Witness Statements

Atena Fooladi Helabad

Atena Fooladi Helabad

For a summary of Atena’s story, you can read our feature article here.


1. My name is Samira Fooladi Helabad, known as Atena, and I was born in 1984 in Isfahan, into an Azeri family. I have four sisters and one brother. We all grew up in Isfahan. 


2. Around 1998 or 1999, my second-oldest sister, Leila, was accepted at Tehran University to study mathematics, so she moved to Tehran. Due to her distance from our family, she was lonely and suffered both physically and mentally. 

3. But then she became a Christian, through an Armenian woman who gave her a copy of one of the Gospels, which she read. Later, she went to an Assemblies of God church and was introduced to a house-church through other Christians.

4. And every time my sister came to Isfahan, she talked to us about Christianity. My father found it easier to deal with her new belief, but my mother was very upset and couldn’t accept my sister becoming a Christian, and tried to make her revert to Islam, saying she couldn’t believe a child of hers had abandoned her beliefs in this way.

5. I thought Christians seemed more open-minded and happier spiritually [than most people], and that my sister had changed because of her Christian belief. But I was preparing for my university entrance exam and wasn’t really concentrating on my sister. Meanwhile, my other sister Sara had also become a Christian. 

6. In the year 2000, we moved to Tehran and my father, Sara and I went to the home of the pastor of the house-church that Leila attended. The pastor talked about how couples should have a loving relationship; the requirements for a healthy, happy marriage; and the Bible’s definition of the status of women. My father, who is Azeri, was very impressed by what the Bible taught, and he wept bitterly.

7. I was still resisting and didn’t even take off my headscarf during the conversation. I wasn’t a very religious girl. I only fasted during Ramadan and prayed from time to time. I hadn’t even read the Quran thoroughly. But according to what I had learnt in school, I felt some zeal for Islam and thought Christians wanted to deceive Muslims to increase their numbers. But I went to the church meetings with interest, as I was a very rational girl and researched a lot about every subject to find its flaws. So I was curious about the views of Christians and learning about Christianity. 

8. But by studying the Bible and attending the meetings, I became very attracted to the humility and love of Christ, his view of sinners and the outcasts of society, etc. So almost two months after first going to the meetings, I became a Christian wholeheartedly. Some family members became Christians too. I was baptised in 2001 by a pastor who oversaw our house-church.

Christian activities

9. I was a keen reader and, within a year, I had read all the books in our house-church library. I also enrolled in the beginners and intermediate classes at the school of the Assemblies of God church, and took the exams at our pastor’s home. I started engaging in Christian activities in 2001. At first I started my Christian activities in Tehran, then went to Karaj [west of Tehran] and Golshahr [near Isfahan] with prayer and evangelical groups. We prayed and preached for hours, and after people became Christians we had house-church meetings with them.

10. My sister Leila had evangelised to some of her friends in Isfahan, and they had become Christians. They also talked to their relatives and friends, and after a while their numbers increased. In addition to my sister, who went to Isfahan once a week, I also spent two days a week in Isfahan for seven years as a pastor and teacher in various groups in and around Isfahan. Together with another Christian woman, we taught a group of active Christians, providing them with deeper teaching. So, when I was accepted at university, I was also involved in Christian activities in Tehran and Karaj, and later Isfahan. Meanwhile, I also had a job at a private company. 

11. The supervisor of our house-church introduced us to Christian families in Shiraz and Bushehr who weren’t connected to any house-church. So for four years I went to Shiraz once every three weeks and then to Bushehr, and taught these families, and gradually the number of house-churches in Shiraz increased. In addition to these activities, I went on prayer and evangelism trips to the cities of Qazvin, Zanjan, Tabriz, and several others. We prayed in pairs in the streets and marked these streets on the map of each city, so that we would know to go to different parts of the cities to pray the next time. During these trips we prayed for the people of the city that they would get to know the truth, and later, wherever we had the possibility, we talked to people about Christianity and the gospel. And, as a result, many people became Christians.

12. We tried to take security into consideration and consulted with each other how best to act wisely and carefully. Sometimes I was on a trip for six days but wasn’t allowed to call my family even just to inform them that I was OK. 

