Witness Statements

Mojtaba Keshavarz Ahmadi

Mojtaba Keshavarz Ahmadi

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


Conversion

1. My name is Mojtaba Keshavarz Ahmadi, and I was born in 1967 in Tehran, to a religious Muslim family. My father was a Quranic teacher and imam of our local mosque. People called him “Sheikh” and respected him a lot. He also taught me, and because of the deep appreciation he had for the Islamic religion, he wanted his children to love this religion wholeheartedly as well, and to respect its rules and put them into practice. But at the same time, there was some freedom of choice in our family. My father strongly believed that the practice of our faith should be led by our own hearts, so we weren’t obliged to perform religious duties. Nevertheless, because of the respect I had for my father, I considered his religious values to be the highest values, and from my childhood I participated in all the religious ceremonies, including congregational prayers, Quranic teaching and recitations, and performing rituals such as fasting. My parents were my heroes, and it was because of this that I got to know Islam well from my childhood. And because my father didn’t force us to follow him in this regard, it made me approach Islam with enthusiasm. However, over time I realised that these religious rituals and other Islamic duties didn’t fill my inner void.

2. In my childhood, due to my young age, I wasn’t very familiar with the content of the Quran and Islamic customs. But during my adolescence and young adulthood, I was able to look deeper into what I had learned. For this reason, the contradictions or points of dispute that I found became my focus. And eventually this led me to doubt Islamic thoughts and beliefs. I was still searching for God, and I wanted to be near Him, but I found that Islamic beliefs taught me that He remained at a distance. I carried this internal conflict with me for years – between my past thoughts and beliefs, and my present desires – and the loss of my father and other family problems only exacerbated this.

3. As time went on, we had problems, especially during the Iran-Iraq War. And after returning from the war, these issues, and the effects of the war, only increased. Over time, I came to the point where I believed the only thing that would help me to escape from my problems was to end my life. But just as I began to become really serious about committing suicide, I met Jesus Christ. 

4. My inclination towards Jesus Christ wasn’t at all out of hatred for religious matters, or Islam. It wasn’t because of my family’s beliefs. I had no problem with them at all, because my father had taught us everything with compassion and kindness. But I needed someone to come and fill the void in my heart, and eventually I discovered that Jesus was the only one who could do this. Jesus Christ entered my life on his birthday [Christmas Day] in 2002. I found Him in solitude, and He changed my life.

New identity and its challenges and dangers 

5. After a short time I realised that in terms of my home, family, and community, this belief of mine wasn’t acceptable. It was as if I had entered a forbidden path, a forbidden belief. This intensified for me when I was looking for a Bible to read, but couldn’t find one anywhere. I looked in bookstores, but there were no Bibles in the ordinary bookstores. So I started to look in the bookstores that sold second-hand and old books, and it was there that I found a range of Bibles and Gospels, which had been printed on cheap paper in a private underground workshop, which was very risky. In fact the sellers knew they were taking a risk selling them, and weren’t sure if I was a true Christian or not. 

6. The churches I knew about in my city, Tehran, were Armenian churches and, due to political issues – the government doesn’t allow Armenians and Assyrians to accept Persian-speakers in their churches – none of the churches allowed me to enter. In addition, some Armenians and Assyrians also considered Christianity specific to their ethnic group. For this reason, Persian speakers were not accepted in churches. In general, when it came to Christ and Christianity, the Iranian society considered Christians to be Armenians. So, to the general public, anyone who became a Christian seemed to have changed their ethnicity. 

7. Under these circumstances I realised that my belief wasn’t accepted, and that I had no identity in this society. This lack of identity slowly became more and more apparent, and had a tangible effect. For example, one of my friends, before realising that I had become a Christian, welcomed me very warmly into his home, and with a very, very hospitable manner. But when he learned that I had become a Christian, his behaviour towards me changed. When I entered their house, he treated me like an impure person. I noticed that when I touched anything, immediately the dish was taken away and washed very thoroughly, as if there was something impure on it.

8. And when I went to different places to apply for a job, I had to fill out a form, including my personal details. And in all honesty, I wrote that my faith was “Christian”, but because of this they wouldn’t give me a job. I also had this problem at university. I learned from these experiences that announcing your new identity as a Christian brought with it major social deprivations. The only thing that comforted me at this time was that I was able to become more acquainted with Christianity through some satellite TV channels. 

