Witness Statements

Esmail, Fariba & Helma

Esmail, Fariba & Helma

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


Names: Esmail (Homayoun) Shekoohi Gholamzadeh (Born, 1958)
Fariba Nazemianpour (Born, 1970)
Fatemeh (Helma) Shekoohi (Born, 2000)

Dates of arrest: May 2008, 8 February 2012

Date of interview: 23 January 2022

Interviewing organisation: Article18

Interviewer: Kiarash Aalipour

This statement was prepared following interviews with the above-mentioned witnesses. It was approved by the Shekoohi family on 21 May 2022. There are 100 paragraphs in the statement.

The views and opinions of the witnesses expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of Article18.


Background

Esmail

1. I, Esmail Shekoohi Gholamzadeh, known as Homayoun, was born in July 1958 in the city of Abadan [southwest Iran]. As a teenager, I came to the conclusion that religions are man-made. I didn’t accept the claims of the prophets and imams, and I was completely anti-religion, but I believed in the existence of God. I grew up with these beliefs, and those around me considered me an infidel. Then, when I was still young, aged 21 or 22, I even denied God. After my marriage to Fariba, it happened several times that at the insistence of my wife we went to Mashhad [a very religious city] to make a pilgrimage, or to shrines elsewhere. But I wouldn’t enter the shrine, so she would have to go in just with other relatives.

2. I was an atheist for more than 20 years, and had this one friend, with whom I had been meeting together to do drugs for years. He was an atheist like me, and knew that I couldn’t bear to even hear the names of the prophets, or God. But after three or four years of not seeing him, one day he came to my store, where I sold home appliances, and did something clever: he gave me a DVD, without any explanation, and said: “This is for you; watch it.” If he had told me that it was about Jesus Christ or any other religion, I certainly would have broken it! Then, during one long night of insomnia, I casually took down that dusty DVD, and by watching a video called “God is Love” on that DVD, I heard the message of Christ. This video briefly explained the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, in about half an hour. Then, without entirely knowing why I was doing what I was doing, after watching this video I knelt down and announced my faith in Jesus Christ. I was an addict at the time [2006], and had been for 30 years. I had tried many times to quit drugs, and cigarettes, but I hadn’t succeeded. But after believing in Jesus Christ, my addiction to drugs and even smoking was lifted completely. It has been 16 years since that day, and I have never touched drugs or cigarettes again.

Fariba

3. I was born in August 1970 into a religious [Muslim] family in Khorramshahr [next to Abadan]. On 27 March 1993, in Shiraz [550km east of Khorramshahr], I married my husband Esmail and started a family. Because my husband Esmail was addicted to drugs, I made many vows to Allah [of faithfulness should he be freed from his addiction] and pilgrimages to [Muslim] shrines, and I prayed regularly for my husband’s freedom from addiction. I tried hard to get him to quit, but although he and I tried our best, it didn’t happen. So when Esmail suddenly said that he had become a Christian and had given up drugs, I didn’t believe it, because he had said that he had given up many times before, and each time after a short while he had turned to drugs again. I thought that this time he was just using substances that I didn’t know, so I kept sniffing his clothes and searching his pockets.

4. Another problem that arose was that because my family was very religious, they were very upset and angry when they heard that my husband had become a Christian. They would call me and say: “You are forbidden from being together and shouldn’t live together under one roof!” Because I was also a religious person, I felt much the same way. When I saw Esmail watching Christian TV programmes, I was upset and we would argue. I told him: “[Even though you have given up drugs] you are still doing things that you shouldn’t!” We were growing further and further apart, so I decided to go to live with my mother and sister in another city, with our two children, Nima and Helma. I told my husband: “You have to choose between me and the children or Jesus Christ!” My family also supported me, saying: “It is better if you leave; don’t worry, we will take care of you and the children.” On the one hand I loved Esmail, but on the other I was upset about our situation because of my religious beliefs. At first, I didn’t tell my children why we had left our home in Shiraz. But little by little, they realised why from my conversations with my mother and sister. However, they didn’t know the ins and outs of the story. They missed their father, but because they played with my sister’s children and the other relatives, it wasn’t a difficult time for them.

5. One night I called Esmail from my sister’s home and asked: “Have you decided who to choose yet? Me and the children, or Jesus Christ?” Esmail replied: “Fariba, I love you and I love our children, but my priority is Jesus Christ. You can come and sell our home and the car, and buy a place for yourself and the children near your family, but don’t ask me to give up my faith.” I got angry on the phone, and cried and said: “You may have put your addiction aside, but now you’re clinging to something else new and still preferring it over us! I can’t live with you if things remain this way. I think we should separate.” That night, I walked up and down my sister’s yard until morning, and cried. At the same time, I looked up at the sky and saw the beautiful moonlight and said: “Jesus Christ, I don’t know who you are, but Christians say that you are God. If you are God, come and fix my life.”

6. The next day, I decided to return to Shiraz to pack up and make arrangements to separate from my husband and then return to live with my mother and sister. I had been away from home for about three weeks, and when I returned I noticed a fundamental change in Esmail, and saw that he was completely free of his addiction. This seriously impacted me, and eventually, about nine months after Esmail came to believe, I also came to believe in Jesus Christ.

Helma

7. I was about six years old when my father converted. He had been given a Christian children’s book called the Children’s Bible, which included pictures and paintings. He read this to me at night, and I loved it. We started going to a house-church after my mother came to believe in Jesus Christ, and we also held meetings in our home. There was also a Sunday School, which I attended for much of my childhood. As I listened to Bible stories and saw the changes in the lives of my parents, I came to believe in my heart that faith in Christ was right, and I accepted this truth. I couldn’t accept what was taught to us in [Islamic] religious lessons at school.

