Rejected by their families and even imprisoned by the authorities, Iranian converts to Christianity who share the gospel often end up having to flee their homeland. Tom Hardie meets two believers who have suffered for the faith yet whose lives have impacted many people.
As the door to the apartment opened, we were greeted by two smartly dressed women – one our translator for the day, the other an Iranian Christian who uses the pseudonym ‘Priscilla’*. Both smiled and welcomed us to the latter’s comfortable but simply furnished home, before offering my two colleagues and I typical Middle Eastern hospitality.
What I had not expected was the honesty with which Priscilla then shared her inspiring yet deeply moving story.
As a child she was brought up in a wealthy family in Iran but suffered repeated sexual abuse at the hands of family members. Because she was afraid of them, especially her mother, she felt unable to report what was going on and perhaps unsurprisingly by the age of 12 had fallen behind in her education.
At the age of 14 she began seeing different men as a way of finding the acceptance that her family had failed to provide. As a result she became what she described as ‘addicted to sex’ but although she prayed to God to be released from it nothing happened, perhaps because of her own impression of what God was like. ‘I saw God as a god of rage who would beat me up,’ she said.
Years later, however, as an adult she was surprised to hear that one of her old friends had become a Christian. ‘I met her and asked her why she, as a Muslim, was doing this and she told me about Jesus and that you could be forgiven. So I went to the church with her and when I entered it I cried non- stop and asked Jesus to free me from this sexual addiction.’
In fact she ended up staying with her friend simply to be able to go to the church.
When she did finally tell her family about Jesus, there was even more rejection, with her mother and sister accusing her of blasphemy.
‘I STOPPED LYING AND GOSSIPING AND MY WHOLE LIFE CHANGED’
During that time, however, she had started watching Christian satellite TV and on one occasion called the broadcaster. The gospel was explained to her and she gave her heart to Jesus and in that second was freed from her addiction. Not only that but ‘I stopped lying and gossiping and my whole life changed’.
Her mother continued to fight with her but Priscilla loved sharing her new faith with her relatives and as a result two members of her extended family accepted Christ.
The opposition took on a more sinister aspect, however, after Priscilla attended a conference in Turkey run by Release International’s partners. She returned to Iran to find four men waiting for her at her workplace. ‘I was scared and then one said he was from the intelligence services. I called my pastor and said: “They are coming after me.”’
Her laptop and other devices were confiscated and she was arrested.
‘They took me to a strange place and blindfolded me and made me sit in a dark room until 1am, during which time they questioned me,’ she said.
Priscilla’s back was towards the door when a group of men entered the room and began to ask more
questions. She was so scared that she started crying. They said they would let her go as long as she returned the next day and they instructed her to sign a paper saying she would stop sharing her faith.
After attending another conference abroad the same thing was to happen. She was visited at her home by a group of officials who took her away in handcuffs. ‘They took me to a place used to detain people involved with drugs crimes.’
There she was stripped and made to perform sit-ups for no apparent reason other than to humiliate her. Priscilla, who was afraid of being raped, said: ‘I was begging them [to stop] but they did not care.’
In another room, she faced a number of threats. ‘They told me I had to tell them about all the Christians I had been in contact with, otherwise I knew what would happen.
‘I was questioned for four to five hours but lost all awareness of time because I was so frightened. I told them the only Christians I knew were from the Netherlands not Iran but they accused me of lying, asking how I knew [Release International’s partner].’
After nine days they sent her to prison where she was initially housed with four other women in a cell measuring 12 square metres, which included a shower and toilet.
‘There was no ventilation and they kept a spotlight in the ceiling on for 24 hours a day so you could not sleep.’
However, during the next two and a half months she was in prison many of the 350 inmates came to Priscilla to hear her story and she told them about her faith. She also discovered that she was not in prison for simply being a Christian but for talking about Christ to others.
‘I WILL GO BACK TO THE PRISON, GET THE LIST OF PRISONERS’ NAMES AND TELL THEM ABOUT JESUS!’
As she reflected on her time in detention, Priscilla explained how God had used her to help many of the prisoners including one who was saved from execution after she prayed. Another woman who was also about to be hanged had her sentence commuted after Priscilla interceded for her.
At that point in our interview the memory of the two women becomes too upsetting for Priscilla and we agree to take a break.
I began again by asking whether she had found it easy to forgive those who had treated her so badly and she admitted that it had not been easy while in prison but that once free she was able to.
Given her experience, it would be understandable for her never to want to go anywhere near a prison again but that is not the case.
‘When Iran is free,’ she declared, ‘I will go back to the prison, get the list of prisoners’ names and tell them about Jesus!’