13. When the supervisor of our house-churches left Iran, our leaders went to neighbouring countries once or twice a year to attend Christian conferences organised by this pastor. I also attended some of these trips, and these conferences provided an opportunity for us to become more familiar with the Bible and Christian teachings, and to be taught and equipped more for our Christian ministry.


14. On 20 February 2013, a group of pastors and other leaders had arranged a meeting in Shahin Shahr, near Isfahan. I wasn’t at the meeting because I was at a different meeting in Isfahan, but one of my Christian friends was supposed to pick me up later to take me on to the pastors’ meeting. There were about 13 people at this meeting, held at the home of a couple called Nasrin and Ramin, when Ministry of Intelligence agents entered the building and rang the front doorbell. Ramin looked through the peephole and saw a stranger. Our pastor told him to open the door and see what the person wanted, but as soon as the door was opened, many agents entered the apartment. 

15. One of the officers filmed everything. They confiscated all the phones and devices. Unfortunately, because it was a meeting of pastors, many had written reports and saved them onto USB sticks and brought them to the meeting to hand them over to the pastor. I repeatedly called the person who should have been picking me up, but he didn’t answer. Then I called the other people at the meeting, but they didn’t answer their phones either, or their phones were off. I was very worried and guessed that there was probably a security problem.

16. I called another member of our group, named Reza, who also wasn’t at the meeting, but whose wife Maryam was there. Reza told me: “Don’t go to the apartment! Tell me where you are, and I’ll pick you up by car and explain to you what’s happened.”

17. Officers didn’t detain Maryam or my sister Leila because they had small children. They only searched their homes and later interrogated them in Shahin Shahr, in special buildings and offices belonging to the intelligence service. But the rest of the attendees were taken to Dastgerd Prison in Isfahan. Maryam and Reza explained the arrest to me in detail.

18. With Maryam and Reza, I found a public telephone near Shahin Shahr, in a remote and uninhabited area, and called our pastor’s wife who lived in Tehran, as well as our members in Tehran, Karaj, Isfahan, Shiraz, etc., and told them with codewords: “We became ill and have been hospitalised. I wanted to inform you not to contact us.” I thanked God that I wasn’t at the meeting and that it was possible for me to immediately tell others to remove their SIM cards and hide any documents related to Christianity that they might have in their homes. 

19. I slept at Maryam and Reza’s house and, in the morning, went to Leila’s house in Sepahan Shahr [south of Isfahan], to collect the Christian documents and books they had there and take them to a safe place. But when I arrived at their house, I found that the agents had already searched it, while Leila and [her husband] Peyman were there, and had confiscated everything related to Christianity, in addition to their family photo album, laptop and USB sticks. 


20. I went to the house of my other sister, who also lived in Sepahan Shahr, and told her what had happened. An hour later, an agent of the Ministry of Intelligence called her and said: “Give the phone to Samira.” They told me: “Come right now to the address we are telling you. Otherwise, we’ll find you, and arrest you.” In fact, they had already followed me and knew that I was at my sister’s house.

21. I took a taxi and drove to the address they had given me. It was a big house in Shahin Shahr, with no signage, and like any other ordinary house. At first I thought I had written down the address wrong. But as I rang the doorbell, I saw Reza in the corridor. It seemed he had also been summoned, and so I at least knew I was at the right place. The agents used these ordinary houses so no-one would discover them and they could carry out their operations secretly.

22. They gave me a few sheets of paper, on which were written a list of questions for me to answer, such as: “personal details”, “home address”, “when did you become a Christian?”, “who are you in contact with?”, etc. I answered the questions vaguely. The interrogator read out my answers and insulted me, saying: “What have you written!” I had only written down the names of the people who were already arrested. Then I was interrogated for about two hours, and they asked me things like: “Why did you become a Christian? Your home is in Tehran, so what are you doing in Isfahan? How did you meet these people who were arrested? Who are you in contact with abroad? How do you get your Bibles and Christian books?”

23. The interrogator said, with insulting and threatening language: “We have been watching you, and we know what you have been doing, and why. You have been taking money from people, calling it their ‘tithe’. From now on, we’re not going to stop pressuring your father and mother, and bringing disaster to your family, making all your days black!” He used very bad words while talking to me, which would commonly be reserved for promiscuous girls, and other filthy terms which I am ashamed to say. It was a Thursday, and I was told to come again to the same address on Saturday.