Christian activities in the house-church

9. On 24 March 2004, through one of my relatives, I met another Christian. I then began to participate in the house-church meetings that were held in this person’s house, and I was taught by him. Later, I also completed a theology course.

10. Gradually, I also started taking part in other Christian activities, together with some other Christians from the house-church. I considered myself responsible for making Jesus Christ known among the Christian community, and the other people of my country. I wanted to convey the good message of Christ to all Iranians, so that they too would get to know Christ. I talked to many people about Christianity in the cities of Tehran, Qom, Kashan, and Arak. My main responsibility in these house-churches was teaching about Christianity, and the pastoral care of members.

11. After some time, our group started serving two separate and newly established house-churches in Arak. Once a week, we travelled there from Tehran and tried to do everything in one day: teaching, holding house-church services, and then travelling back to Tehran.

Arrest

12. On 17 September 2010, we met Amir*, a Christian friend, in Daneshjoo Park in Arak. We wanted to teach him about Christianity. That day, I hadn’t taken my Bible or Alpha course [introduction to Christianity] book with me; I had written down everything on a piece of paper. But Mahin*, another Christian who decided to accompany me to this meeting, had a Bible and another Christian book in her bag.

13. At 1.30pm, in the middle of our teaching, I noticed that a yellow taxi came and stopped near to us. It wasn’t a work day, but, unusually, the park was very empty, so the taxi stopping there caught my attention. After a while, we saw that a white van had arrived, and parked a few metres behind the taxi.

14. Four people got out of the van and approached us. One of them was a woman and the other three were men. One of the men asked: “What are you doing here? What is your relationship with each other?” They were wearing plainclothes but we understood from their manner that they were agents of the Ministry of Intelligence.

15. Without waiting for an answer, they immediately arrested us, and confiscated all our belongings, such as our phones. Mahin had 10 Gospels, 10 copies of the “Jesus” film, two Bibles, and one Alpha course book, which she was planning to give to some of the house-church members at the meeting scheduled to take place later at a friend’s home. 

16. The way they treated us was very rough and frightening as they handcuffed us and put us in the van. My left hand was handcuffed to Amir’s left hand. Mahin was handcuffed to the woman officer, who wore a chador. As they drove us to the detention centre, we were told to lower our heads. Then we were blindfolded, and from that moment on, none of us knew what was happening to the others in our group. 

Detention

17. As soon as we arrived and got out of the car, they separated us. They took me upstairs and, though blindfolded, it felt like I was in a very narrow corridor because my shoulders brushed against the walls on both sides as I walked. Then they put me in a solitary cell and I was then able to take off my blindfold and see my cell. 

18. It was a small room of about 1.5 x 1.5 metres. The ceiling was very high, about 10 metres from the floor. There was a dim lamp on the ceiling, covered by an old metal cover, which cut out most of the light, which was weak anyway. There was a Quran in the corner of the cell. There were two blankets in the middle of the floor, and two more in the corner. These dirty blankets later caused me serious problems in my lungs as, because it was so cold, I had to put the blankets over my face while sleeping. Towards the bottom of the cell door, there was a small slit, through which they gave me food. I returned the empty plate to the guard through the same slit. I had stomach problems, and an ulcer, and the shock and mental torture during my detention, plus the very poor quality of the food, made this worse. I spent the whole period of my detention in solitary confinement in the same set of clothes.

Interrogations

19. They totally ignored me on the first day of my detention. I guess they wanted to torture me psychologically. But the interrogations started the next day. The interrogations were extremely terrifying, and the interrogators insulted me.

20. I was interrogated five or six times a day for a week. Every day, wearing the same blindfold, I was taken out of the cell to a room, and made to sit on an armchair facing a wall. I knew I was sitting in front of a wall because my knees touched it. 

21. There were always two interrogators. One of them had a low voice, and this voice was present every day. I also knew from the tone of his voice that he was the same agent who had arrested us in Daneshjoo Park on the first day. But the second interrogator wasn’t always the same person.

