Witness Statements

Farhad and Shahnaz

Farhad and Shahnaz

For a summary of Rev Farhad and Shahnaz’s story, you can read our feature article here.


Background

Farhad

1. My name is Farhad Sabokrooh. I was born in 1964 and raised in a family of Mandaean faith – followers of John the Baptist – in the city of Ahvaz [southwest Iran, where many Mandaeans live]. After the revolution of 1979, our ethno-religious minority went through a time of religious revival, and from that time on I underwent special training in the Mandaean religion and began to learn more about it. I loved God and did everything to gain His approval.

2. And in that same year, when I was 15 years old, one of my friends talked to me about Christianity, and for about a month we had serious discussions about it. After some struggles, with the guidance of my friend, I became a Christian on 19 September 1979, and engaged in Christian activities from the very beginning. By chance, I became friends with another Christian, and in the central square of Ahvaz we used to sell Christian books and Bibles to people. One day we sold all the books we had, so we decided to rest the next day. And on that day, a terrible thing happened and the central square of Ahvaz was bombed by the Iraqis, and razed to the ground. But although God had protected me and my friend that day, the Iran-Iraq War became more intense every day, and my family eventually decided to move to Karaj. And it was there, in [nearby] Tehran, that I got to know the Assemblies of God [AoG] denomination, and learned more about Christianity.

Church in Ahvaz

3. After the war ended, we returned to Ahvaz, where for a while I held meetings with a few other Christians at my office, on Fridays, when the office was closed. After some time, the number of members of our group increased, so one of the leaders of the AoG [from Tehran] came to lead us, and for two years we met at the home he had rented, before he was arrested and imprisoned by the security forces and eventually expelled from Ahvaz. A second pastor then came from the AoG [in Tehran] and he also led our church for about two years, before he was also expelled from Ahvaz after being arrested and imprisoned by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security [MOIS].

4. Myself and some other members of the group continued to lead our meetings, but we had no ordained minister. So, Bishop Haik Hovsepian, who was the supervisor of the churches in our denomination, and other members of the leadership board of the Council of AoG churches, invited us to Tehran to participate in a decision-making meeting. And in that meeting, I was entrusted with the responsibility of our church. I was the youngest member of our church, but I obeyed the decision of the leaders and began to lead our meetings. Then, after six months and further evaluations of the way our church was being run, the AoG’s Council of Ministers invited me to work as a full-time pastor. I was about 22 or 23 years old at that time, and I was eager and zealous to serve, even though I had little experience. Half of my time I was active in the church, and the other half I worked for a company affiliated with the Ministry of Housing.

5. I met Shahnaz at the very beginning of my Christian activities, and we got married. We have two sons named Samuel and Emmanuel, and a daughter named Angel. Our house became a house-church, and each of us was involved in the running of it.

Shahnaz

6. My name is Shahnaz Jizan and I was born in Ahvaz in 1961, in a Mandaean family. I was religious, but I was also interested in comparing my own beliefs with those of other religions, and in 1982 I received a Bible and some other Christian books and started studying them. I corresponded with an address in Tehran, and they sent me lessons on Christian teachings, and I studied them. This process continued until the beginning of 1983, when these Christian beliefs were completely embedded in me and I believed in Christ. After some time, I became acquainted with a church on the outskirts of Ahvaz, which was held in the home of one of the members. It was a remote area, far from urban amenities, but the people living there treated us with kindness, hospitality and respect. Then, two years after I joined the church, we moved to a more accessible place in the city, and travelling there became easier. Attending church worship meetings helped deepen and strengthen my faith.

7. However, the local Mandaean religious leaders were very upset with us and with other relatives of ours who had also become Christians. They wrote an official notice, officially banning us from entering the temple and other sacred places; we couldn’t even attend weddings or funerals. But our families accepted our Christian status; they saw the positive changes in us, and this is why they not only didn’t reject us, but actually became our supporters and defenders. Our neighbours also knew we were Christians and treated us with respect.

