‘Christmas is always a reminder of our arrest and imprisonment’

‘Christmas is always a reminder of our arrest and imprisonment’

Four Iranian Christians who were arrested at Christmas time or spent the festive season in prison have shared with Article18 how Iranian Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth with a mixture of joy and trepidation.

“We used to celebrate most of the New Year and Christmas days in fear and worry,” recalls Pastor Farhad Sabokrooh, who was arrested in 2011 during a Christmas gathering for the church he and his wife led in their home in Ahvaz, western Iran.

“For me and my family, the days of Christmas and New Year are always a reminder of our arrest, going to jail, exile, and finally being forced out of Iran.”

Amin Afshar-Naderi, who was arrested in Tehran three Christmases later, says “every time Christmas and New Year approaches, the joy of Jesus’ presence on Earth for me clashes with the memories of my arrest and imprisonment”.

Amin was arrested alongside his pastor, Iranian-Assyrian Victor Bet-Tamraz, and another Christian convert, Kavian Fallah-Mohammadi. All three were later sentenced to 10 years in prison for their role in their house-church, and Amin an additional five years for “blasphemy”.

“This occasion is to celebrate the birth of our saviour, who came to save us from the burden of sins and captivity, but in practice, for Christians in Iran, it has turned into a trap by the government so that they can be identified and arrested and detained under false pretences,” Amin says.

“I spent one Christmas and two New Year Eves in Evin Prison, and as this holiday approaches, I am reminded of the sadness and loneliness of the prison cell every time, and the reality that this fate can await other Christians who, despite the risk of arrest, want to celebrate the birth of Christ together. This isn’t something that the people who are trying to be exemplary citizens for the society deserve.”

Homayoun Shekoohi spent four Christmases in prison because of his membership of a house-church, and bemoans: “If for all the Christians in the world Christ’s birthday is full of joy, in my country it is a day full of anxiety and it is the day when most of the arrests of Christians are made.

“It is really sad that a government, instead of bringing happiness to its people on such a joyous day, causes them sorrow.”

Vahid Hakani.

Finally, Vahid Hakani, who spent three Christmases in prison alongside Homayoun, explained how his house-church used to take special precautions over the Christmas period:

“A year before we were arrested, we talked to the owner of a property near Shiraz and gathered there for a Christmas party,” he said. “There was a bit of a split between us church leaders as to whether we should do it or not. On the one hand, everyone wanted to have this celebration like the rest of the Christians around the world, but on the other hand, there was a fear that this large group would attract agents of the Ministry of Intelligence, who would come and make arrests and ruin everything.

“But we went there anyway. We decorated it, and set up a Christmas tree. We made dinner, and everything went well, though we were very scared – not all of us, but those who were anxious that something might happen. Thank God, it went well and there was no problem that evening. But the following year, Christmas coincided with the Muharram period [Shia Muslims’ mourning month] and we found another location for our event. We even made a deposit for food and the venue, but then we prayed and decided not to go ahead with the plan. 

“Although we all wanted to celebrate this Christmas event like all Christians and even non-Christians across the world, we cancelled it because we were afraid that we would be arrested. Well, many in the church were upset because they didn’t understand many of these things. In fact, none of us felt good that year, but we prayed and were united in our decision not to hold the celebration that year.

“That same year, we found out that many Christians were arrested during the Christmas service held in Ahvaz church. But anyway, that February we were arrested ourselves, and spent Christmas in prison for the next three years.

“It is very, very difficult for a Christian – and particularly a Christian convert – to have this celebration in Iran. If they celebrate it, they’ll do it with a lot of anxiety and fear, and if they don’t, it always makes a mark in their hearts that they are denied the a celebration that everyone enjoys around the world, but they have to refrain from celebrating it because of the security issues.

“And even in prison, it really bothers you a lot that you can’t spend these special days and these special occasions with your loved ones. It really bothers you a lot.”

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