Iranian pastor and wife fled after threat of execution for apostasy

Iranian pastor and wife fled after threat of execution for apostasy

Farhad Sabokrooh with his wife Shahnaz, in an undated photo.

An Iranian pastor who fled the country with his wife four years ago after they were both threatened with execution for apostasy has shared his story at the US State Department.

Farhad Sabokrooh, who was a supervising pastor with Iran’s Assemblies of God network for 25 years, fled to Turkey in March 2014 and resettled in the United States in 2016.

He was one of the guest speakers at a roundtable discussion on ‘Religious Freedom in Iran’ at the US State Department on 27 November.

The pastor shared how he was arrested and imprisoned three times during his 25 years as a pastor, and that the last of these, when his church in Ahvaz was raided by 40 armed agents on 23 December 2011, led eventually to his and his family’s exit from Iran.

His full testimony is below:

“Hello everybody. 

I am Pastor Farhad Sabokrooh, minister of Iran’s Assemblies of God church and supervising pastor of a number of churches in Iran for 25 years.

I am grateful for the opportunity that has been given to me to share part of our story.

Although I know that it is difficult to relay all the persecution accounts that the Iranian church has faced during these years in such a short time, but I will try to explain what has happened during these last years to our ministry.

I have to mention that during these 25 years I have been arrested and imprisoned three times and during this time I have been threatened and interrogated numerous times by security services.

But today I want to talk about our last arrest, which led to our deportation from Iran, our own country.

On 23 December 2011, in the Ahvaz Assemblies of God Church, along with more that 70 men, women and children, we were worshiping. Suddenly armed agents with covered faces entered the church. They had three cameras and climbed the church’s walls and surrounded the whole church from inside out with 40 agents. They even had some agents on the rooftop.

Immediately after their invasion they seized all cell phones, cut off all communication and took the cameras which were recording our session.

Their invasion caused severe distress among our congregation, so much that children were crying and women were terrified. 

Unfortunately one of the woman who had a hard time to get pregnant and was pregnant at the time lost consciousness. When it happened we rushed to help her but those agents stopped us and did not allow anybody to take her to hospital.

The amount of distress was so forceful that some women in our congregation in that day or following days had serious internal bleeding problems which to this day its aftermath affects their daily lives.

Agents separated men and women, then started to record each person and each room on their cameras. 

Another group of agents searched each room in the church thoroughly and collected anything they needed as evidence. This evidence included my personal library (containing rare and old books), all the documents and church-related and personal letters, Bibles, worship songbooks, photos, the church’s PCs and even personal laptops.

They took men to one side and women to the other and started filming them one by one, and while doing so they threatened them about what is going to happen to them.

They did the same to women and threatened they would inform their family and their husbands about their conversion to Christianity and order them banned from work or education.

They also had children locked up in one room and one of the agents was watching them. The children were terrified and all of them were sobbing. It made the agents take the children out of the church and, with my persistence, they accepted to take children to one of our member’s homes, which was close by. They accepted my request under the condition that one of their agents must stay with them at that home.

The increasing tension caused verbal and physical confrontation between the church members and agents. One of the women who was not cooperating was attacked by an agent and was stopped by one of our young members. But that young man was beaten up by agents.

Their operation took so long and each second was causing more distress and after three hours they had everybody on buses. 

They took the whole congregation to the local Enghelab [Islamic] Court and after interrogations and acquiring all ID cards and signing an oath that they wouldn’t return to church, they released everybody, one by one. Though they had started to summon each person one by one and interrogated them for long hours. Later on they asked for our non-Christian friends and interrogated them for just being friends with us.

But it did not end there. After taking all the people from the church, they took me and my wife [Shahnaz], with two other leaders of the church, blindfolded. They took us to one of the Iranian intelligence service’s secret jails. As we were leaving they said that they have something on their mind for our children later.

For two months we had been under lots of pressure, long hours of interrogation and harassment.

An interrogator told me: ‘We have to find answers and until then you will stay locked up.’

The effect of prison, threats and interrogations were so harsh. Therefore after seven years our family still sees nightmares related to those days.

We were under pressure in jail and our two children were being harassed outside of jail. They were repeatedly interrogated and threatened by security agents. In one of the interrogations they told my daughter: ‘Your Father has to cooperate. If not, he will end up like Bishop Haik Hovsepian.’ (Bishop Haik was one of the senior pastors in Iran’s Assemblies of God church who was stabbed to death 25 years ago.)

The pressure and threats were not exclusive to us in Iran but also they had threatened our son who was studying in Armenia. He was harassed, followed and was under surveillance. They deprived him of of scholarship rights and were hardly cooperating with him in the embassy.

After two months they freed us on bail. But later we were sentenced to one year of imprisonment. And so me, my wife and two other leaders of the church were imprisoned separately.

Before being released from prison, me and my wife were forced to sign agreements. According to this agreement we had to leave Iran, otherwise we will be sentenced to apostasy and executed.

We signed those agreements without seeing each other. On March 2014 we left Iran and sought asylum in Turkey and were resettled in the USA on June 2016.

We are thankful to be in this country, safe and sound, but we still carry scars of our bitter past on our souls.

Currently, there are lots of known and unknown imprisoned believers in Iran.

We hope to see Iran again and that one day every race, religion and belief could live in peace alongside each other in that land.

Thanks for the time you have given me.”