8. Many people and entire families – even extended families – became Christians in Ahvaz and the surrounding area. Many were healed, and many were freed from drug addiction. Couples that were in the process of a divorce were reconciled, and we witnessed the healing of many other relationships within families. Our church grew rapidly, and we were very encouraged and happy, and continued to engage in Christian activities with strength and pride, but the Ministry of Intelligence became concerned at seeing such growth.

First summons and arrest

Farhad

9. Our church had been held at our home for many years, and the authorities had known about this and hadn’t opposed it, until one day, in 1994, when I was summoned to the Ministry of Intelligence “to answer some questions”. Until this moment, although they wouldn’t give us official permission to build or rent a church building, our house-church and several others in cities such as Shahinshahr, Karaj, Tehran and Mashhad, which were operating in the same way under the supervision of the AoG Council, were allowed to operate unofficially. But now the interrogator told me: “You must close your church.” I said: “A church is the house of God; I don’t have the authority to close it! It’s true that church services take place in our home, but it isn’t only our home; it’s a church! If you insist the church must close, you will have to do it yourself.” The interrogator, who didn’t want the responsibility of closing the church to fall on them, threatened me a lot and said: “Take some rest, think about it, and we’ll summon you to come here again in two days. But this time, come back knowing that you will have to sign a commitment promising to close the church.” I insisted that I wouldn’t, but two days later they called me again and summoned me. So I went back to the Ministry of Intelligence, but again resisted their pressure. The interrogator said: “The warrant for your arrest and imprisonment is on the table! If you don’t sign this agreement to close the church, we’ll take you to prison!” I replied that I was ready to go to prison.

10. I was blindfolded, and put in a car with tinted windows. They took me to a detention centre, which I later found out belonged to the Ministry of Intelligence, and there I was interrogated. The interrogations were intense, and long. The interrogator’s focus was on these issues: “You have no right to allow Muslim-born and Persian-speaking people into your church; Christianity is for Armenians and Assyrians.” I opposed this way of thinking, and said: “Based on our beliefs and the Bible, we are not permitted to stop anyone from entering the church.”

11. A few days before my arrest, Bishop Haik Hovsepian had disappeared, and no-one knew what had happened to him. Then, during the interrogations, the interrogator said something strange. He said: “Maybe you want to make yourself a hero, like those who went to prison or were killed, and to make a name for yourself?” I replied: “No! I am not someone who wants to make a name and build status for myself. I am a Christian pastor who only wants to continue with his activities.” But the interrogator’s response worried me. He said: “If you think you can make a name and build status for yourself like Haik, you should know that we won’t give you this opportunity. Whenever we want, we’ll bring the same disaster to you as we did to Haik!” So when we later discovered that Haik had been killed, I knew for sure that his martyrdom was the work of the Ministry of Intelligence. After four days, I was released from prison, and I returned home without signing any commitment.

12. During my first three days in detention, they subjected me to about six or seven intense interrogation sessions, and on the third day they took me and shaved my head, and gave me prison clothes to wear. This caused me more mental and emotional pressure. However, I still refused to sign any commitment. Maybe they wanted to make me think that I would be there forever, and that it wasn’t only a temporary detention. But on the fourth day, they came to my cell and said: “Change your clothes.” I thought to myself that maybe they wanted to take me to the court, or to another prison. I changed back into my clothes, which they had returned to me, and then they blindfolded me and put me in a car. We left the detention centre, and the car went along for a while; I felt that they were trying to make me lose track of where we were, and that the car was just driving round in circles. After about 15 minutes, the car stopped, and they took me out and said: “Don’t open your eyes! Stand here and count to 20. Then open your eyes, and go.” “Where?” I asked. “To your home,” they said. I opened my eyes, and saw that I was next to one of the squares on the outskirts of Ahvaz. This is how, on the fourth day of my detention, I was released, without any charges or judicial explanation, and I returned home. That day was a Tuesday, and when I got back home I saw that many Christian believers were there, praying.