24. I returned to Leila’s house. Because my two-year-old niece had been ill on the day of the arrest, and my brother-in-law, Peyman, still had to be interrogated, he was also summoned to go to the same address on the Saturday. So that day, Peyman and I went together to that same building in Shahin Shahr. We were first interrogated in separate rooms, and then taken to the Shahin Shahr courthouse, where bail of 10 million tomans [approx. $2,500] was set for me, and 20 million tomans [approx. $5,000] for Peyman.

25. We were told that we would be transferred to Dastgerd Prison. One of the soldiers forced us to use the money we had with us to buy a phone card, which we’d be able to use in the prison, telling us: “Your cash will be taken away from you in prison!” Peyman and I were then handcuffed and taken by car to Dastgerd Prison, Ward Alef-Ta. We hadn’t expected we would be taken to prison and thought we would only be interrogated. 

Dastgerd Prison

26. In prison, they took our belongings and gave me a chador  [long Islamic dress] to put on. I was taken to a very cold solitary-confinement cell, where I was held for about four hours. I think they adjusted the temperature of the cell themselves, because it kept decreasing, and got colder and colder so that it became unbearable. I had listened to so many news reports about what happened to political prisoners that in those moments when I was alone, I imagined that some male agents might enter my cell and rape me. I was very scared, so I started to pray. And because of the stress, suddenly my period began. There were no female officers there. I knocked on the cell door and a few minutes later a male officer came. Embarrassed, I asked him for a sanitary pad. 

27. Later on, I was taken so they could take my mugshot and fingerprints. Then I was taken to another cell, where I saw two women’s bags and was very happy that I was no longer alone. It turned out that Nasrin, Arina and I were in the same cell, and Bita, Sahar, and Sara were in the cell next to us. But the men who had been arrested weren’t kept together in the same cells. The advantage of being together was that we could pray and worship together, share our feelings honestly, and strengthen and comfort one another.

28. We prayed that God would protect the rest of our members who hadn’t been arrested but were in danger of being arrested because of all the information about our Christian activities in the reports on the USB sticks confiscated during the arrest. I was also worried about my parents; it was a great shock for them to hear that Sara, my brother-in-law Peyman and I had been arrested.

29. There was no window in the cell and no ventilation system. The toilet and shower in the cell were in one place, next to each other, and the wall which separated that area from the rest of the cell wasn’t very high, and there was no door. Since there was a camera in the cell, and the officers could watch us, we were very uncomfortable going to the toilet or taking a shower, so two of us would hold a chador in front of this area when one of us went to the bathroom.


30. They took us for interrogation at very inappropriate times, between 9.30 and 10 at night, and interrogated us until 4 or 5 in the morning. During these hours, our minds were very tired and we couldn’t think well. In the first days, some of us, such as Nasrin and Sara, were beaten as well, but because Nasrin had protested that they weren’t legally permitted to beat them, they had changed their methods and tortured them psychologically instead.

31. I was taken to the interrogation room blindfolded. I couldn’t see the floor, and had to hold onto the wall and climb the stairs very carefully. In the interrogation room, I felt very down. Sometimes the interrogator would come next to my ear and speak in a quiet voice that was very disturbing, and sometimes he would shout so loudly that I would lose my balance and feel like I was falling off my chair.

32. One of the interrogators, who I later found out was a young man, came close to my ear and said: “Would you like me to call you Samira or Atena?” They knew my nickname. From their conversations and information, I learned that they had planted bugs in Bita and [her husband] Amir’s house, and that they had been following us for almost three weeks before our arrest. Three weeks before the arrest, we had had a meeting at Amir and Bita’s house, and I had spoken privately with another member in one of the rooms there about the church. The intelligence agents had clearly been listening in to our conversation, because they mentioned it during one interrogation.

33. During the interrogations, they asked many questions. It seemed very important to them whether we had been baptised or not. They asked us about the telephone numbers we had saved on our phones. I had saved numbers using members’ nicknames, but since the interrogators knew we were doing church activities, they asked us: “How did you get to know these people, and where did you meet?” “What did you spend your tithes and offerings on?” “What organisation funded you from abroad?” “Did you receive a salary?” “What were you taught at your seminars abroad?” They also asked me about Christian leaders – whether I knew them and was in touch with them. They also asked about our books and blank CDs, on which we used to copy a film about the life of Christ, some sermons and worship songs, and then give out to people or members of the church. “Where did you get these books, and why were there so many blank CDs in Nasrin and Ramin’s and Leila and Peyman’s homes?” they asked. 