Joining a house-church and connecting with other Christians

Esmail

8. I didn’t read the Bible until about three months after believing in Jesus Christ. The problem was that the Bible seemed to be a forbidden commodity and couldn’t be found in any library or shop in our city. But later I realised that it could be secretly obtained through second-hand bookstores. Anyway, one day I was driving down the street and saw the friend who had given me the DVD “God is Love”. I pulled over immediately and went to talk to him, and when he saw me he noticed the change in my condition and behaviour and said that I looked a lot better. So I told him the story of what had happened to me, and he was very happy. I didn’t know anything about house-churches at that moment. I had heard of church buildings and knew we weren’t allowed to enter them, but I had no idea that the community of believers in Jesus Christ was called a “church” even if they met only in their homes. It was during this conversation with my friend that I heard about house-churches for the first time. But for security reasons he wasn’t allowed to take me to his house-church. He said: “Pray, and the same God who was responsible for such changes in your life will connect you to a house-church.”

9. After a while, I started attending NA [Narcotics Anonymous] meetings and, while there, although I hadn’t read the Bible before, I was using phrases I had learned from the video I’d watched. As a result of this, one of the other participants realised that I was a Christian and came up to me and said: “I am just like you, and I believe in Christ like you. Everything you say is from the Bible.” I asked eagerly: “Do you have a Bible to give me?” He responded, in surprise: “How do you know that?” And that night I received a Bible from this friend, and finally managed to read the Word of God.

10. Meanwhile, I was still praying that I would find a house-church. I had heard from a friend that there was a yellow workshop in a certain area of ​​Shiraz, where some of its employees were Christians. But the first day I went to this area, I couldn’t find any such workshop. I went again the next day, and finally I found it after much searching. And when I entered the workshop, I saw by chance the very same friend of mine who had given me the Bible, and I realised that his whole family were Christians and held their meetings in this workshop. It was then that I began to join this small house-church, consisting of just five people.

11. After a while, we would gather in each other’s homes – each time we held a house-church meeting, we would hold it in a different member’s home. In these meetings, we sang songs of praise, talked about the Christian faith and how we came to believe in Christ, and about the changes that had taken place in our lives since we came to faith; this was how our house-church operated. I had been a Christian and had been going to the house-church meetings for a few months when I took Fariba, who hadn’t yet converted to Jesus Christ, along to a meeting for the first time.

Fariba

12. The first time I went to a house-church meeting, I went of my own free will, but I didn’t like it because of the beliefs I had at the time. I had always understood the relationship with God in a different way, and what was said in this group about our relationship with God wasn’t in line with those beliefs. But eventually I came to believe in Jesus Christ in this same group that I had visited as a guest, and ever since then I enjoyed being in the house-church and with other Christians. Depending on the circumstances, our house-church met once a week or fortnightly.

The challenge of not having a place to worship

Esmail

13. The desire for worship comes from a basic need to express a belief that you have, whether Islamic, Baha’i, or Christian. But the reality in Iran is that most of the churches [that offer services in Persian] have been closed down, or we are forbidden from attending their meetings. So you can’t talk about your faith; you can’t have fellowship with other Christian believers; and you can’t be educated [about your faith] and as a result grow in the faith your heart has accepted. We had only one church building in Shiraz, which was called Simon the Zealot Church, and we knew it was under surveillance. [It was also the scene of the first extrajudicial killing of a Christian under the Islamic Republic.] In such an atmosphere, it becomes difficult to even pray in that place. That’s why we never went to that church, because there was a heavy security atmosphere. And that’s why we decided to worship and to talk to other Christians about our faith in a different way, by meeting together in a private home, where at least our meeting was hidden from the eyes of government officials.

Fariba

14. Simon the Zealot Church is monitored by several CCTV cameras, and all people and their movements are monitored. The church won’t accept new members.

Pressure on Helma at school

Helma

15. From the age of about seven until I was 16 and we had to leave the country, I attended house-church meetings. I was very happy every time we went, because as a child I used to enjoy seeing my peers and going to parties. Early on, the number of children was small – only I and one other boy were at the meetings. So we always joined in praying with the adults. But as the church expanded, a member named Vahid Hakkani became the leader of our Sunday School and gradually the number of children was more than 20. We didn’t have access to Christian videos or animations for children, and only had two books that our leaders taught us from. Vahid taught us worship songs and verses from the Bible, and we also did painting and craft, and put on a nativity play at Christmas. Vahid and the other leaders gave us tasks, such as memorising Bible verses, singing songs, praying for others in the presence of the other adults, as well as acting out some of the stories from the Bible. For the nativity plays, they would sew costumes for us, and we had a lot of fun. As we got a little older, from around 12 years old, we would read and interpret the Bible together in simple terms. What I saw in the house-church and the feeling I experienced there was very beautiful to me and much better than what took place at school, and the programmes that were arranged for us in the school’s [Islamic] prayer hall. We were taught in a really light-hearted way in the house-church, and received a lot of love and support in the church in general, which boosted our confidence.

16. I went to a regular [non-Christian] primary school and was always at odds with the school system and its teachings. Because what they taught me wasn’t acceptable to me. I was told [by the teachers] at school: “You shouldn’t tell anyone that you are a Christian. You should wear the hijab properly, and you should attend Islamic classes.” I knew fellow students who weren’t Muslims but were allowed not to attend religious classes or classes about the Quran [because they were recognised as non-Muslims]. But I had to attend these classes, and take and pass exams in these subjects. Because of this, school was difficult for me, but I didn’t give up.

17. When I started secondary school, we told the school that I was a Christian. But the school authorities didn’t allow my religion to be registered in my file and still considered me a Muslim. It’s interesting that the headteacher didn’t have a problem with my religious beliefs, but still she told me: “Don’t make a fuss; just attend the classes like everyone else.” I had no problem with attending the Islamic classes and learning the Quran – I memorised what I needed to and took the exam and got the required grade – but what bothered me was the compulsion to pray and perform Islamic rituals.