22. During the first interrogation session, after they put me on the chair, they put a piece of paper in front of me. Then the interrogator with the low voice said to me: “Raise the corner of your blindfold, but don’t move your head to the left or to the right. And don’t look up. Keep your head down. Then answer carefully the questions written there. The initial questions, after my personal details, were related to my Christian beliefs and activities: “Are you a Christian? When did you become a Christian? Who made you become a Christian? Which members of your family have become Christians? Who did you convert to Christianity in Arak? Why did you have so many Bibles and films? What do you know about so and so [some of my Christian friends, whose names they knew]? Which people are leading you inside Iran? Which foreign countries do you have contact with and receive money from?” I admitted that I was a Christian, but denied the other accusations, and said: “I came to Arak to learn English and find a suitable job in my field.” I denied that I had engaged in any “propaganda” in Arak, and said the books I had were only for personal study.

Torture

23. At first, the interrogators’ behaviour was relatively mild. But, when they saw how insistent I was that I didn’t know anything, they became more and more violent. Eventually, they became so violent that during the interrogations, while I was sitting on the chair, they would hit my legs, hands, and the back of my shoulders with a hard object, though I didn’t know what it was. As they beat me, they insulted my family members and faith, intending to harass and torture me. In those moments, it was only the presence of Jesus Christ in my heart that gave me the strength to endure all this physical, mental, and psychological persecution, so that I could steadfastly hold on to all my beliefs.

24. Another way they tortured me during my detention regarded the toilet: I was allowed to go only every 12 hours. The toilet was outside my cell, and I had to go there blindfolded and with a guard. 

25. Another technique of the interrogators was to suddenly change their behaviour. For example, they started being very friendly with me and spoke to me very kindly, but I realised that they were trying to trick me. They suggested that I was ignorant and had been deceived, and said: “You work with other Christians outside of Iran, who live in nice places, have fun and take advantage of you. You’re now in prison, and none of them cares about you.” But none of their methods could break my resistance, and I didn’t deny my Christian identity. 

26. The interrogators found it hard to accept the fact that my father had been a cleric, and even a mullah. This fact wasn’t pleasant for them, and due to this they put me under a lot of pressure and harassment during my interrogations, and even after my temporary release.

27. My interrogators specifically wanted to fool me into thinking that I didn’t have any rights in Iran, and that I didn’t even have the right to choose my own religion or belief. They told me frankly and boldly: “You have no rights, and no choice, because your religion has already been chosen for you. They told me: “You were born a Muslim, and Shiite. So Shiite blood runs in your veins, and you don’t have any other choice.” But I don’t accept this notion, because religion and belief aren’t something that can be inherited or transmitted through blood. Religion and the choice of belief are the rights that God gives to all human beings. And I, as an Iranian, believe in the inalienable right to choose the religion I want to live by, and to define my life according to it. I recognise this right for all Iranians – for all the youth of Iran, and for all the people of Iran who are my dear compatriots – that God has given them this permission, and I also consider this to be their legal right. They should be able to choose whatever beliefs they want, and live according to them.

28. So I spent a week in detention in those terrible conditions, and they used various tricks, like promising to help me if I “cooperated”, physical and mental harassment, psychological torture, and so on. When they realised that their efforts were failing and that I wouldn’t turn away from my beliefs, they told me: “Even if you denied that you were a Christian, it would be useless and you would still be convicted. All your friends have confessed that you have misled them from the path of Islam. And, because of this, your crime is very serious and you’ll be convicted of ‘apostasy’ and will soon be executed.”

29. I remember that I was sitting in the corner of the cell after being beaten and remembered the words of Abraham Lincoln: “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.” And that’s all I could do; all I could do in that situation was to pray.

Arak Prison

30. After a week, I was blindfolded and transferred in a van from the detention centre to Arak Prison. I was held in quarantine [where prisoners are held before they are transferred or released] for a week. There I saw Hassan*, one of the other Christians from the house-church, but not Amir. On the second day in quarantine, my fingerprints were taken. The quarantine area was very dirty, and there were about  usually around 50 prisoners there, or even sometimes as many as 70. The room was completely packed full of beds. We were in quarantine with people who had committed regular crimes [not political prisoners] and who came from a low social class. Hassan and I were told we could only tell the other prisoners that our crime was “political”. We had many problems inside the quarantine, but we prayed together.