13. I continued my church activities and was regularly summoned by telephone to the Ahvaz Ministry of Intelligence, and every time they asked me the same questions. At first, I was summoned once a week, and then after a while I had to go twice a month, or once every few months, and every time they warned me that we had to stop our church meetings.

14. In 2004, I was given new responsibilities by the AoG Council. I was placed in charge of a number of other “informal” churches, whose worship activities were held in homes and not in an official church building. I used to visit eight or nine churches every month, in the cities of Shiraz, Bushehr, Kermanshah, Gorgan, Gonbad, Chalus, and Mashhad, so I was constantly travelling. These trips caused the Ministry of Intelligence to summon me more often, and interrogate me as to why I was visiting these cities, and what I did there. The Ministry of Intelligence pressured me more and more every day, but I continued with my activities with the faith and hope I had in God.

Mass arrest of church members and leaders at Garden of Sharon

15. Every year, we held the annual meeting of the Council of AoG churches in the Garden of Sharon [retreat centre] near Karaj, where the representatives from the churches of the AoG would discuss the various issues regarding administration of the churches for which the council was responsible. And every year, before we held these meetings, the local police station was informed, so that with permission a large number of people could participate in these meetings. So these meetings weren’t secret; the judicial and law-enforcement authorities were also aware of them.

16. In the gathering we held there in 2004, around 75 members of the different churches attended, as well as many of the main leaders of the AoG council, including myself, Rev Vartan Avanessian, Rev Robert Asseriyan, Rev Soren [Sourik] Sarkissian, Rev Harmik Nowroozi, Rev Omid Azgami, Rev George Hovsepian, Pastor Hamid Pourmand, and Brother Nishan Khachatourian.

17. On the second day of this meeting, 9 September 2004, between 10.30 and 11.30 in the morning, about 20 armed agents of the Ministry of Intelligence raided the Garden of Sharon. Some officers climbed the walls, while others positioned themselves around the outside of the complex. The first thing they did was to ask us to stop our annual meetings, cooperate with them, and answer their questions.

18. Their arrival caused a lot of chaos and anxiety. The pastors and other senior leaders protested their illegal entry, and asked the intelligence officers to leave. They filmed all the conversations and arguments that we had, and said they had orders from the highest security authority in the land, the Supreme National Security Council, to implement this order. Our arguments escalated, but in the end the officers said: “We have a duty to do this; we cannot allow you to continue your meeting. In order to have further discussions with you, we have prepared a ‘hotel’ for you, where you will be our guests tonight.” While uttering the word “hotel”, with a sneer, he added: “We are going somewhere we can talk a bit more.” But we had no idea at the time that they were referring to Rajaei Shahr Prison as a hotel!

19. They added: “Collect all your belongings so we can take you to the ‘hall’ we specially prepared for your gathering.” They had arrived with many different cars and even buses, so it was clear they had already planned to execute the arrest warrant. Then every one of us was taken to the governor’s office in the Mohammad Shahr district of Karaj, where we were given forms to fill in, including our personal details and other questions regarding why and how we had become Christians, and which church we attended. This written interrogation lasted about two hours. Then they put us all back onto the buses and took us back to the Garden of Sharon.

20. Then the security officers said: “You are all now to return to your homes, except for the pastors who are members of the council.” And, together with the other pastors, though in separate cars, they took me to Rajaei Shahr Prison. They told us again that they had a mandate from the country’s highest security officials to discuss the status of the AoG, and reach a series of agreements, but this wasn’t true; really they only intended to impose on us what they had already predetermined.

