First he was forced out of his city, then his country

First he was forced out of his city, then his country

Sohrab was forced to leave Tehran after being fired from his job – because he was a Christian. Two years later, he fled the country.

An Iranian convert to Christianity and his wife have been in Turkey for nearly five years now, and they are still waiting for their interview with the UN’s refugee agency.

The couple, who we’ll refer to as Sohrab and Fereshteh, fled their home in western Iran in early 2015 and haven’t been home since.

The reason? For two years, Sohrab had been leading an underground house-church, and this caught the attention of the authorities.

At first Sohrab was threatened. Just six months after starting the meetings, Sohrab received a call from a private number, and a man “invited” him to meet him at his office the next morning at 10am. 

The man then proceeded to tell Sohrab that it would be better for him if he accepted the invitation as, if he didn’t, “we will have to come and get you, and that’s not going to look good in front of your neighbours or friends”.

Sohrab was told to write down the address of the office, and when he arrived the next morning he saw that it belonged to the intelligence branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Sohrab was led inside the building and relieved of his watch, phone, car keys, belt and even the laces to his shoes, then shown into a pitch-black room, where he was left alone for the next hour.

Eventually, two men entered the room, put a hood over Sohrab’s head and took him outside, then drove him to an unknown location around an hour’s drive away.

During the drive, Sohrab says he feared he was being taken away to a jail he had heard others talk about on the outskirts of his city: “I was thinking, ‘What’s going to happen to me? Are they going to put me in jail without any court hearing, without any judge?’”

Once the car stopped, Sohrab was led inside another building, where he was placed in another room and left alone for several hours.

During that time, Sohrab said he heard what sounded like screams from another detainee, and then laughter. He said at one point the air conditioning came on and he became very cold; then the next moment it was unbearably hot. 

“I didn’t know whether it was torture, or they just wanted to scare me,” he said.

Eventually, Sohrab heard two people enter the room and what sounded like the thud of a briefcase landing on a desk.

“I thought maybe they are reading my story,” Sohrab said. “And then one of them said: ‘OK, Sohrab, are you a member of an Assemblies of God Church in Tehran?’ I said, ‘Yes’. And they said, ‘So what are you doing here?”

Sohrab explained to his interrogators that he had been forced to leave Tehran after being fired from his job – because he was a Christian.

“OK, but why have you started to gather Christians here?” they asked.

When Sohrab attempted to skirt around the issue, he was told: “I’ve asked you politely. Answer me truthfully or you’ll see my other side!”

Sohrab was told that his new city wasn’t like Tehran, Shiraz or Isfahan, where news may be distributed about someone being arrested. 

“Here it’s silent, it’s not on the news,” they said. “And you came here to cause us trouble. Stop what you are doing or you are responsible for what will happen to you, to your family or the members of your group.”

Terrified, Sohrab agreed to stop the meetings, and for six months after his release he did as he promised. But Sohrab says he was regularly asked by his members why the meetings had stopped, and he feared that without his support the other converts would lose heart and faith, so at Christmas 2013 he decided to start again.

Just two weeks later, he received another call.

It was the same man who’d called before. “Sohrab, you didn’t heed our advice,” the man said. “If something happens to you, we told you that that is your responsibility. So if in the evening or at night when you are asleep, if something happens to you or to your wife, we wash our hands of it.”

Sohrab says the fear he felt following that call was worse than if he’d been imprisoned. “At least then you’d know you will be in jail and you cannot go outside, but there is no fear that something will happen to you or your family, because they’ve already punished you. But at that time, believing every day, especially in the evenings, after sunset, when everywhere is dark, maybe someone will attack you from behind and put a knife in you and you will die and no-one will understand who killed you … Every day I was scared. I knew something will happen to me, but when? Is it today, it is tomorrow, or is it tonight while we are asleep?”

Sohrab says he is still traumatised, and finds that even now he will wake up at night and check whether the windows and doors are locked.

For the next year, Sohrab was in this agitated state of knowing he would be targeted, but not where or when.

And then on a Friday morning in early 2015, he called a meeting in a park where he knew many others would have gathered, so it shouldn’t draw too much attention.

But after singing just one song together, Sohrab recalls that “around ten motorcycles, each carrying two passengers, drove around us and then came at us with these electroshock weapons and small knives”.

The group dispersed in different directions, and Sohrab fled in his car, which had had its windows and lights smashed in.

When he got home, Sohrab recalls his wife screaming and asking him what happened. But before he could answer, the telephone rang. 

It was Sohrab’s brother-in-law, who worked at the mayor’s office.

“He asked my wife, ‘Where is Sohrab?’ And she answered, ‘He arrived right now,’ Sohrab recalls. “Then he told my wife, ‘You have to leave your house quickly.’ My wife asked why, but he said, ‘You don’t have time, I cannot explain, just leave, come to my house and then I’ll tell you what happened.’”

Sohrab says he didn’t even have time to wash his face or change out of his bloodied clothes, and that when they arrived at his brother-in-law’s house, he was told: “Sohrab, you have to leave.” 

“I said, ‘Where should I go?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, you just have to leave.’”

So that night, Sohrab and his wife drove back to Tehran, and the very next day they flew to Turkey.

Nearly five years on, it is there they remain, and while Sohrab says he is grateful for the community he has found at their new church, where around 200 Iranian Christians gather freely, his heart remains in Iran.

Sohrab is one of the leaders at the church and helps new refugees when they arrive, if, like him, their assets are frozen in Iran. But it is to the future that he looks.

“I’m sure God has a plan for Iran,” he says. “At the Assemblies of God Church I went to in Tehran, there were 500 members. Now they closed that church, all the members are living in different cities or countries. Some moved to the United States, Canada, Australia, or Europe. I’m here in Turkey. Sometimes I think God wanted to equip us to be ready for when, one day, Iran becomes free and all of us go back and start to serve there. We should be ready for that time.”

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