34. We tried to be careful in what we said, but if we answered their questions in a short or tactful way, they would shout insults at us and tear up our answer sheets so we would have to write everything again.

35. We were also threatened. They said: “We’ll put your families in prison as well!” And I was told: “We will also imprison your twin siblings, Solmaz and Behrad, and won’t allow them to continue their studies at the university!”

36. Later, when I attended a course called “Persecution-preparedness”, organised by Article18, I was very sorry that we hadn’t known earlier about our rights and weren’t very well prepared to face the interrogators’ methods. However, God graciously gave us wise answers so that the other members wouldn’t be endangered. For example, I replied that we would meet the other members in the park or in the car, and that we prayed and worshipped with them but never took their personal details or gave them any information about ourselves.

37. On the USB sticks the interrogators had confiscated from us, they had seen our reports about how drug addicts had been released from their addictions, and how we had helped women who had had illicit relationships, or prostituted themselves, to live an honourable life; and also how teenagers had been led to live good lives. The interrogators were shocked and amazed to read these things, and understood that we weren’t engaged in any immoral or anti-regime activities. I heard one of them say to one of our female members: “This is a very good thing that you have done, but why do you do it in the name of Christianity? Do this in the name of Islam!”

38. We were really under pressure because a large number of our members had been arrested and every one of us answered the questions differently. For example, because the supervisor of our house-churches had left Iran, we had done many trips abroad during those first 13 years of our Christian faith. When the interrogator had asked me: “Why did you go on trips abroad?” I’d replied: “I went for fun.” But others had given different answers.

39. For this reason, and because of some of the other short or tactful responses I had given, they took me to another very cold cell. Sara was also taken to a cold cell next to mine, but a few hours later they took her back to her cell with Sahar and Bita. But when she was back there, she started crying because she knew I was still being held in the cold cell. The officer asked her why she was crying, and she replied: “My sister, Atena, is ill, and you were interrogating her in that cold room.” They felt sorry for me and took me out of that cold cell and let me go back to my cell with Nasrin and Arina. And before that, they let me pass in front of Sara so that she would calm down.

40. Then the officer said: “Please don’t curse us. We have wives and children. We don’t like to treat you like that, either.” We replied: “We don’t curse you, but bless you. We were prepared to be persecuted for our faith, and we know the value of our faith in Christ, and we are willing to pay the price. However, it may be your job to interrogate us, but it isn’t humane to insult and torture us for our beliefs.”

Women’s Prison

41. We were in Ward Alef-Ta for five days. Then we were taken to the public Ward of Dastgerd Women’s Prison. The first thing they did there was to physically examine us. It was very hard, because we had to take off all our clothes, and then they examined our bodies to see if we had any drugs hidden inside us. We were asked not to tell the other prisoners that we were Christians, but one of the prisoners, who assisted the officers in various ways, found out about the reason for our detention, and as we entered the prison yard shouted: “They have brought the Christians!”

42. In the prison yard, a lady named Mrs Golkar, who was known as “Maman Goli” and was considered by the other prisoners as the “mother” of the prison, examined our hair. Due to the dirty and polluted environment in Ward Alef-Ta, Sara had head lice. So, after we took a shower and washed our clothes – and then had to wait outside in the cold of winter while they dried – Sara was taken to quarantine [where prisoners are held before being transferred or released] and we were transferred to the public ward.

43. The public ward contained prisoners who had committed various crimes, such as theft, murder, dealing drugs, and so on. Meanwhile, some homosexual prisoners looked at us in a very nasty way, and insulted us and threatened to rape us. We were so scared that, at night, under our blankets, we held each other’s hands and prayed.


44. The next day, we asked to be taken to the quarantine area, which was a room of about 18 square metres in size. It was very cold and dirty, and had no windows – just a rug and a small area to the side with a toilet and two showers. But if someone was taking a shower, the water would flow into the rest of the room, so we regularly had to make barriers to stop it. On our first day there, each of us was given a disposable cup, and that was the cup we were to drink from until we left. And we could only guess if it was day or night because of the types of meals we were given.