Detention of pastors in Rajaei Shahr Prison

21. When we arrived at Rajaei Shahr Prison, it was night and each of us was taken to solitary confinement. During the next three days of detention in prison, all nine of us were interrogated a lot, separately. To sum up what they said, they told us: “Your churches have no right to continue their activities. According to the 10-year plan that we are working on, all Evangelical churches, including all branches of the Assemblies of God, must stop their activities. From now on, your churches don’t have the right to evangelise and advertise your beliefs, especially among Muslims; you don’t have the right to accept new members; you should inform the Ministry of Intelligence before doing any activity; you mustn’t baptise anyone; even if it is an Armenian or Assyrian [recognised as Christians] who is going to be baptised, you must inform the Ministry of Intelligence.” They emphasised: “We know many people come to your churches of their own accord, but you have no right to let them enter. Tell them the law has changed and, ‘You aren’t allowed to enter’. If they insist, get a written commitment from them that they themselves must accept the consequences of coming to a church and know they may be summoned by the Ministry of Intelligence and questioned.”

22. They added: “Whether you like it or not, we are the leaders, the rulers of this country, and therefore we must know what is happening in the churches; this is our most natural right. We must know what decisions the churches make, what thoughts they have. This is an Islamic country, and we cannot accept that through the propaganda of churches Muslims become Christians and convert to Christianity. One of the ideals of our revolution is that the rest of the nations become Muslims; not that Muslims become Christians, which goes against the interests of the Islamic government!”

23. All of us strongly opposed and resisted what the Ministry of Intelligence told us and, after further discussions, they agreed not to close our churches for the time being, but said we should continue our activities in line with their expectations. We also objected to this, but they told us: “The Supreme National Security Council told us that you reverends can stay in prison for as long as you reject what we tell you, and we will close all the churches in Iran!”

24. We all had different opinions, but none of us was willing to accept every one of their conditions. But in any case, it seemed that we weren’t really in control of our fate. Some of us said that we shouldn’t accept anything the Ministry of Intelligence had demanded of us, and just stay in prison. But others thought we wouldn’t be able to change anything by remaining in prison, and the churches all being closed, and that therefore it was better to accept some of their conditions and reach a compromise. The hope was that after we were released, we may be able to think more clearly and creatively to find ways of changing certain things in our churches. We didn’t reach a consensus, but based on the opinion of the majority it was decided that we should agree on some of the things they had demanded of us. For example, we agreed not to accept new members; to agree that if people wanted to become Christians, or come to church, that the responsibility of that decision should lie with them; that we would minimise the evangelism in our sermons, or at least not evangelise so obviously as before. In addition, we agreed to submit to them the names of the members of our churches, as requested by the Ministry of Intelligence, after discussing this first with our members.

25. The security authorities’ justification for having the names of the members of our churches was that someone who was against the regime and carried out anti-regime or terrorist activities could enter our churches and hide under the cover of the Church, and that if they [the security officials] knew the names of the members, they could identify anyone who may be intending to sabotage the country by using Christianity as a pretext, as opposed to those who were true Christians.

26. We had several church buildings that were officially registered, but we also had churches that hadn’t been registered because they didn’t have an official building, and they wanted to close all the churches that hadn’t been officially registered, but we refused.

27. They also said we could continue our activities only on the condition that we told all the Persian-speaking members of our churches to leave, and that we stopped allowing them to enter. We strongly opposed this demand, and after many debates and discussions reached an agreement that the Persian-speakers who had already become Christians could stay in our churches but that we wouldn’t accept new members. In the end, we also had to agree to their other conditions, such as: “We won’t evangelise; we won’t have church activities outside of church buildings; we won’t accept Persian-speakers and Muslims in our churches; and we won’t baptise people without the permission of the security forces.” In this way, they imposed their predetermined goals on us, and falsely labelled this as “reaching an agreement”.

28. We were released after three nights, four days, and actually we didn’t really adhere to many of the provisions they had forced upon us in that so-called “agreement”. But eventually, this same “agreement” became the basis for the Ministry of Intelligence to close our churches, as they argued that: “You didn’t adhere to the text of the 2004 agreement, and that’s why we closed your churches.”

29. We realised that our official church buildings were in their last days, and that the Ministry of Intelligence was determined to close all of them, but we tried to preserve them as long as possible. During the various meetings we had as the board of reverends and leaders, we exchanged opinions on how far and to what extent we should comply with the “agreement”, and there were many differences of opinion and ways in which we all responded. We were aware that by not complying with the terms of the agreement we had made, the Ministry of Intelligence would close down our churches, so we reminded each other not to openly engage in sensitive activities, so as to not give them the reason they were looking for to move against us.