18. In my second year at secondary school my Islamic Studies teacher obviously had a problem with me, and was very stubborn. She was always saying things in the class that she knew would provoke me. Some of my closest classmates knew that I was a Christian, and I didn’t want them to change their perception of me, but some of the things this teacher said were so upsetting that I couldn’t remain silent. She usually didn’t teach us much when she came to our class; instead, she constantly compared Islam and Christianity and tried to denigrate Christianity, and I couldn’t allow her to do this. For example, she once said: “Class, did you know that in Christianity brothers and sisters get married?” This upset me so much that I got up and said that what she had said wasn’t true. We argued for a while, and finally she kicked me out of the class. I was sent to the school office to see the headteacher and was told: “If you do anything like this again, we’ll send you to the department responsible for security and you know what will happen to you after that: you’ll no longer be able to study!”

19. During secondary school I was regularly sent to a school counsellor only to be brainwashed and pressured to leave the Christian faith. And every time mullahs came to school for different occasions, they would always single me out to talk to me about Islam. One of the problems the school had with me was that when one of my classmates asked, for example, “What do you do in church?”, I would answer their questions and wouldn’t say, “I can’t tell you,” or pretend that what we did in church wasn’t interesting.

20. They even took issue with some of my artwork. I was interested in graffiti designs and kept some of them in my books, so they wouldn’t be damaged. One day a teacher was flicking through my schoolbook, saw my art, and handed the book over to the school office. Then, every day for about a week, I was taken to the school office and told: “You are a demon worshipper!” and that I was spreading a deviant way of thinking. The artwork was only a few different letters and the names of some of my friends and me, but done in a graffiti style. This was also an excuse to harass me.

2008 arrest

Esmail

21. From the first time we went to a house-church, we were told that we had to be careful. Members of house-churches in other cities were being arrested, so we knew we were in danger. So we would gather, knowing that we might be arrested but also that we had been careful. In any case, we worshipped in fear, hoping not to be arrested. But eventually it happened, and we were twice arrested.

Fariba

22. When we were arrested for the first time, our house-church meetings had recently stopped for a while due to security concerns but had then begun again. It was May 2008, and we had been invited to a conference in Dubai by a Christian organisation; and another couple were travelling with us. We were scheduled to depart Shiraz Airport at six in the morning, but at the airport someone who seemed to be a cleaner was constantly sweeping around me, and we later found out that he was an intelligence-service agent. We had checked in our luggage and were ready to fly, but when we got to passport control we were told: “Your tickets are wrong; you should come with us to our office to fix it.” And when we arrived, about 20 agents were standing there. The other couple who were travelling with us were also taken to that office and arrested.

23. Then we were taken to the Shiraz Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] office. And at the same time, the home of another member of the church, named Mojtaba [Hosseini], was raided and he was also arrested.

Esmail

24. Fariba was detained until 7pm, then released after being interrogated, as was the wife of the other couple who had been travelling with us. I was temporarily released about two weeks later; the husband of the other couple was released after about three weeks, and Mojtaba after a month.

25. Before my release, I was told: “You have to write a letter of commitment that you have no right to have any contact with other Christians.” In the end, I just wrote: “I promise not to go to suspicious places,” and fortunately they accepted it. The second time I was arrested, they brought that letter of commitment and threw it at me, saying: “We don’t know who accepted such a letter of commitment from you!”

26. In April 2009, our trial was held in Branch 3 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, presided over by Judge [Rashidi]. The three of us who had been charged [also Mojtaba and the husband of the other couple] received eight-month suspended prison sentences on charges of “propaganda activities in favour of groups opposed to the Islamic Republic”. In addition, we were warned that Iran was an Islamic country and that we should no longer gather in our homes for Christian worship, and never talk to anyone on the street about Christ.

27. But because fellowship and worshipping together in a group is necessary to maintain one’s faith, we began meeting together again. And after a while the security agents noticed our church activities again, and for this reason I was repeatedly summoned to the intelligence office by telephone and interrogated from morning to noon, or sometimes even until the afternoon, and threatened in various ways.

28. One of the threats was related to the political charges for which I had been arrested [before becoming a Christian] in 1980 and 1981. In those years, I had been arrested twice for allegedly being a member of an anti-government political group, although I was never a member of any political party or group. I was arrested twice on these allegations – first in 1980, and then in 1981. In 1980, I was detained for a week, and in 1981, for 50 days. Both times, I was arrested by the IRGC. I was interrogated during these detentions, but I wasn’t physically tortured. However, they used a lot of psychological torture. And now, the interrogator, who was speaking to me from another room so that I couldn’t even see his face, asked me: “Do you remember why you were arrested in 1980? You were arrested twice in those days, and because of those arrests, we can do whatever we want with you – from life imprisonment to execution! Your Christian faith can easily be linked to your past anti-regime activity! So go and take care of yourself, and stop gathering together as a church! We are watching you!”

2012 arrest

Fariba

29. On 8 February 2012, at about 8pm, when we were having a house-church meeting and were praying and singing worship songs, security agents raided our home in Shiraz. There were, I think, 27 people in our home that night – seven or eight children around 10 to 12 years old, eight men, and 12 women; we usually had more women than men. When the doorbell rang, we had assumed it was just another member of the house-church. My son, Nima, who was 17 at the time, went to the intercom and asked: “Who is it?” Someone on the other side said: “Open the door.” Nima did so, and suddenly we saw an army of people – I can’t say exactly how many there were – entering our home. All of them, including the female officers, were wearing hats, gloves, and balaclavas, with only their eyes visible. We could only see the face of one of the male officers, who was tall. He read a warrant for our arrest, but didn’t show it to us.

30. The agents told us to sit down and not move. They also had cameras and filmed everything and started to search our home in a very rough way. Then the agents separated us, saying that everyone whose name was read out should go into another room. My husband and I, and several others, were among those whose names were read out. The agents just said: “We have come to arrest you, according to the warrant that we have with us.”

