Finding the Will to Forgive

27 April 2023

“I want him to die the worst death ever and go to hell.” That was Pauline Ayyad’s immediate reaction when she learned that local authorities had identified and arrested the man who brutally murdered her husband.

Rami Ayyad was the director of the only Christian bookshop in Gaza City. One evening in 2007, shortly after closing the shop for the day, he called his family and told them he was with some bearded men and might be away for some time. That was the last they heard from him.

Rami’s body was found in a field the next morning. He had been shot and stabbed numerous times.

A Dangerous Job
Gaza has a population of nearly two million people, 99.8% of whom are Sunni Muslims, and the territory is governed by the militant Palestinian organisation Hamas. The fewer than 2,000 Christians living in Gaza can attend one of only four churches: a Catholic church, an Orthodox church, an Anglican church or a Baptist church. The bookshop where Rami served was organised by the Bible Society of Gaza and located in the Gaza Baptist Church building.

Rami and Pauline had been active members of the church for years, while Rami worked at a bank to provide for his family. “Always, God put in our hearts to serve Him,” Pauline said. “Back then, we could not clarify what kind of ministry God wanted us to do.”

Two years before his death, Rami sensed God calling him to resign from his banking job and lead a Bible Society ministry in Gaza called ‘The Teacher’s Bookshop’. The church where it was located received frequent threats and the building had been bombed on two occasions, so Rami’s career change worried Pauline.

“I was afraid,” she said. “I told him that I was not comfortable because I had a lot of fear. But he was feeling peace.”

Although they had two young children at the time, Rami prayed about the position and told Pauline that he needed to obey what God had placed on his heart. Pauline’s initial anxiety decreased after Rami started his new job at the bookshop and the two of them began leading programmes such as a children’s Bible study. “It became normal life,” Pauline said, “and the fear left me.”

 

Threats
Rami was threatened on several occasions, including a few weeks before his murder. A local sheikh came into the shop and told Rami that he should convert to Islam. But Rami refused, replying, “I cannot make you be a Christian, and you cannot make me be a Muslim.” Ominously, the sheikh responded, “I know how to make you become a Muslim.”

When Rami mentioned the confrontation to his wife just two days before his abduction and murder, his attitude reflected only peace and acceptance of the danger he faced. “What can they do?” he said confidently. “The only thing they can do is to kill me, and then I will be killed for Christ.”

But Pauline struggled to understand how he could be so calm. “When he told me this story, he was happy!” she recalled. “He was speaking like he was ready [to die for his faith]. God was preparing him to do this, and Rami was ready.”

Around the same time, Rami told Pauline that some men he recognised had followed him home and glared at him menacingly. But since local authorities had done little about previous threats to the bookshop, he and Pauline felt there was nothing more they could do to ensure their safety.

 

Abduction and Aftermath
On 6 October 2007, around 4:30pm, Rami closed the bookshop and headed home. Shortly afterwards, he called his sister from a number she didn’t recognise, and she overheard him saying, “What do you want from me? I don’t know you!”

When Rami didn’t arrive home at the expected time, Pauline began to worry and called the Bible Society’s leaders. But they hadn’t heard from him either. Then, around 6pm, Rami called Pauline and told her he was on a long trip and would be gone for a while.

The next morning, Rami’s brother called to tell her that someone had found Rami’s body.

Pauline, who was four months pregnant with their third child, was devastated. “I was crying and complaining,” she said. As she prayed to God and wondered why this had happened to her now, she recalled Romans 8:28, which says, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God.”

But Pauline wasn’t ready to accept the reassuring words of Scripture. “Back then,” she said, “I refused the verse. What good thing can come through killing my husband?”

Pauline’s relationship with God suffered for months after Rami’s murder. “I was very, very mad at God,” she said. She questioned not only why God had allowed her husband to be killed but also why he had allowed them to marry in the first place.

