorist threat posed by aggressive Islam should be, in your opinion?
Gracia: There’s a difference between a person loving their neighbor and the government doing something. I truly believe that God set up human government to keep us safe and the government’s job is to do what it needs to do to keep us safe. I understand that. The government’s job can’t be to love their enemies. I respect government. I’m not so down on our government. I know we’re a mess. But, I’ve met a lot of people in our government who worked their butts off for me and Martin and did everything they could -including changing the policy on ransom. They changed the wording on the ransom policy so someone could pay a ransom in hopes that we could get home. I mean, the government did that. It’s not like the government doesn’t care about us. I don’t think that’s true. I think we’re totally messed up because we’re so focused on ourselves and against each other. On the other hand, the individual’s responsibility is to love and to give and to sacrifice-and it’s not happening. We’ve bought into the American Dream.
LG: You started the Martin and Gracia Foundation from donations you received after being rescued.
Gracia: We give to tribal evangelism (that’s what New Tribes Missions does), missionary aviation (that’s what we did), and Muslim ministries (reaching Muslims with the gospel of Jesus).
LG: If someone is burdened for the persecuted or wants to help with outreach, but doesn’t know how, what can they do?
Gracia: God is working. Ask God to to use you if you don’t know what to do about something or if you see something that makes you very uncomfortable. God uses weak things-He really does. He’s not looking for the strong and the mighty or the smartest or the richest. He often uses those that the world despises to make the wise look foolish. Ask God how you can help with that and I have a feeling He’s going to give you a good idea.
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