31. They asked my husband, Esmail, to go with them to his shop. So Esmail looked for his keys, but couldn’t find them. But when he said that he didn’t know where he had put them, one of the agents slapped him in the face, in front of everyone, including our children, and said: “Maybe this will remind you where your keys are!”

32. They even confiscated DVDs of children’s cartoons, containing cartoons like The Pink Panther. My 17-year-old son, Nima, laughed as they did this, and grinned. Suddenly, one of the officers went for Nima, who was sitting on the sofa, grabbed him by the collar, lifted him up, hit him against the wall, and slapped him hard in the face, saying: “I’ll show you what you get for smirking like that!” I lowered my head and didn’t say anything, in case it would mean they beat him even more. Then the agent who had hit Nima told him to go and sit somewhere else. But another agent who had previously told Nima where to sit hadn’t seen what had happened, and after a few minutes he came and saw that Nima had moved. Without allowing Nima to explain, he swore at him, grabbed his collar, slammed him against the wall, and said: “Didn’t I tell you to sit still?” Then he took Nima back to where he had been sitting. But after another few minutes, the other agent who had slapped him came back, and when he saw that Nima had moved back, he attacked him all over again.

33. The agents ransacked our home, and confiscated many of our personal belongings, including CDs, books, computers, several paintings, and several crosses, and they were at our home until about midnight. A total of eight people were arrested that night, including us. We were first taken to the MOIS [Ministry of Intelligence Service] detention centre and then transferred to Shiraz’s Adel Abad Prison. One member of our house-church who was not at the meeting that night, Mohammad Reza Partovi, known as Koroush, was summoned and arrested the next day.

Esmail

34. I think there were around 15 agents that night, and three or four of them were women. They entered our home carrying guns and acting with a lot of aggression. At about 11pm, I was handcuffed and blindfolded, and they took me to my shop, where I sold audio-visual equipment. They asked me again for the key, but I didn’t give it to them. So the next day they went back to my shop with a locksmith, and took away everything that was there in a pick-up truck. They even took a lot of the furniture. The goods they took from my shop, which were my personal property, were never returned to me. In court, when my wife asked about my equipment, they said: “There wasn’t much there! We gave you a form to record this information, and you signed this form. There was nothing else there.”

Fariba

35. When they raided our home and arrested us, while Esmail was being taken to his shop they showed me a written list of the items they were confiscating from our home. However, they didn’t allow me to read it, and were very rude. I only signed it because I felt pressured. Then, long after the final verdict was issued, they only handed me back four broken picture frames. At the same time, because Esmail had a satellite dish at his shop, another criminal case was registered against him, and he was fined 500,000 tomans [approx. $330]. But when they confiscated Esmail’s goods, they didn’t give us any form or anything else by way of documentation. It also shouldn’t be left unsaid that on the night of the arrest, the agents also went to the homes of my husband’s brother and two of his sisters, who lived near us and weren’t Christians, and searched them as well. We also kept some of the items from the shop at their homes, and the agents took all of these as well, and never returned them.

Helma

36. The night the agents raided our home I was scared and cried. I was about 12 years old at the time. The agents had mixed up all the clothes in my drawers, but then they took me to my room and told me: “Pack your things, because you have to go to your aunts’ house.” So I went to stay with my aunt and cousin for a few days. While my parents were in prison, I went to stay with different relatives and friends.

37. But I didn’t feel comfortable staying with my relatives, because although they were upset about what had happened, they didn’t really understand, because they weren’t Christians. They kept asking me: “Why did your parents do this to you? Why should you be made to cry at your age, instead of doing your studies?” When they said these things, it made me feel even worse. That’s why, after a while, I went to stay with my mother’s friend, who was also one of the teachers at our Sunday School so she understood our situation.

38. At first I couldn’t believe that my family were in prison, and thought I must just be having a nightmare because the attack on our home was really horrible.

Interrogations and torture

Fariba

39. They also arrested my 17-year-old son, Nima, but we were taken to the detention centre separately, with different female agents, so at first I didn’t know that Nima had been arrested. I only found out when, one day in the detention centre, I was taken to a room with three chairs, and then after sitting me on one of them, they also brought my husband, Esmail, to sit next to me, and then they brought Nima to sit on the other side! It was only then that I learned that he had also been arrested. I couldn’t see him [because of the blindfold], but I recognised him from his voice, and I could also touch him.

40. “Your son isn’t cooperating with us, and won’t answer any questions we ask!” the interrogator said. “My son is a schoolboy, and should now be at school!” I said. “What is he supposed to tell you, anyway?” Nima was in his final year of school at the time and was preparing for his university entrance exam. “We have prepared a sentence of flogging for Nima, and if he doesn’t cooperate we’ll carry it out!” the interrogator said. “Of course, we have also been very kind to him by beating him many times.” Suddenly, Nima started to cry and said: “Mum, they beat me a lot; they beat me every day!” The interrogator insulted Nima and said: “Shut up! Have you found your courage, seeing your parents? If you don’t cooperate, we’ll beat you right here, in front of them!”

41. Nima was detained for 38 days in total, all in solitary confinement.

42. The main question they asked during the interrogations was: “Why do you gather together in this house-church? Why are you acting against the security of the country in this way?”

43. One of the first accusations they made against us, which was completely false, was that we had torn and burnt a copy of the Quran. Even when they had come to arrest us, and one of our neighbours had asked: “What’s going on here; why is it so crowded?” one of the agents had responded: “They regularly bring together boys and girls to this home and burn the Quran!” All of us [the nine people arrested] were pressured during our detention to confess to tearing and burning the Quran.