Ward 7

31. After a week in quarantine, we were transferred to the general ward, Ward 7, where there were over 200 prisoners. This ward had 11 rooms, with space for nine people in each, but in reality more people were assigned to each room than there were beds, and therefore these people had to sleep on the floor in the corridors, or even in front of the toilet doors. Once, the head of the prison, Haj Agha Vanaki, filmed inside Ward 7 to show the problems in Arak Prison to the higher authorities and try to help improve the conditions. Haj Agha Vanaki asked the prisoners to work with the film crew, so they could record a “natural” scene. He explained that prisoners should clean themselves up, and then pretend to be asleep, and not look directly at the camera. Therefore, at 10.30pm, all the prisoners went to bed in silence, and the film crew filmed the moment. But it should be noted that after the filming, very few changes were made to solve the prison’s problems, although one of the reforms was that the number of prisoners never exceeded 300.

32. As my lungs had been infected in solitary confinement, I had a very bad cough. But it wasn’t until much later, after I had been in prison for two months, that I was finally able to talk to the doctor and he gave me some medicine.

33. One day Hassan told me sadly that the interrogators had made him make a confession against me. They had scared him a lot during the interrogations. Since he had a teenage son, they [the interrogators] had even threatened the life of his child, and told him: “If you don’t sign what we want you to sign against Mojtaba, we’ll take your child from you! You know what we’re capable of! You live in this city, but Mojtaba doesn’t. He is from Tehran, but you are from Arak. You and your family live in our territory!” According to the text they had written, and which Hassan had been forced to sign, they accused me of “blasphemy” and used it against me in the court.

Court hearing

34. I was tried twice at Criminal Branch 106 of the Arak General Court. My first court hearing took place in February 2011, presided over by Judge Parviz Ghanbari, and I was charged with “propaganda activities against the regime of the Islamic Republic”. Mahin and Hassan were also charged at the same hearing, and all three of us were handcuffed. When we entered the judge’s room, he, as he looked at the prosecutor’s file, told us very harshly, with the worst insults: “You are foreign servants, intent on disturbing the Islamic minds and thoughts of the people of this country through your connections with foreign countries, as well as by using DVDs to spread your lies! You want to mislead the youth and to brainwash them and lead them away from Islam to Christianity. You intend to undermine the Islamic spirit in this country; you have insulted the Islamic sacred [people and things]!” 

35. The judge told me: “There is a lot of evidence against you.” Hassan, who had been forced to sign the interrogator’s papers against me, was very ashamed at this moment, and lowered his head in sorrow. The judge insulted our beliefs and said: “You have entered a path for which you must pay a heavy price! You and your families will be deprived of all governmental support and social facilities because you refused to return from Christianity to Islam!” 

36. The judge convicted all three of us of two crimes: “carrying out propaganda activities against the holy regime of the Islamic Republic”, and “insulting the sacred”. The trial lasted about two hours. After the first hearing, the judge announced that the court should be adjourned until the second hearing, when our cases could be reviewed in greater detail. He told us: “You can post bail of 30 million tomans [around $30,000] and be temporarily released from prison.”

37. Then all three of us were transferred to Arak General Prison, where I was able to call my family from inside Ward 7, and explain to them what had happened. After my arrest, I had only been able to call my family after my transfer from quarantine to General Ward 7. So until that moment, my family hadn’t known anything about my condition, and at that time my mother had only just returned from hospital after recovering from a stroke.

Bail

38. It took a month until my family managed to provide my bail, by submitting my aunt’s property deed, and secure my temporary release. So I was temporarily released on bail on Monday, 7 March 2011. Mahin and Hassan’s bail amounts were provided sooner, and for that reason they were released a week earlier than me.

39. I was detained for a total of 170 days – seven days in solitary confinement at the Ministry of Intelligence office in Arak, and 163 days either in quarantine or in the general ward of Arak Prison. My brother, Reza, came to get me from the prison, and together we returned to Tehran.

40. The second court hearing took place in April 2011, again in the General Court, at Branch 106, the Criminal Branch of Arak. Mahin, Hassan and I were all present, with our lawyer, Ms Amiri. But the point of view and statements of the judge hadn’t changed. The judge repeated his previous words. The lawyer defended us and presented her defence based on the constitution of the Islamic Republic and the principles of freedom of speech and thought. She also said that we hadn’t intended to promote Christianity.

