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‘Converting to Christianity or any other religion is really a heroic act in Iran’

‘Converting to Christianity or any other religion is really a heroic act in Iran’

The “heroic act” of converting to any other religion than Islam was the central talking point in yesterday’s webinar on “The Persecution of Christians in Iran”, hosted by IranWire’s Maziar Bahari and featuring Article18’s Mansour Borji and three Christian former prisoners of conscience.

“Conversion is a massive obstacle in most Muslim-majority countries, including Iran,” Mr Borji explained.

“When the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights was being signed by member states, Iran and some of the other countries had objections to this one particular article, Article 18, which provided and guaranteed the right to choose one’s religion and exercise it freely – personally and also privately and publicly. But nevertheless, Iran signed it and later on adopted it through parliament … and that is now an obligation for Iran to respect this right for all its citizens.” 

Yet while Iran continues to claim that it does provide this right, the testimony of the three Christian former prisoners of conscience on the panel painted a different picture, leading host Maziar Bahari to conclude: “Converting to Christianity or any other religion in Iran is really a heroic act!”

What else did the panelists say?

All three former prisoners of conscience, Shadi Noveiri, Kavian Fallah-Mohammadi, and Vahid Hakkani, explained how they had been arrested only because of their decision to convert to Christianity and subsequent membership of a house-church because, as Kavian explained, “the government of Iran had started to shut down the official churches that speak Persian all around the country”.

Here are some of the other highlights of the discussion:

Shadi 

Shadi explained that Ministry of Intelligence agents who arrested her told her: “Your crime is even worse than murder! By converting to Christianity you have committed an even more severe crime!”

During interrogations, Shadi said she was “threatened with torture and could hear women in the next rooms being beaten up and tortured … and hear the screams of different women”. 

“One of the worst things was the fact that everyone who worked for the Intelligence Ministry office in Rasht were men, and there were no women,” Shadi said. 

“Sometimes I had interrogations all day and then they would take me to solitary confinement in that office, which was a very scary and frightening experience.”

Shadi added that she was later “held in a communal cell with common criminals – with murderers, with drug dealers – who were fighting each other all the time, and witnessed certain things in that jail that I did not even know existed. And that was a painful experience for me as well.” 

Shadi also explained how she had asked during her detention for a copy of the New Testament: “I said that I would like to read the Bible, and they started to humiliate me, mock me, and insult me, and say that I have no right to ask for such thing!”

After Shadi was released, she said she was “regularly monitored by different intelligence agencies, and police cars were circling my house. So this created an atmosphere of fear – and not only for me and my family, but also for everyone who was living around that area. And it was a very unpleasant feeling, because people did not want to associate with us or remain friends with us. And this was very disappointing and depressing.”

Kavian

Kavian said his experience was “different from many other Christian [converts] in Iran, because my parents had also become Christians, so I was not ostracised by my family … unlike most people who convert to Christianity in Iran”. 

However, he said that he “knew that I had to hide my Christian faith because I was living in a Muslim society, which was not tolerating conversion to Christianity.

“I only confided to my very close friends, because at that time I was at university, and even at university I did not talk about my Christian faith.”

He added that this way very difficult, saying: “It’s natural for someone who has a faith not to be able to conceal his beliefs, and not to be able to hide what he believes in.”

Kavian then explained how he was held for 53 days, including one month in solitary confinement, after his arrest at a Christmas gathering in 2014.

During his detention, Kavian’s interrogators told him: “It doesn’t matter what you believe in personally, you have no right to tell others about your beliefs!”

Kavian later fled the country after being sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Vahid

Vahid explained how he spent three years in prison in the notorious Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz following his arrest at a house-church meeting in 2012.

And during his first year in prison, Vahid explained that he was held in a separate cell with other people from religious minorities. 

“There were Baha’is, there were Jews. There were Sufis, and they were also Christian converts like myself,” he said.

Vahid said that during that first year, some Shia clerics came to prison and told him: “If you confess against your own faith, and if you convert to Islam, you’re going to be released immediately.” 

He said that some Nigerian drug dealers were imprisoned alongside him, who had received lengthy sentences, but they were also told that their sentences would be reduced if they converted to Islam – and that after they agreed to convert, their sentences were reduced.

Vahid added: “We felt like hostages in the prison in Iran because they were using us in their political negotiations with other countries. And when Iran was negotiating the nuclear deal, the JCPOA agreement, in 2013 to 2015, they released certain political prisoners and religious minorities as well.

“I was put under constant pressure to go and pray with other Muslims. And even though I respect our Muslim compatriots, I have other beliefs.”

Vahid said that when he had decided to convert to Christianity, he “did not know that it would be such a big misdemeanour in Iran to believe in something else and try to practice another religion.

“And I didn’t know that it would be such a difficult task to find a book about Christianity. It took me one year to find a copy of the New Testament!”

Vahid added that while there was one Persian-speaking church in his city, “Across the road from the church is the intelligence agency’s office, and also the office of the morality police, so it is very difficult for people to attend that Persian-speaking church because they are being constantly monitored by these different intelligence agents across the road from them.”