44. During one of my interrogations, there was a wooden table in the corner by the wall in front of which I was sitting, blindfolded, and one of the interrogators asked me questions from behind my back. When I didn’t answer a question, two or three people would hit the chair so hard that I would be slammed into the table in front of me and the table would then hit the wall. The interrogators didn’t touch me with their hands, but as a result of their kicks to the chair and me hitting the table, my body was covered with bruises. Once, one of the interrogators approached me completely silently from behind, so that I didn’t hear his footsteps at all, and while I was thinking that no-one was near me, he suddenly hit my chair so hard that the shock of it caused me to faint. Then he insulted me and rudely accused me of only pretending to faint. The interrogators used a lot of ugly words and insults and sometimes they beat me with books. They called me a “whore”, and said: “You Christians are all bad people; you do all kinds of things during the week, and then you go to church on Sunday to repent!”

45. Two or three weeks after our arrest, my husband’s siblings were allowed to visit us. We could see them through a glass screen, and could speak to them by using a telephone. This was our first contact with any members of our family.

Esmail

46. At the detention centre, a woman named Ms Zare came to see me, claiming to be the judge for the execution of sentences in the Revolutionary Court. “I am in charge of your case, and this is your pre-trial hearing,” she said. When I asked what I was accused of, she said: “One of your accusations is burning the Quran! What is your response?” I denied it, and even told her: “Show me you have even one shred of evidence that we did this, and I will accept it!”

47. Most of the interrogators’ questions revolved around Christianity. For example, they would read out my contacts list on my phone and say: “Tell me who is a Christian and who isn’t.” Then they put over 100 names of Christians in front of me and said: “The reason these people became Christians is you! You are to blame!” I responded: “If you think I’m guilty, then you should act accordingly but don’t do anything to them, because I am the one now in your detention centre.”

48. During our interrogations, my wife and I were hurt physically, but not severely. However, they put a lot of pressure on us psychologically, and in this way they also tortured us. My wife and I were held in separate solitary cells for 33 days, after which we were transferred to prison. Of our family of four, three entered solitary confinement at the same time. The fact that my son, who was a minor at the time and was in the middle of his exams, had also been arrested and sent to prison was in itself a kind of torture for me.

49. The atmosphere of a solitary cell is such that a day passes like a year. In my solitary cell, there was a lamp on the ceiling that was always on; it was never turned off. An incredibly powerful fan that made a lot of noise was also always on, and never turned off. The cell also had a bathroom, and the dimensions of the cell were around 1.5 metres by four or five metres.

50. The rest of our friends who had been arrested were also under a lot of pressure during their interrogations. When we entered our solitary cells, we were each subjected to types of torture that the security agents were probably trained to do. This is how the torture started: they would take us very early in the morning to separate interrogation rooms and leave us there, all alone, on a chair, and we would be forced to just sit there, blindfolded, until the evening – sometimes until as late as eight o’clock at night. The only respite would be at lunchtime, when they would give us lunch very quickly, and then put us back on our chair. We were treated like this for several days, and while we were in the interrogation room we didn’t even know whether it was day or night.

51. Also, they played the call to prayer very loudly over the speaker in the cell, and recitals of the Quran, and in that cell the sound echoed like an empty bathroom and was deafening. They constantly played the Quran. It was as if someone was constantly shouting at you, and you didn’t know the meaning of any of their words [because they were in Arabic].

52. Then, when we were sent to prison, they threatened us: “Don’t try to talk to anyone about the Christian faith in prison!”

53. Before we were arrested, we used to read our Bibles regularly. But now they also withheld this from us. As Christian prisoners, we were deprived of everything; they didn’t allow us even to read our Bible. I think this was one of the biggest emotional blows to us, because we were used to reading this book.

Helma

54. Contrary to what I believed at the time, apparently many of our Christian friends did not support us during this time.

55. Meanwhile, intelligence agents reported my parents’ arrest to my school, so I constantly had to explain to the headteacher, school counsellor and some of the other teachers what had happened and why we had become Christians at all. The headteacher and counsellor also tried hard to get me to go back to Islam, but I refused. I didn’t want to go to school during those days, but I had to. While I was there, I couldn’t stop myself from crying all the time, but the teachers told me: “Don’t cry; you’re bringing the other children down! Also, they are going to ask you questions about why you’re sad, and then you’ll have to explain.” So there was a lot of pressure on me.

56. I had a friend who wanted to help me by explaining our lessons to me. I couldn’t understand even simple topics, because I just couldn’t focus. At the same time, I kept thinking that it was always my mother who taught me things, and now she wasn’t by my side.

57. For the entire 33 days that my parents were in the detention centre [before they were transferred to prison], I couldn’t even talk to them on the phone. Seeing them took even longer. It took me three or four months to finally see my mother, but even then it was usually only through a glass screen. And they didn’t give me the opportunity to see my father for a whole year! After that year, I was allowed to see him every two or three months, but I had more meetings with my mother.

58. Meanwhile, the headteacher once told me: “People often come to school because of you and ask me questions.” She meant intelligence agents. Even on the day they attacked our home, I heard on the walkie-talkie of one of the agents: “Their daughter goes to school on an orange minibus.” It was then that I realised they must even have been following me.

Court hearing

Fariba

59. My son Nima was temporarily released on bail of 100 million tomans [approx. $65,000] after spending 38 days in solitary confinement. Later, during a court hearing [on 16 October 2012] for Nima and some of our friends who had been detained with us, but not for my husband and me, my son Nima suffered severe seizures due to the stress, and the judge had to call an ambulance. Nima was afraid that we would all be sentenced to death for “apostasy”, because at that time a law was being passed to punish apostasy. Additionally, usually all the defendants in a case attend the court hearing together, and because my husband and I hadn’t been brought to the court from prison, Nima thought we had been executed already. My husband’s sister was also waiting outside the door of the courtroom. When she learned that Nima had had a seizure, she went into the room and said to the judge: “What did this family do that you are putting so much pressure on them and harassing them? The boy’s parents are both in prison, so this is putting a lot of strain on him and his sister.” Surprisingly, the judge seemed to be impacted by her words, and said: “I’ll release this boy’s mother today.”