After she was released, Priscilla tried to run a small business but her laptop, phone and business products were confiscated. ‘I had no control over anything,’ she said. ‘Every month money was deducted from my bank account but there was nothing to show who was taking it. I felt they were raping me in a different way.’
Faced with a bleak future of being monitored and not being able to earn a proper living, Priscilla had little choice but to leave Iran.
However, her decision to flee came at a cost. Ironically, despite their rejection of her, her biggest sadness was not being able to see her family.
‘The mother I had once hated – now my only desire was to hold her in my arms one more time,’ she said.
Someone else who has suffered rejection from his family and spent time behind bars for sharing the gospel in Iran is ‘Matthew’*.
Fifteen years ago Matthew’s life was in a ‘bad place’ but when his brother-in- law, a Christian who worked for him, tried to share the hope of salvation with him, he just laughed.
‘He was talking about Jesus all the time and I told him to be quiet but one day something just said to me: “Stop! Listen to him.”
‘So at the park I asked him to tell me about Jesus and at that moment I saw a person appear nearby. I realised it was Jesus Himself. My brother-in-law said that Jesus was alive, and I said, “I know, I can see Him with my own eyes”. He said it was impossible as he couldn’t see Jesus, but I said, “He’s near to you”.’
‘I TOLD HER I HAD FOUND SOMETHING THAT I COULDN’T SACRIFICE’
The pair then went to see his brother-in-law’s pastor and after talking to him Matthew accepted Christ.
Shortly afterwards his troubles began: his wife’s first reaction was to get divorced.
‘All my family left me and did not want any connection with me but I prayed for them. I shared my faith and the Bible with my wife but she took my son’s hands and called me a pagan and said she didn’t want to live with me any more.
‘I told her I had found something that I couldn’t sacrifice and when she asked what it was, I replied, “A live
God”. Then she put her bags down and sat on the stairs and after three days she believed God like I did. That night she saw Jesus too!’
After trying to share his faith with other family members, Matthew took the message to three cities in Iran. However, unbeknown to him, agents of the Ministry of Information had him under observation as well as others who had come to faith.
When they were in church and preparing to worship, a woman wearing a face covering came into their meeting, followed by 20 other people carrying guns. ‘They surrounded us and checked to see if we had any weapons like knives or firearms but we only carried Bibles,’ said Matthew.
They then accused the Christians of tempting other people with alcohol and half an hour later they arrested them and took them away in handcuffs to prison where they faced repeated interrogation.
Matthew could see the men who had been arrested with him but did not know what had happened to the women. It was only after a few days that they were transferred to the court and there a number of women were being sentenced. ‘When the judge handed down a sentence of execution a lot of the women were shouting to Jesus to help them but the judge just spoke unpleasantly to them,’ he told me.
However, he said the police there asked two or three times every day for their testimonies and some of those who heard believed in Jesus. Because they had to review the Bible in order to charge the church members, officials had to read it and in doing so became believers!
‘When they arrested us there were a lot of Bibles around so they asked us about these and then asked to take them home.’
A number of prison officers who came into contact with the Christians during their detention were also converted.
A month later the group was released although Matthew was placed under constant monitoring. He stayed in Iran for seven years but was told that if he was seen with a Bible again he would go straight back to prison. ‘I ignored them,’ he said.
Eventually, however, the pressure of living under surveillance, not being able to call members of the church freely and being checked on took its toll. Friends and relatives also refused to see him and his family and Matthew realised the time had come to leave Iran.
There is more freedom in Matthew’s new homeland but also a number of challenges, not least of which is trying to communicate in an unfamiliar language.
His son was also persecuted at his new school because he was not a Muslim and eventually was forced to leave; it has taken him two years to recover from the distress.
As our time together drew to a close, we prayed together before saying our goodbyes and Matthew helped us to carry our equipment to the car.
The joy of having spent time with such an inspiring brother in Christ was tinged with sadness that we would probably never see him and his family again.
* Names changed to protect the identity of those we serve
PRAY FOR IRAN
- For the church to be free to worship
- For God’s protection on His people
- For strength and provision for believers such as Priscilla and Matthew who have been forced to flee Iran
PLEASE HELP CHRISTIANS WHO HAVE BEEN FORCED TO FLEE PERSECUTION
These precious believers and their families need your prayers and gifts to survive – and rebuild their lives. Your gift could provide:
- Food parcels for vulnerable families
- Pastoral care and Christian discipleship
- Vocational training to help believers start small businesses
- Support for believers such as Priscilla and Matthew to help them become active in ministry in a new location
If you would like to give a gift to help Christians forced to flee for their faith in Christ, you can do so securely online here or you can call 01689 823491.
You can download and read more stories from our latest Voice magazine here
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