‘We held each other’s hands, and cried in silence’

‘We held each other’s hands, and cried in silence’

“Sometimes, even though I’ll be sitting next to my family, it will be as though I’m not there. I’ll stare at a fixed point in the distance for some time. My wife also exhibits the same kind of behaviour.”

These are the words of Ali Kazemian, more than a decade after he and his wife, Zahra, left Iran following their arrest, sentencing to imprisonment, and continued harassment by intelligence agents because of their participation in a house-church.

In Ali’s case, he was forced during two and a half months in Shiraz’s Adel Abad Prison to watch as the prisoners he was detained alongside were executed one after another.

Those months in prison were the first time Ali had spent a night apart from his wife and two sons, and even now he says that when he leaves home he’ll “call home at least 10 times to ask my family how they’re doing, where they are, have they eaten, and do they need something”.

Ali and Zahra, both converts to Christianity, were arrested in their home city of Shiraz in the summer of 2009.

Zahra came from a very religious Muslim family, but converted after seeing the profound impact it had had on her husband, who had been a drug addict for 25 years beforehand.

Zahra used to consider Christians “impure” and had even been reluctant to enter their homes, and during her week in detention she was asked by her interrogator whether she regretted her decision.

When Zahra answered that she would “still choose Christ”, the interrogator “became very angry … threw an object that hit me in the head, and slapped me in the face a few times”.

“Due to the stress and pressure of being in detention, my period was brought on earlier than usual,” she recalls. “I asked the officers for sanitary towels, but they didn’t bring them for two days! The conditions were torturous.”

When Zahra was released on bail, she suffered more pressure from Ali’s family, who blamed her for his arrest and threatened to ensure they divorced and the children were taken away from her.

Ali’s mother later joined Zahra at Ali’s Revolutionary Court hearing and fainted because of how much her son had changed – he’d lost 30kg in weight – then fell at the judge’s feet, kissing his shoes and begging him: “Let my child go free!”

When Ali and Zahra were charged with “acting against national security”, their lawyer asked them how many guns they had had in their possession when arrested.

When they responded that they hadn’t had any guns and explained the reason for their arrest, the lawyer seemed surprised and said he was confident the charge would be dropped.

It was, but the other charge – of “propaganda against the regime” – was not, and they were both sentenced to a year in prison, suspended for five years.

Ali and Zahra appealed, but neither they nor their lawyer were permitted to attend the hearing; the lawyer only received a call a few days later, telling him the appeal had been rejected.

And even though Ali and Zahra’s sentences were suspended, they continued to be harassed by intelligence agents.

Ali was fired from his job – on the orders of the Ministry of Intelligence – and the children were kicked out of their schools.

When Zahra received a summons to prison, an officer there told her it would be better for them if they left the country.

Their lawyer agreed.

“The prison officer is right,” he said. “Right now they are calling you twice a week from the Ministry of Intelligence; they don’t allow you to work, and your children aren’t allowed to study. They may also seize your bail. I think it would be better for you if you left the country.”

Eventually, Ali and Zahra decided to do as they were advised, and in the spring of 2011 sold what little possessions they had, and took the money with them to Turkey, where the traumatic effects of all they had suffered has been compounded by further challenges and years of uncertainty.

“Our suffering continues,” says Ali. “We have been living in Turkey for over 10 years, and during this time my sons couldn’t continue their education and are in a state of depression. Danial was 16 years old and Samuel was six when we came to this country.”

Zahra adds: “Due to our bad financial situation, we are sharing a flat with some other Christians in our city. Due to the small size of the city, there are few jobs, but after some time my husband found a job. He always had a Bible in his pocket and read it in his spare time. One day, when his Turkish employer found out that he was a Christian, he took the Bible from his hand and threw it in my husband’s face, and spat at him too. After a year and a half, he was able to find a permanent job, but he receives 20 liras ($1) a day, which is a very low amount.

“We are in a state of uncertainty. The UNHCR is closed and we don’t have insurance for medical services. We aren’t allowed to travel to other cities in Turkey without the permission of the police. The police doesn’t easily give this permit. They treat us like prisoners. In Iran we suffered from the government, and our family, and in this country too we are under pressure and persecution. My whole family has become depressed and anxious.”

You can read Ali and Zahra’s full Witness Statement here.

Quoting the contents of this article in part is permitted. However, no part of it may be used for any fundraising appeal, or for any publication where donations are requested.