60. So I was taken from prison to the court that same day, and the judge put a piece of paper in front of me and said: “I want to release you today. So write, ‘I was wrong’.” But I refused, saying that I couldn’t accept this condition. He became angry, shouting and asking my brother-in-law, who was waiting outside, to come in and persuade me to write a letter of repentance. But when I still didn’t accept this, finally, after a lot of bargaining, the judge agreed to released me on bail of 200 million tomans [approx. $130,000]. By this time, I had spent about nine months in prison. I should also mention that the judge told us that he had been questioned by higher authorities for deciding to release me.

Esmail

61. During our detention, we were taken to court a lot, but every time, for some reason, the hearing didn’t take place and we were sent back to prison. Although the main trial didn’t take place until 16 months after our arrest, we were taken two or three times inside the [Revolutionary] court building to be brought before the case investigator, who was also a mullah. He had to update our case file and give it to the court. Our initial charges included: “burning and tearing the Quran”, “acting against national security”, “propaganda against the regime in favour of opposing countries”, “relations with foreign countries, including the Zionist regime [Israel] and the United States”, and “propagating Zionist Christianity”. The charge of “burning and tearing the Quran” was later dropped.

62. The judge in our case was Judge [Rashidi], who had also been the judge following our detention three years earlier. In the first court hearing, he said: “You should know that the claimant in your case is the Ministry of Intelligence!” Then he read aloud the accusations against us. When he read out the charge of “acting against national security”, he said: “Of course, this accusation doesn’t apply to you at all, because you haven’t taken any action against the security of the country, and we don’t have any evidence in this regard.” But in the end, about two years after our arrest, he gave us three years in prison based on this very same charge of “acting against national security”. After he read out this verdict, I reminded him of what he had told us, but he just said: “Anyway, they [the Ministry of Intelligence] said it, and we agreed. Let’s move on.”

63. So about two years after our arrest, Judge Rashidi, head of Branch 3 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, on 10 June 2013, based on our activities in the house-church and under articles 498, 499 and 500 of the Islamic Penal Code, sentenced each of us four [Esmail, Mojtaba, Koroush and Vahid] to three years and eight months in prison – eight months for “propaganda against the regime” and three years for “acting against national security”. Mine and Mojtaba’s eight-month suspended sentences from our first arrest were also added to this sentence. Meanwhile, Fariba was given a two-year suspended sentence and Nima a suspended sentence of 18 months.

Continued harassment at school

Fariba

64. Helma was very happy that I had been released from prison, and had told her teachers. Then one of the teachers, through Helma, asked me to come to see her. So I went, and she told me: “The intelligence services came here and wanted to take your daughter with them, but I didn’t allow it. But you have to stop your daughter from talking about Christianity at school!” Helma was only 12 or 13 years old at the time.

65. After that, Helma kept coming home from school crying because she had been taken to the school office and asked questions about us and all that had happened. I wanted to go to the school and talk to the headteacher about this, but Helma asked me not to, because she was worried that this would make them even more likely to target her.

66. But one day, without telling Helma, I went to her school and talked to the headteacher. “My daughter came here to study like the other students,” I told her. “Why do you take her out of the classroom every day and question her so much? It has caused her to miss many lessons!” The headteacher said: “The reason is your daughter’s activities in the school.” I asked: “What are you saying, madam? I asked my daughter not to talk [about Christianity] at school.” The headteacher replied: “The mothers of the other students have complained.” I asked her to give me the phone numbers of the mothers who had complained, so that I could talk to them and explain, but she refused. It was clear to me that she was lying [about the complaints].

67. The headteacher also said that Helma didn’t partake in the prayers or perform the Islamic rituals, and she refused to accept any of my explanations. I explained: “Helma is a Christian, so why should a Christian be asked to do Islamic prayers?” The headteacher just repeated her words. At the same time, many of the students used to exchange their scorecards [on which points are added for partaking in Islamic prayers or rituals], because many of the children weren’t really interested in praying. I asked the headteacher and Helma’s teacher to treat her better, and not to tell everyone at school about Helma’s father and me having been to prison. Anyway, Helma completed her secondary education there, and then went on to sixth form.

68. When Helma went to sixth form, I talked privately with her headteacher and the school’s head of education because I thought the security forces might come to them and incite them against us, and that then they would harass my daughter. So I wanted to explain to them myself that Helma and our family were Christians, and to ask them to exempt Helma from taking Islamic lessons and joining in with the prayers, and to ask that if they heard any rumours about our family, to first contact my husband and me to find out what the problem was and let us explain. They replied: “If your daughter doesn’t talk about Christianity at school, we won’t have any problems with her, but she must take her Islamic classes, unless you can bring a valid document showing that you were born as Christians.” So, as we didn’t have this document, Helma was still forced to take Islamic classes.

Prison

Esmail

69. There were people in prison who always carried knives with them and had been in prison for more than 10 years for serious crimes. When these people started to believe in Jesus Christ, everyone was amazed at the great change in their behaviour and their calmness, and they couldn’t believe that they were the same person. They stopped selling drugs in the prison, or using drugs, and stopped engaging in violent acts. I am still in contact with some of them, and they live good lives now.

70. In prison, because we were deprived of the right of having a Bible, we decided to take a few empty notebooks and start writing down every verse we could remember. So each of us wrote down in these notebooks every part of God’s Word that we knew, whether it was a verse, such as a proverb, or parts of the New Testament or Old Testament – whatever part we knew and had in our minds. We also asked Christian believers outside the prison, or relatives who came to visit us, to read the Bible to us when they called us, or to hold a Bible open in their hands when they visited, so that we could quickly write down Bible verses. And after taking some time to do this, once we had finished transcribing the gospels, we continued with the epistles, and then with other parts, and in this way we were at least able to have parts of the Word of God with us in prison.