41. In this second session, the judge reiterated that he wanted to make our case even heavier and more complicated. But in front of my eyes and to my surprise, Hassan suddenly stood up and said to the judge: “Everything I said against Mojtaba was a lie.” He started to cry loudly, and the judge made fun of him, saying: “You’re lying! What you first told us is true; now you’re lying!” But he replied: “What I told you first was a lie, but I am now telling the truth. Your interrogators threatened my child and my wife – they specifically said they would take my child away from me and take him to an unknown place, and that I wouldn’t see him again. That is why I told this lie against Mojtaba, in order to save the lives of my family members – especially my son, whom I love very much.” 

42. Hassan’s confession made the judge very angry, and although he didn’t seem very sure after this whether he could still uphold the charge of “insulting the sacred”, he still sentenced me to imprisonment for it. 

43. I had expected the judge to accept this confession with an open mind, but he became even more stubborn, and insulted me a lot, and finally sentenced me to three years in prison for “blasphemy”. I didn’t understand the reason for the judge’s behaviour. During the court session, he had told me with a smile: “Don’t worry, blaming people for things is our speciality and job! We can accuse anyone we want, and give them whatever verdict we want. So we can easily bring any charges necessary against you until it’s proven that you must go to jail!”

44. However, the appeals court judge, considering Hassan’s confession, later dropped this particular charge, and dismissed it. 

Family used as pressure tool

45. When I was still in prison, I expected my family to be under great pressure and harassment from the government, but since my mother was ill at the time – she was bed-bound at home in Tehran, with my brother nursing her – I realised that simply depriving me from being with my family was putting enough pressure on them, and since my interrogators knew this very well, and they had learned that it was very important for me to take care of my mother, they tried to keep me in prison for as long as possible. So my brother had to take care of our mother, and also to pursue my case. We both suffered because we couldn’t take good care of our mother. Once, when my brother had come to Arak to try to secure my release on bail, the judge had insulted him very badly. 

46. I don’t know why I trusted the interrogators with this information, but I told them: “My mother is sick. I should be at home. I should take care of my mother.” Since then, they used this very well, and they were able to put pressure on me for six months, while at the same time I didn’t really know how badly my mother was missing me. When I was finally temporarily released after six months and could return home, before entering my mother’s bedroom I was told that for those six months she had been constantly asking for me. And, since she was sick, she just lay on the bed and needed help just to change her position. As soon as I entered, I saw her weeping. Then she told me: “You didn’t love me. Why did you leave me and go away?” I kissed her and told her: “I was working, and I was away and couldn’t return.” She said: “I waited for a long time for you to come home!” I took her hand and kissed it, and wiped her tears away. My mother told me: “Make a promise not to leave me again until I am better!” I promised her that, but really I knew I would have to go back to prison soon. From that day on, my mother seemed to want to do all she could so that I wouldn’t leave her again. God heard my mother’s prayer. Before the prison sentence was issued, my mother died, but I was able to be by her side and take care of her until that moment. Sometimes I blame myself for telling the interrogator how I felt about my mother. I still think that if I hadn’t spoken about my mother’s illness, maybe they would have released me sooner.

Prison sentence and appeal

47. At the end of the second session of the court, the judge had said that it would be necessary to hold a third session, but that this may be held in absentia and that the verdict would be sent to us in the form of a notification. I received this notification on 23 July 2011.

48. Judge Ghanbari had sentenced me to three years in prison on the charge of “insulting the sacred”, and three years for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran”. In relation to the accusation of “insulting the sacred”, the judge referred to the forced confession that had been taken from my friend under the pressure of the interrogators, and which he had openly retracted in court.

49. I was given the opportunity to appeal within 20 days of the letter’s date of issue. After receiving the letter, I went to Arak to inform my lawyer about it, who then went to the court and lodged an appeal with the office of the Arak Court. She said to me: “Mahin and Hassan have also appealed against the sentence.”