45. Prisoners were first taken to quarantine, and then to the public ward. Drug addicts were especially quarantined in the first days, when they were in pain because of drug withdrawal. The addicts’ bodies bore the marks of drug use, their clothes smelled bad, and they were unhygienic. But we tried to help them, and evangelised to them. Sometimes there were 15 of us in that one room, and we could hardly find space to sleep, even if all of us lay on our sides. We also weren’t allowed to spend any time in the fresh air outside. But after four to five days, close to Nowruz [Persian New Year], the officers wanted to clean the quarantine area and so, for that reason, we were taken out of quarantine and finally able to breathe in some fresh air. We helped to wash the rug, and also the walls, toilet and showers, etc., and the quarantine environment suddenly became very clean.

46. During our time in quarantine, we were taken back to Ward Alef-Ta for more interrogations, which took place during the daytime and lasted about five hours each time. I was interrogated eight or nine times in all.

Temporary release

47. After five days in quarantine, one or two people were released each day after their families posted bail. After all my fellow Christians had been released, and only I still remained in quarantine, one day my name was announced from the speaker. I was very happy, and thought I was free. But then I was taken for an almost five-hour-long interrogation.

48. The interrogator threatened and humiliated me a lot, and said: “You’re our guest! Your father posted bail for Sara and Leila, but he can’t bail you out.” The interrogator wanted to hurt me psychologically, but actually what had happened was that they had made life really difficult for my father and, due to some administrative mistakes on their part, my father had to drive from Tehran to Isfahan and back [about five hours each way] several times.

49. In addition, the interrogators had done something illegal. On the first day in court, Peyman and I were told we could be freed on bail, and so the interrogators weren’t allowed to detain us because the warrant for our detention hadn’t been issued. But we were immediately taken to prison under the excuse of being interrogated. The day after my last interrogation, I was released on bail of 10 million tomans [approx. $2,500], after 12 days’ detention.

Impact on family

50. My father already had high blood pressure, but after hearing about our arrest and then being harassed by the bailiff regarding our bail, he lost nearly half the functionality of both his kidneys. Through dietary changes and prayer, part of his kidneys’ functionality has returned, but he still has to follow a strict diet, and his kidneys still don’t work properly. During those 12 days’ illegal detention, my father tried to get us out of prison as fast as possible, and for every minute we were there, my parents suffered. These stresses also affected my father’s eyes, and he had to undergo surgery.

51. My parents had supported us in our church activities for many years, and never hindered us, and they never shared with us how anxious or stressed they were. But after my release, my father told me: “I prayed every night when you were on your way to a different city, and I couldn’t sleep well. I gave you into God’s hands, and prayed for your health and safety.”

52. After a few years, after we had already left Iran, my father realised that a mistake had been made in the amount of my bail, and that instead of 10 million tomans [approx. $2,500], they had taken 100 million tomans, and it took him a lot of time and effort to rectify this mistake, have his house deed released and instead to be able to pay the correct amount of 10 million tomans.


53. On Wednesday 19 June 2013, our first trial was held in the First Branch of the Public Court in Shahin Shahr. The judge who was supposed to listen to us and issue the verdict was very notorious in Shahin Shahr, but on the day of the trial he had some kind of problem and was replaced by Judge Jahanbakhsh Ahmadi, who was very respectful. There were 14 of us defendants in the same case, and we didn’t have a lawyer during the first hearing. For about 45 minutes, Judge Ahmadi listened to Maryam, Sara, Leila and me, and then the rest of our group was questioned for about 10 minutes.

54. He asked me to explain why I had become a Christian, and to confirm that it was my handwriting on the papers the interrogators had given him. God provided me with the opportunity to talk to the judge about my Christian beliefs, and he listened carefully. Our accusations were “propaganda against the holy regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran”; “membership in groups opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran”; “forming a group and recruiting members, in coordination with foreign organisations, to propagate evangelical and ‘Zionist’ Christianity”; “forming house-churches, organising meetings and providing illegal books and literature, with the aim of attracting more members in order to oppose the holy regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran”; and “innappropriate relationships [because unrelated members of the opposite sex had gathered together, and the women weren’t wearing headscarves]”.