71. When [prison officials] saw that the number of those who believed in Christ was gradually increasing, they decided to take the nine Christians who had been imprisoned on the same charges and move us to another area of the prison, known as Band-e Ebrat [“Lesson Ward”], which was ​​about 80 square metres in size. The head of the prison told us: “You will be completely safe here; in fact we have brought you here for your own safety. You are free to worship and pray here, but not to have your [holy] book.” They seemed to have realised that by spreading us across the prison, they had been creating a problem for themselves, because many people had come to believe in Christ and they had heard about it and were angry about it.

The period of imprisonment in ‘Lesson Ward’

Esmail

72. Band-e Ebrat was originally a warehouse where blankets were made and not considered part of the ward. It was just an 80-square-metre hall with a bathroom, toilet, and an area for a kitchen. But only the bathroom and toilet had walls; the rest was just an open space.

73. The Christian prisoners in Adel Abad Prison had a difficult time in the “Lesson Ward” of this prison. Lack of normal prison facilities, lack of drinking water and cooling facilities in summer and heating in winter, and low level of health and medical facilities, are some of the things that have been reported by various prisoners in this ward.

74. At first, we nine Christians were the only religious minorities there, but later others such as Gonabadi dervishes, Baha’is and Jews were added to our ward. After a while, prisoners who [the authorities] thought were dangerous were brought to our ward; for example, two brothers who had been accused of assassinating a Friday prayer imam were also brought to our ward. Everyone there was someone those in charge thought should not be in the general ward and should not have access to mobile phones or be able to talk with other prisoners. Access to drugs and mobile phones was easy in the public wards, and prison officials themselves sold these items.

75. The mullahs and teachers of the Islamic seminary were constantly brought to see us to attemot to bring us back to Islam. Once, a cleric from Lebanon was brought to the Lesson Ward, who spoke Persian well. But none of these people succeeded in converting even one person away from their faith – whether Christian, Baha’i or dervish. They seemed very surprised by this, and therefore must themselves have learned a lesson in this ward that such tactics do not work!

76. The officials had written on the door of the hall, “Band-e Ebrat [Lesson Ward]”. They gave us food of a very low quality; in the public ward, prisoners could shop and cook for themselves, but in this ward for a long time we didn’t even have a stove for cooking, or a refrigerator, or even a heater. Eventually our families paid for an air-conditioning unit to be installed there. Then after a while they gave us a small single-flame gas stove, which we used a heater.

77. One of the things that really made me feel like I was being tortured, and was really hard, was that for the last 40 days or so of my imprisonment I was transferred to a place called the “security cell”, where prisoners were taken before they were executed. While I was there, it seemed as though as soon as I had become acquainted with another prisoner, they were executed. Whether it was three days later, a week, or sometimes longer, the prisoners I stayed with there were executed. There was one prisoner who was there for about 20 to 25 days, and then he was executed. It was very difficult for me to be in that place. These other prisoners were taken away, executed, and then their clothes were simply brought back and thrown into the cell. I had just met them, had just spoken to them about my Christian faith, and had seen how interested some of them were. But they weren’t given a chance [to convert], and this was very difficult for me.

78. For these last 40 days or so of my imprisonment, the telephone was off limits, the prison store was closed, and food was scarce. The “security cell” was small, and overcrowded. There were about 30 or 40 of us, and the other prisoners were constantly beating or even stabbing each other. The atmosphere was very bad. My transfer to this cell was a form of psychological torture.

79. After I’d served two years in prison, I was eligible for leave, and went on leave twice during the rest of my imprisonment – for about 10 days each time. It was great to get out of prison, but very difficult to go back again, because it caused further upset to my family. When I was released, we spent joyful moments together, but when I returned, we cried together. During these short periods of leave, we used to visit family or friends, or they would come to see us. During the first days of my leave, our house was always crowded. But the last days were depressing.

80. Nearly three years after my imprisonment began, I was released on parole on 10 November 2014. The rest of my Christian friends, alongside whom I had been arrested, had been released one after another in the months before. But less than two months after my release, judicial officials announced that a mistake had been made in my release and that I should return to prison to complete my sentence. Therefore, I returned to prison after Nowruz in April 2015. This extra sentence and return to prison was very painful, and as though I had just been arrested all over again.

81. Finally, on Sunday 28 May 2015, after 40 months in prison, I was released from Adel Abad Prison.

Fariba

82. Every time Esmail went back to prison, I was very upset and couldn’t even eat for several days. Once, when Mojtaba’s mother and I went to Ms Zare, the executor of the sentences, to apply for leave for them, she said: “How can you claim to be strong and say that you can cope with them going to prison, but then come in here and ask for leave?” This hurt me very much.

83. After Esmail’s release [in November 2014], Mojtaba’s mother and I had gone to the Revolutionary Court in Shiraz, to the executor of sentences, Ms Zare, to secure the release of the property deed we had submitted as bail. She asked in surprise: “Has your husband been released? He shouldn’t have been released, and should continue to be imprisoned for another eight months!” She was shouting as she said this, and called several people, and said: “We will seize your house if he doesn’t come back to prison!” So Esmail was forced to return to prison.

Continued persecution after release from prison

Esmail

84. Even after we were released from prison, we had a lot of problems. For example, some people smashed the windows of our home, or rang our doorbell, or threw rubbish into our yard, and so on. We didn’t know at first who was doing this, but our neighbours later told us they were Basijis [paramilitary volunteers of the IRGC] from the local mosque, which was only around 100 metres from our home.

