The day after cautiously navigating the remains of churches and Christian graveyards burnt and defaced with graffiti and pockmarked by the bombs and bullets of al Qaeda and ISIS, Ahmed Nader — a pseudonym used for his protection — sits across from me. He is visibly nervous throughout our interview, even though we are in a secret location that took weeks for him to agree upon. Nader, in his mid-thirties, constantly asks for reassurance that no one can overhear our conversation. Sweat creates dark patches on his T-shirt. His shuffling feet move dust and dirt around the floor as only the afternoon sun illuminates the space.
A resident of Aden, a regional capital in southern Yemen, Nader converted to Christianity from Islam more than two decades ago. He is also gay.
"In Yemeni society I wish people would see me not as 'just gay' or 'just Christian,'" he says between numerous glances out an open window. "I am a human being, a person. I wish they would see me as that."
Yemen law is based in part on the principles of Sharia, declaring homosexuality illegal and punishable by death. Yemenis like Nader are trapped, and receive little attention from international media or governments. As war broke out here, all of the country's foreign embassies shuttered their doors years ago, so he has nowhere to go for help.
Two women wearing burkas on the street in Aden, Yemen. The once liberal and thriving port city has become distinctly conservative, with radical Islam swiftly replacing religious tolerance. | (Maria de la Guardia/Courtesy Narratively)
Nader and other locals disclosed that 14 gay men were murdered in Aden this past year alone. He also claims that most of them were killed by al Qaeda members, who, before joining the terrorist organization, were romantically linked to their eventual victims. After relationships end, he says, the men pledge their allegiance to al Qaeda as a front or for redemption.
When the Republic of Yemen was formed in 1990 — when the southern half of the country united with the north — the few Christians who remained after the British and Socialist periods were threatened. Then, most fled the country as the fundamentalist Salafi movement — an ultra-conservative branch within Sunni Islam that prioritizes religious matters over worldly affairs — gained power. In 1994 a civil war raged between the pro-union North and the secession-minded, Marxist-separatist South. In the years since, the South has continually fought for autonomy and self-determination.
Then, two years ago, the Houthi militia from the North violently took control of Aden with tanks appearing in the streets overnight. Though the Houthi were eventually driven out by the Southern Resistance and pro-government fighters, since then, according to Marie-Christine Heinze, president of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), "Aden has been grappling with enormous security problems." She says, "a large number of Salafi militias have taken control over parts of the city," and adds that al Qaeda has a strong presence in the South, while the Islamic State is also trying to establish a foothold.
Nader's parents were Muslim, but they were among the many liberal Aden residents who recognized Christian holidays, drank alcohol, and did not require women to cover their hair. Then, beginning with the war in 1994, the Saleh regime labeled people in the South with such ideologies as "infidels." Radical Islam swiftly replaced religious tolerance, and anti-minority, anti-Christian and anti-foreign sentiment set in.
Pressured, and sometimes even beaten by relatives to attend Islamic religious services as a preteen, Nader became lost. He questioned the religion being chosen for him. "I believed that God is everywhere," he says. "You did not need to go to the mosque to pray."
Nader says he was always drawn to Christianity. Growing up, when Christianity was not only accepted but also widely practiced here, he would draw pictures of Mary and Jesus to hang on his wall. There was something about the imagery that fascinated him. As he pieced together his family's past and tried to find his place in the present day, Nader learned he had Christian ancestors who immigrated from India in the 1700s, and chose Islam decades after their arrival.
He decided he would convert from Islam to Christianity. Although never baptized, Nader prayed alone, dedicating himself to Christianity before he was even a teenager. This was well known by family and peers around him, though it was never accepted, especially not by his Salafi high school religious education teacher, who taught students that the Koran instructed them to hate Christians and Jews.
Burnt and vandalized walls inside the mostly destroyed Catholic Church of St. Joseph in Aden, Yemen. It was the oldest church in the city, built in 1854. | (Maria de la Guardia/Courtesy Narratively)
The extremist ideas taught in the halaqas — Islamic study circles for young boys held at the mosque — led much of the country's young population to radical, intolerant views. Many of Nader's classmates went on to become al Qaeda members.
At 13, Nader spoke up when an instructor declared the Christian cross to be pointless. Nader explained the power of the holy symbol to his teacher and peers as he saw it: "Just like the Koran is the word of God translated into a book, Jesus is God's word translated into a man, who died on that cross for those who believed." All those around him looked his way with hate in their eyes. It was the beginning of a lifetime of judgment and the struggle to come.