55. On 18 July 2013, the judge sentenced us to one year in prison and a two-year travel ban, and sentenced the women to 40 lashes each and the men to 60 lashes each for our “inappropriate relationships”. But later, in our second hearing, on 18 September 2013, our lawyer, Mr Mehdi Jahanbakhsh Harandi, explained: “This group of people are Christians and, according to their beliefs, they didn’t wear hijab.” So the charge of “inappropriate relationships” was dropped.

56. Judge Ahmadi was there the day Peyman and Sara went to the Shahin Shahr courthouse to receive the verdict. He told them: “I had decided to acquit you after hearing your testimonies, but the prosecutor was strongly opposed to you and your church overseer whom the intelligence service strongly opposes. Because a group of Christians were arrested in Tehran at the same time as you, and they were sentenced to four years, I decided to sentence you to one year. You have 20 days to appeal, and you can use this opportunity.” We appealed the verdict, and waited for the appeal hearing.

57. Due to the fear of being under surveillance, we met other church leaders and some members in different places, such as in the car, or park, hospital waiting room, theme park, women’s swimming pool, and so on. We decided to strengthen and equip the other members, and to put them in direct contact with our supervisor so that if we had to go to prison they could keep in touch and continue their church services.

58. After the verdict, they didn’t leave us alone. The interrogators called our house several times, and asked Sara and me about our connections and Christian activities. They asked us: “Who are you in contact with, and what are you doing?” They threatened us, and also told my parents that they would take us, and them, to prison.

Leaving Iran

59. In May 2014, my sister Leila and her husband Peyman decided to go to Turkey with their young child. They had both been sentenced to one year in prison and knew that either they would have to take their child to prison with them, or that she would be separated from them for one year. Also, the twins, Solmaz and Behrad, who had worked so hard to pass their university entrance exams and had spent two semesters at the university, were forced to leave Iran with them. Behrad had also been threatened, and one of the professors had had a very intense discussion with him about Islam and Christianity.

60. In June 2014, intelligence agents went to the home of two couples who were active members in our group, Hossein and Manijeh, and Elaheh and her husband Touraj. The agents arrested Touraj and Hossein, and took them to Dastgerd Prison. Our house-church supervisor told Sara and me that we might be arrested again, so he suggested we travel to Turkey temporarily and thereby escape the danger of providing them with further contradictory answers during interrogations, which might endanger other members.

61. Prior to this incident, we had decided that we would go to prison and serve the one year in prison if the sentence was upheld by the appeal court. We hoped that at the end of our imprisonment we would be able to continue our Christian lives and activities. From 2013 until our departure in June 2014, we wrote letters to various institutions, such as the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Justice, the Supreme Leaders’ Office, the Office of the President, the Article 90 Commission [for complaints to parliament], and in addition to describing the story of our conversion to Jesus Christ, we also presented the legal defence put forward by our lawyer. We explained that we were willing to go to prison because of our Christian beliefs, but that we did not accept the charges against us. Some of the employees of these institutions were impressed by our explanations and defence, and even wrote a letter to the Revolutionary Court on our behalf.

62. So Sara and I weren’t at all prepared to leave Iran permanently – we had even bought return tickets – but we packed our things within an hour of speaking with our supervisor, and flew to Turkey. Then, after we arrived, on 19 June 2014, we learned that a 200 million toman [approx. $50,000] bail had been issued for Touraj and Hossein, and we felt obliged to extend our stay. So, following the advice of others, we decided to remain there, despite our desire to return to Iran. Touraj and Hossein’s trial was held a year later and, thank God, they were acquitted and their bail was returned. But in the spring of 2015, our one-year sentences were upheld by the appeal court.

63. Although several years have passed since our departure from Iran, it is still difficult for me to digest our unexpected departure. I am the type of person who makes plans for everything, so I still haven’t come to terms with this sudden departure. When we left, my father had a cast on one of his legs, and my parents were left alone there in a very bad situation, and we were very upset about their condition. We couldn’t even say goodbye to our fellow converts, who were very close friends, or even to our country. I feel like a child separated from its mother, having been separated from Iran. When I hear the national anthem or follow the news about Iran, tears flow unconsciously from my eyes.