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‘We can’t allow sick people like you to prosper in the Islamic Republic’

‘We can’t allow sick people like you to prosper in the Islamic Republic’

Peyman and Leila Kiani’s one-year-old daughter, Armita, was present when officers from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence raided their house-church leadership meeting in Isfahan in February 2013.

In the end, it provided the couple with an excuse to leave, as Armita had a fever, which worsened when the officers entered, telling no-one to move – not even the women, who were ordered even to refrain from covering their heads until filmed interviews had been carried out.

This footage was proof that the dozen Christians had gathered together illegally and that the women were not wearing headscarves.

“Their behaviour was very aggressive and violent,” Leila recalls. “They treated the women as if they were addressing a bunch of prostitutes. The worst thing was the way they were looking at us. We felt as if we were naked and they were looking at us through our clothes.”

Noticing their daughter’s condition worsening, Leila pleaded with the one female officer among the group, who was wearing a long Islamic dress, or chador.

“If you have a child, you’ll understand what I’m going through right now,” she said. “I really don’t care what you guys do with us, but my child needs medical attention right now!”

Eventually, they were permitted to take Armita to the hospital, where she received the medical attention she required, and Leila used the opportunity to pass a secret note to the doctor, which read: “We’re Christians, we’ve been arrested, and I need help.”

Leila then gave the doctor the phone number of a member of their house-church network, to pass on the message that they had been arrested.

It was 11pm by the time Leila and Peyman returned home with their daughter, accompanied by a handful of intelligence agents who proceeded to search their house until 3am.

The officers wore masks so their faces wouldn’t be picked up on CCTV, and ended up leaving with “seven or eight bags full of Christian literature”, says Peyman, “because our house was a central place used for storage of Christian books by the church leadership”.

A few days later, Peyman and Leila’s two sisters, who had also converted to Christianity and were part of the house-church network, were arrested. Leila was told she was lucky her daughter was ill, otherwise she too would have been arrested.

“You owe your freedom to your daughter,” she was told, as she watched her husband and sisters taken away to an unknown location.

Eventually, Leila was able to find out that they had been taken to Isfahan’s Dastgerd Prison, where they were being held in the infamous “A.T.” Ward used by the Ministry of Intelligence.

But when Leila attempted to take supplies for them, she was first told she could only take them to her husband, and then, after traipsing through the prison for 15 minutes – having been forced to wear a chador and with Leila on one arm and a bag in the other – she was not permitted to see her husband.

“I tried to put on a brave face,” she recalls, “but as soon as I turned I was crying all the way, with a sense of deep disappointment.”

Peyman was detained for the next 11 days, during which time he was interrogated twice – first for five hours, and then, on his penultimate day, for another three.

“They asked way too many questions,” he recalls. “When did you convert? How did you convert? Why did you convert. Have you been baptised? Who baptised you? How many trips abroad have you been on? Why did you go on these trips? Who were your teachers during these conferences? How would you buy your books? Who did you evangelise?”

To make matters worse, Peyman had to endure his first, five-hour-long interrogation in a pair of sodden prison trousers, having immediately washed them because of their rancid smell but not had time to let them dry before he was called in.

“I have a strong sense of smell, and these trousers that were given to me really smelled bad,” he explains. “It was a very cold room, and I was wearing these wet trousers, and it went on until about 1.30, 2 in the morning until I was returned to my room.”

When, on the 12th day, Peyman was released from prison, he recalls that, “although it was cold”, he couldn’t bring himself to wait inside the prison waiting area for his family to collect him. And that when they arrived, “my beard had grown and I was a completely different shape. When they came they couldn’t even recognise me!”

Yet the heaviest blow was still to come for Peyman, as, on his return to work at a government office, he discovered that the Ministry of Intelligence had spoken with his employers and ordered he be fired.

He was told that a thorough search had been conducted of his computer, and as they had found no illicit Christian materials, he could recover his position, on one condition: that he renounced his faith.

Peyman refused.

He was paid for the next two months, but then the money stopped coming. And, despite initially being encouraged to call his office to see if anything had changed, eventually he was told, “I think you need to let this go”.

Peyman says the loss of his job was a “major blow”.

“I went through a lot of hardship, a lot of filtering to get this job, and I had become officially employed permanently. And I was being promoted. I was so confident about the achievements I could make in this job. I had long-term plans, even to my retirement, about how things would progress,” he says.

So desperate was he to regain his position that Peyman even returned to his interrogator to ask to be allowed to return to work.

His response?

“We cannot allow traitors and sick people like you to work and prosper in the Islamic Republic of Iran!”

A few months later, Leila and Peyman, along with the 11 other Christians present at the meeting, were sentenced to one year in prison for “propaganda against the regime and setting up house churches”, and between 40 and 50 lashes for meeting in private with members of the opposite sex who were not wearing Islamic head coverings.

Leila and Peyman were encouraged to leave the country by their pastor and, after much deliberation, decided to do so – for their daughter’s sake.

“Because our daughter was so little, we would have had to take her to prison as well,” Leila explains. “So my husband said, ‘If it was me and you, that would have been fine, but we can’t make a decision for our daughter too.’”

So in May 2014, a year after the initial raid, the couple flew to Turkey to claim asylum, and it is there they remain.

Peyman says that even now, more than six and a half years later, he still has dreams about returning to his old job, but that in 99% of his dreams, when he gets there, he is turned away.

“It’s been six years that we’ve been here,” Leila adds, “but I don’t still really genuinely feel that I’m here. I don’t see myself belonging here.”

And while Leila’s sisters and parents have joined them in Istanbul, Peyman hasn’t seen his family since they moved.

His mother, who was the only one who knew about his conversion to Christianity before his arrest, is not well enough to travel, and the couple can’t fly back to Iran.

Relations have also remained strained with the rest of Peyman’s family ever since the arrest.

“My husband’s family considered me the source of all the problems,” Leila explains. “His brother, when he was informed about the arrests, was so mad, saying: ‘My brother had nothing to do with these sort of things!’ and ‘If anything happens to my mother or any other member of my family, you will be held accountable.’ Even for leaving the country and choosing exile, still I was to be blamed.”

And although Armita, who is now eight, was very young when the raid occurred, Leila says she still talks about the night “when those bad guys came”.