‘The interrogator made fun of my words and even the colour of my skin’

‘The interrogator made fun of my words and even the colour of my skin’

Sahar Dashti experienced racism as a child as one of very few dark-skinned children in her city, so she was hesitant when after becoming a Christian she was asked to help with the Sunday school. And when, instead of racism, Sahar experienced love and acceptance from the children, the impact was significant.

“A heart that had been broken in the past as a result of the words and actions of many children was healed by God through the children of our Sunday school,” she says.

But when Sahar and her friends were arrested for their Christian activities, Sahar’s interrogator told her she faced a heavier sentence because she had worked in the Sunday school or, as he put it, had been “misleading children” by teaching them about Christianity.

Sahar’s interrogator then went on to offer her a job.

“You’re clearly very talented in your ability to attract children, teenagers and young people,” he said. “You had a positive impact on them, worked very well with them. Come, cooperate with us, and we’ll give you a high salary and you can attract and guide children towards Islam!” 

Sahar’s story, like that of so many other Iranian Christians, is one of conversion, finding a house-church, arrest, sentencing – in Sahar’s case to a year in prison – and then ultimately being forced to leave the country. 

Sahar was among six Christian women arrested in February 2013 at a meeting of house-church leaders in a city near Isfahan. 

The women were detained for nearly two weeks in the infamous “Alef-Ta” ward of the city’s Dastgerd Prison, where Sahar experienced further racism from her interrogator.

“He made fun of my words, and even the colour of my skin,” she recalls.

The interrogator’s questions, meanwhile, focused on Sahar’s Christian faith and church activities.

“The interrogator asked: ‘What year did you become a Christian? When were you baptised? Who was your supervisor? Who were you in contact with? In which places have you been active? Which foreign countries did you travel to? Who were your teachers there? What did you teach the children?’, etc,” Sahar says.

Sahar was asked to write down the answers, and was just responding to one about baptism by writing that she had been “baptised by the Holy Spirit” when her interrogator violently kicked her chair.

“If the chair hadn’t been up against the ledge behind me, I’m sure my head would have hit against the wall, and been broken,” she says.

This wasn’t the only time Sahar was scared during her detention.

“Once, during an interrogation, I heard the moans of one of my friends as he was being tortured,” she says, “and the interrogator threatened me that if I didn’t answer his questions, he would do the same to me.”

Sahar says she had also heard stories of women being raped in prison. 

“I was very afraid, and prayed about it,” she says.

When Sahar and her friends were later transferred to the women’s ward of the prison, they couldn’t sleep for fear.

“Most of us stayed awake till morning, with fear and trembling, because there were dangerous criminals in that women’s ward who would rape girls and younger women,” she says. 

Sahar’s family were also harassed, including her mother, who had a heart condition.

“One of the interrogators called my family and said, ‘Your daughter has been sentenced to death!’” Sahar recalls. “My mother was shocked to hear this and, because of her weak heart, her condition worsened and she had to go to hospital.”

Sahar and her friends were charged with “propaganda against the holy regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran through membership in anti-regime groups by forming groups and recruiting members with the coordination of foreign elements to propagate evangelical Christianity”, and “illegitimate relations” – because unrelated men and women had gathered together. 

For these “crimes”, Sahar and her friends were sentenced to a year in prison, which was later upheld by an appeal court.

But by this time, Sahar and many of her friends had already left the country.

Sahar is now living as a refugee, but even after leaving she says her family have been harassed and threatened by intelligence agents.

“After I left Iran, agents of the Ministry of Intelligence went to our house twice at 6.30 am or 7 am to arrest me,” she says. “My mother protested: ‘You are coming to our house to terrorise us, even though you know Sahar has left the country!’

“My mother died in 2018, and I wasn’t able to see her even once after leaving the country, as the doctor wouldn’t let her fly because of her heart disease.”

Sahar was married in 2019, to another Iranian Christian refugee named Parham, but she says their situation, like those of so many other asylum-seekers, remains “uncertain”.

“Although my asylum application was accepted, due to the recent US immigration laws, our case, like that of many other refugees, has remained stagnant,” she says.

Yet Sahar remains hopeful, and says that even though she and Parham were unable to hold a planned wedding celebration in 2020 due to the pandemic, “getting married and starting a new chapter of life has brought me a sense of freshness and hope”.

You can read Sahar’s full Witness Statement here.