Harassment and arrest by local Basij forces

50. From the moment of my temporary release from Arak Prison, I was harassed. And one of the ways I was harassed, which seriously bothered me, was through the Basij [paramilitary] force in our neighbourhood. Their main base was right in front of our house, and my family had been in the neighbourhood for a very long time, so everyone, including the Basijis, knew us very well. They also knew that my father was a spiritual man during his lifetime, and when I was arrested in Arak, the Basijis in our neighbourhood were aware. So my return from Arak to Tehran had made them angry. They didn’t expect me to be temporarily released. So they constantly sought to upset me because of their own disappointment. Of course, if they were aware of my harassment and torture in Arak Prison, they would have been happy. They arrested me almost once a month, and released me after harassment, threats and insults. Every day, everywhere I went, they followed me like a shadow. And they even made it completely obvious, and when I noticed them, not only did they never try to hide themselves; they held my gaze, to ridicule me. The Basij agents even went after my friends who had visited me after my release, and released them after harassment, threats and insults. From the moment I was imprisoned in Arak Prison, Basij forces started taking pictures of all the people who went in and out of our house.

51. One day, the Basijis arrested one of my friends, and took him to their base. After harassing and threatening him, they showed him a series of the photos they had taken from outside my house during my imprisonment in Arak, and wanted him to identify the people in the photos. Then they found these people, and harassed, threatened and insulted them to force them to cut ties with me. And ultimately the Basijis succeeded in their plans, and I lost almost all my friends and became totally isolated.

Appeal court

52. In my defence bill I had protested against my sentence based on the false confession. On my lawyer’s advice, I didn’t attend the hearing in person, but she represented me in court. In December 2011 I received the first letter from the court of appeal, regarding the objection to the first charge. The appeal-court judge had dropped the charge of “insulting the sacred” because of insufficient evidence, and dismissed it. So I was acquitted of this charge, and the first of my two three-year prison sentences was overturned.

53. Then, two months later, in February 2012, I received another letter from the court of appeal regarding the second charge, stating that the court had rejected my appeal against the accusation of “propaganda activities against the Islamic Republic”, and upheld the sentence. Since I had been acquitted of “insulting the sacred”, my final sentence was three-years’ imprisonment for “propaganda against the regime”. 

54. I tried very hard to be acquitted from the second charge as well, but it didn’t happen. I was well aware that my return to Arak Prison would be accompanied by torture, so I wasn’t willing to go there voluntarily at all. I called my lawyer, and she promised me that she would follow up my case, so I waited to see if my lawyer’s defence could help me.

Arrest warrant

55. On 22 July 2012, I received a warning letter from the court’s execution department, stating that I must present myself at Arak court within 20 days. But I was insistent that our lawyer should keep trying to reduce our sentences, and for this reason I wasn’t willing to give up until the last moment.

56. In November 2012, I was informed through my lawyer that my arrest warrant had been issued. One of my relatives, who was an employee of a government institution, also contacted me and informed me that he was aware of the warrant. His advice was to “flee as soon as possible”! I had heard the same advice many times from the agents who had followed me in the months after the verdict.

57. But after hearing it from my relative, I quickly returned home – no-one else was there – and gathered my belongings very quickly and left Tehran immediately. I didn’t know what to do, but I realised that my insistence on staying in Iran had all been in vain.

Forced migration

58. As I said, my mother had died during the court process. Meanwhile, my younger brother was under a lot of pressure and threats from the Ministry of Intelligence, and his life and work were disrupted. My efforts to defend my rights had all been ultimately fruitless. I had wanted to stay in my homeland, Iran. But I realised that my family wouldn’t be safe from pressure and harassment either, so I must leave Iran, even against my will.

59. Nevertheless, I had some problems leaving the country: my passport was confiscated, and I didn’t know whether I had been banned from leaving the country. I applied for a replacement passport, using a different address, and it was issued, which indicated that I wasn’t banned. 

60. My passport was finally issued on 5 February 2013 and I received it on 19 February 2013. As we approached the beginning of the next Iranian year [21 March 2013], I knew finding a seat on a plane would be very difficult, but with a lot of effort, I was able to buy a plane ticket for 25 March 2013. So on that date I left Iran and entered Turkey. After emigrating, for many years I still wanted to return to Iran and didn’t intend to seek asylum. But as time went by, the situation became more difficult for Persian-speaking Christians in Iran, and the wave of persecution of Christians intensified. Therefore, I officially became a refugee by referring to the UN Refugee Agency. I’ve continued to serve the Church and Christians, but despite the passage of almost nine years I am still in a temporary situation and haven’t even been interviewed. But I haven’t lost my faith and trust in Christ.


*Names changed.