‘You were born a Muslim, Shiite blood runs in your veins’

‘You were born a Muslim, Shiite blood runs in your veins’

Mojtaba Keshavarz Ahmadi’s experiences since becoming a Christian 20 years ago show just how costly that decision can be for an Iranian who is considered to have been born a Muslim.

As his interrogators from the Ministry of Intelligence put it after his arrest, “Your religion has already been chosen for you. You were born a Muslim, and a Shiite. Shiite blood runs in your veins, so you don’t have any other choice.” 

When this is the view espoused by the Iranian authorities, it is perhaps unsurprising that Mojtaba, the son of a mullah, has encountered such opposition since, in his words, he “met Jesus Christ” at the age of 35.

After becoming a Christian, Mojtaba says he realised very quickly that, “in terms of my home, family, and community, this belief of mine wasn’t acceptable”.

“It was as if I had entered a forbidden path, a forbidden belief,” he says, recalling how he had to scour second-hand bookshops to finally find a Bible, and how the booksellers themselves “knew they were taking a risk selling them, and weren’t sure if I was a true Christian or not”.

It took Mojtaba more than a year to even meet another Christian, and through him to find a house-church.

As he explains, “The churches I knew about in my city, Tehran, were Armenian churches and, due to political issues – the government doesn’t allow Armenians and Assyrians to accept Persian-speakers in their churches – none of the churches allowed me to enter.

“In addition, some Armenians and Assyrians [another traditionally Christian ethnic minority] also considered Christianity specific to their ethnic group.

“For this reason, Persian-speakers were not accepted in churches. In general, when it came to Christ and Christianity, the Iranian society considered Christians to be Armenians. So, to the general public, anyone who became a Christian seemed to have changed their ethnicity.”

Was there ever a clearer explanation of why in Iran it is considered such a controversial – or, to some, even impossible – act to change one’s religion?

But Mojtaba takes a different view:

“I don’t accept this notion [that] religion and belief … can be inherited or transmitted through blood.

“Religion and the choice of belief are the rights that God gives to all human beings. And I, as an Iranian, believe in the inalienable right to choose the religion I want to live by, and to define my life according to it.”

Unfortunately, as Mojtaba was soon to discover, this was not a view shared by the regime.

In September 2010, Mojtaba and two other Christians were arrested while meeting a friend in the city of Arak, three hours’ drive south of Tehran, “to teach him about Christianity”.

Mojtaba would spend the next 170 days in detention, including a week in solitary confinement, during which time he was interrogated “five or six times a day”, beaten and insulted. 

Mojtaba was eventually sentenced to three years in prison for “propaganda activities against the regime of the Islamic Republic”, and another three years for “insulting the sacred [Islamic people and things]”.

This second three-year sentence was later dropped, after one of his friends retracted the forced confession he had made against Mojtaba, telling the judge: “Your interrogators threatened my child and my wife. They specifically said they would take my child away from me and take him to an unknown place, and that I wouldn’t see him again!”

But despite the best efforts of his lawyer, Mojtaba’s other three-year sentence was upheld, and in July 2012 he received a summons, telling him he must present himself at Arak court to begin his sentence within 20 days.

Mojtaba says that he longed to stay in Iran, but decided he had no choice but to flee the country.

“My mother had died during the court process,” he explains. “Meanwhile, my younger brother was under a lot of pressure and threats from the Ministry of Intelligence, and his life and work were disrupted. My efforts to defend my rights had all been ultimately fruitless.

“I had wanted to stay in my homeland. But I realised that my family wouldn’t be safe from pressure and harassment either, so I must leave Iran, even against my will.”

So in March 2013, having spent months in hiding, Mojtaba fled the country and travelled to Turkey, and nine years later it is there he remains, alongside hundreds of other Iranian Christian refugees.

“After emigrating, for many years I still wanted to return to Iran and didn’t intend to seek asylum,” Mojtaba says. “But as time went by, the situation became more difficult for Persian-speaking Christians in Iran, and the wave of persecution of Christians intensified.

“Therefore, I officially became a refugee by referring to the UN Refugee Agency. 

“Despite the passage of more than nine years, I am still in a temporary situation and I haven’t even been interviewed. But I haven’t lost my faith and trust in Christ.”

You can read Mojtaba’s full Witness Statement here.

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