She battled depression for the next five years as she struggled with grief. “Many times, I felt down,” Pauline said. “I asked, ‘God, you made me a widow; why are my kids without a father?’” While those years were difficult, she knew God was still with her. “I would wake up and look to God and get strength,” she said. “When I would think about myself in this situation, I would feel depressed, but when I looked to God, he would lift me up.”

While working through her grief, Pauline’s anger grew towards those who killed her husband. Living in a predominantly Muslim area, she heard the Islamic call to prayer five times a day, and each call from the minarets served as a potential provocation.

Christian friends urged Pauline to forgive Rami’s killers, but she felt it was easy for them to say when their lives had not been destroyed. “When the believers used to tell me that I need to forgive,” she said, “I felt upset.”

Christians also encouraged her to pray that Rami’s killers would come to know Christ so they could go to heaven. “I was refusing all this,” Pauline said. “For me, for them to receive Christ and go to heaven was not acceptable.” Over time, Pauline’s anger grew into rage, especially around the anniversary of Rami’s murder. But eventually she became exhausted by her anger and started praying a specific prayer. “I know that I am Your daughter,” she prayed, “and I know that I need to forgive, but I can’t forgive. Help me; let me be able to forgive in a way that is real.” Pauline said she prayed that prayer regularly for a year.

 

A Turning Point
In 2012, five years after Rami’s death, Pauline and her children were invited to a conference about forgiveness.

At one point during the conference, a pastor asked everyone to close their eyes and imagine a person they needed to forgive. Pauline immediately imagined the man who had killed her husband. She knew God wanted her to forgive that man, whoever he was.

On the last day of the conference, when the pastor asked if anyone wanted prayer to help them forgive someone, Pauline responded. As other Christians gathered around her to pray, she cried out to God, “I want to forgive!” Pauline said in that moment she felt the Holy Spirit touch her soul.

“I opened my eyes and felt like a new person!” she said. “I used to speak to God and would say, ‘You are mad at me because I won’t forgive.’ And I would hear Him say, ‘Yes, because you are My daughter, and you need to forgive.’” After the conference, Pauline began to study what the Bible says about forgiveness. “I realised that not to forgive is a sin,” she said. “I used to think that it was my right not to forgive.”

 

A Killer Is Captured
In 2017, authorities arrested the man thought to be Rami’s killer. Pauline said the arrest at first rekindled her anger, which she had worked so hard to overcome. “For a moment,” she said, “I thought I might lose my forgiveness towards him.”

In addition to Rami’s murder, the man was suspected of killing a Hamas leader and some Palestinian police. “At that time,” Pauline said, “it was like Satan was giving me bad ideas about this person who killed Rami, this person who made me a widow.”

But God reminded Pauline about her testimony, that Rami had died because of his faith in Christ and that she had already forgiven Rami’s killer. “So I repented of my thoughts,” she said. “Then I posted online that I had renewed my forgiveness towards the man and prayed for a blessing in his life.”

Pauline’s public display of grace angered many people, including some in her own family who wanted vengeance. After struggling to tell her children about the pressures she faced and that Hamas planned to execute the killer, she finally asked her oldest son, George, what he thought of the man who had murdered his father.

“I was surprised by his answer,” Pauline recalled. “He said, ‘I forgive him and I pray that he will go to heaven and meet with my dad’.”

On the eve of the man’s execution, Christians in Rami’s family urged Pauline not to speak about forgiveness again. But just as her husband had insisted years before, she believed she needed to obey God.

On the day of the execution, Pauline posted another message. After describing the suffering she had endured since Rami’s death, she explained that God had led her to forgive his killer, emphasising that justice is in the hands of God.

Pauline said God used her online post to change people’s hearts. “I was shocked,” she said. “People who were against me were with me now. Even Rami’s family, after they read it, told me that now they will forgive too.”

The process of reaching full forgiveness didn’t happen overnight for Pauline. “Forgiveness is a decision,” she said. “That is what I experienced

“You cannot forgive by your own strength, but when you have this will, a real will, an honest will to forgive and you put it in front of God, God will help you to forgive. I thought I had forgiven already, but God prepared me until I could enjoy true forgiveness.”

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