85. But the thing that distressed and bothered me the most was when one day my daughter came home from school and I saw that she was crying a lot. It turned out that her teachers had said to her: “Do you know why your parents were arrested? It’s because they ran a brothel!” Just imagine! The place where we gathered to worship and praise God, they were calling a brothel! And all this to a young child, who didn’t know about these kinds of things. The security forces had told Helma’s school and our neighbours that the reason for our imprisonment was because we had been running a prostitution house! Fortunately, at least the neighbours didn’t believe this, because they knew us.

86. A while later, we again saw my daughter Helma come home with tears in her eyes. This time, the same school teachers, or children incited by them, had told her: “Your parents gather people together in your home to worship the devil!” I believe these psychological blows are still having an effect on my children today.

Forced to leave Iran

Esmail

87. There were several reasons for our departure from Iran. Firstly, when I was released from prison, it wasn’t possible to hold church meetings in our home anymore, because we were under surveillance. And not having a church or group worship was very difficult for me, and we felt that we couldn’t continue without a church. After my release, I even went to the church in our city. It was a Sunday, and I saw that the door was locked. I saw some other people arriving to attend the church, but they told me they only opened the door for members. I stood there for about two hours, but nobody opened the door. That’s why I used to hold meetings in parks and talk to different people there about the Christian faith. Gradually, the number of people coming to these meet-ups increased, and the security forces noticed and sent a threatening message through my wife’s sister, who wasn’t a Christian. “If we arrest you this time, we’ll sentence you to imprisonment for life so that you can no longer stand on the street and preach,” they said. So while we felt that we desperately needed to connect with other Christians and hold house-church meetings again, this time we were sure that if we continued we would be arrested again.

88. On top of this, my son, Nima, couldn’t study anymore. He had been in his last year of school when he had been detained, and now had a criminal record. Besides, after all the harassment, how could he study?

89. When we decided to leave the country, I told Fariba: “There is a high possibility that I’ll be arrested at the airport and sent back to prison, but probably there won’t be a problem for you. If there is a problem for me, I ask you to please leave anyway and don’t stay in this country anymore.”

Fariba

90. After Esmail was released from prison, the security forces called my sister, who was a Muslim, and spoke in a very bad tone to her, and made threats against me, Esmail and the children. My sister had had open-heart surgery, so these stresses were bad for her health and the threats scared her a lot. Sometimes they also called my husband’s sister and threatened her. So, one of the reasons we left the country was because our wider family were being threatened and harassed, and were under pressure.

91. We were always under surveillance. Especially when Esmail was in prison, there was always a car parked outside our home. I don’t know how I can prove this, but when Esmail was in prison and we were not at home, I know that they [agents] even came inside our home. There was a green carpet just inside our front door, and once when we returned home we saw a man’s shoeprint on this carpet. We were terrified. Our phone calls were also monitored, and I realised that wherever I walked, someone was always following me. It was as if I was accompanied by a bodyguard! So, when you aren’t comfortable at home, you’re constantly monitored, and you and your family are constantly threatened, well, you get exhausted. That’s why we decided to leave the country.

92. The two-year suspended sentence given to me, and also Nima’s suspended sentence, were also very threatening, and made us not dare to move, as the saying goes. Also, we really needed to pray and worship with others – this was an integral part of our lives, and we couldn’t bear thinking about having to [go back to prison and] again be forced to do without prayer, worship, fellowship with other Christians, and the Bible.

93. In the early autumn of 2015, Nima fled over the border into Turkey. About three months later, in December 2015, my husband, Helma and I flew out of the country and also went to Turkey, where we lived for about five years, and then emigrated to Canada in 2020.

The impact of imprisonment and harassment on family life

Fariba

94. These harassments and imprisonments have had a great impact on our family, but God has comforted us, and I have no regrets. In prison, despite all the hardships, I was able to draw closer to God.

Helma

95. One day we had all gone out and were sitting in the park when my brother Nima’s mobile phone rang. When we looked at the number, we saw that it was our own home phone number, and immediately after Nima answered, the call was cut off. I think they [agents] did it to let us know that they were watching us and could do whatever they wanted to us. When my parents were in prison, some people at school were saying that they were going to be executed, and that had a very negative impact on me.

Esmail

96. During those days when Fariba came to visit me in prison, I saw that she was hiding her hand from me. I realised this after a few visits, and said: “Show me your hand.” Then I saw a bulge on her hand, and when I asked what it was, she said at first that it was nothing because she didn’t want me to worry. But after I insisted, she said: “It’s a gland that has grown in my right hand and also my waist, and they are apparently not benign. The doctor said that the cause is a high level of stress, and that they need to be treated.” I asked: “Why don’t you have surgery?” At first she didn’t want to answer, but I later found out that we didn’t have enough money to pay for the surgery. And due to the lack of timely treatment because of financial problems, these tumours became very large. They [the security agents] had taken all we owned; we had nothing left. Nima was the only person in the family with an income, and as a 17- or 18-year-old, his income wasn’t enough for the whole family.

97. When I was released from prison, I saw that Fariba’s glands had become very large. Her lumbar gland had reached 12cm in size. When she was finally able to have surgery, she fell into a coma. It was a terrible situation. The gland in Fariba’s hand had damaged the tendons, and she had to go for physiotherapy for a long time and still has problems with her right hand.

98. One day in prison, Fariba came to see me and said: “I have a question for you. Is it wrong for a Christian to give his kidney to another person?” I understood why she had asked this question and said: “Is it a financial issue? Do you want to give away your kidneys?” It was then that I prayed, in prison, and said: “God, I’m in prison for believing in you, and I’m willing to do anything for my faith, and even accept the death penalty. But why doesn’t someone help my family? Where is the Church?”

99. But while it’s true that the Church didn’t do its duty and didn’t support us at that time, the main point I’d like to make is that I had always done what was right and what my faith had told me, that this faith is worth the suffering we endured, and if we could go back in time, we’d walk the same path.

100. Also, of course I don’t ignore the efforts of those who worked and are still working for the families of prisoners, and at that time God put someone in our path to take care of us as much as possible.