30. Perhaps the Ministry of Intelligence thought that, under such coercion, they could bend our official churches to their will, even if house-churches were out of their control. After the “agreement”, some of the pastors and leaders who had been detained started out with their own, independent activities, and house-churches grew rapidly. And as these house-churches were held secretly, the pastors didn’t know each other’s activities. However, the Ministry of Intelligence warned us several times, and said: “We know that you do evangelistic activities; you have formed house-groups, and your pastors and leaders are busy with activities!” In general, we couldn’t or didn’t want to fully implement the provisions of the agreement.

Shahnaz

31. My husband Farhad had been summoned many times by the Ahvaz Ministry of Intelligence, so this wasn’t anything new for me or for my children. Nevertheless, we were very worried when he was detained by the Ministry of Intelligence at the Garden of Sharon, along with the other reverends and leaders. I had been invited to a Christian conference in the Netherlands, and had already bought my ticket, but after hearing this news I had many concerns and knew I must discuss what had happened with the members of our church in Ahvaz. I had to decide whether or not to travel and, most importantly, I was worried about my husband and the other detainees. In the end, my children and I went to Tehran, and attended the Sunday meeting of the Central AoG church there, and at the end of the meeting we were informed that those detained had been released. On the one hand we were happy, and on the other hand we were very sad when we learned about the “agreement”. It was a complex situation. From that day forward, my husband and I, our children and our church members constantly anticipated the next unpredictable act of the Ministry of Intelligence.

Farhad

32. Being detained by the Ministry of Intelligence had become normal for me and my family. During our detention in Rajaei Shahr, I was worried about my wife, Shahnaz, my children, and our church members, but I was sure that our detention wouldn’t last long. What occupied my mind was the preservation of the life of the Church in Iran. My mind was busy with the question of what measures should be taken by the churches under these circumstances. The nine of us who had been detained had been held in solitary confinement and therefore hadn’t had the opportunity to exchange thoughts, console or strengthen one another.

33. Before I was arrested at the Garden of Sharon, Ministry of Intelligence agents in Ahvaz had told me in the interrogation sessions to which I was summoned: “The place you call a church is a residential house; not a church! It is illegal to use it in this way! You must close the church that meets in your house!” But I answered: “We want to have a place to meet legally, but you still haven’t passed the parliamentary bill that would allow us to obtain an official licence to operate, and have left this issue undecided, so it’s your problem that you haven’t clarified the role of minorities yet!” They also accepted that the legal problem was theirs, and said that was why they had allowed us to continue to meet in our home until that moment. But after what happened to me and the other leaders [at the Garden of Sharon], I realised how much more possible it would be for them to close our church in Ahvaz if the Ministry of Intelligence was also determined to close the official churches. Day by day, the number of Christians in our church increased, and the Ministry of Intelligence was worried about the extensive services of our church. In Ahvaz, we didn’t proceed according to the “agreement” we had made, and that’s why the first church that they closed, in 2011, was our Ahvaz church. Earlier, the Ministry of Intelligence had contacted Reverend Sourik, the head of the AoG Council, and said: “Mr Reverend, control the Ahvaz church and Farhad’s activities! They are pushing the boundaries a lot! The case against them is thick!”

Christmas arrest and closure of church

34. My wife and I led our house-church in Ahvaz for about 25 years in all, and in these years I was regularly summoned to the Ministry of Intelligence. I remember saying to my interrogator one day: “For 17 years, you have been summoning me to the Ministry of Intelligence, bringing me here and interrogating me repeatedly. What do you want from us? If I had committed manslaughter, I would have been imprisoned for 15 years, and then it would be over. But for 17 years, you have been constantly interrogating me, and you aren’t stopping!” The interrogator laughed and said: “Well, if you wait, you will see that this too will come to an end!” After this conversation, they didn’t bother me for a while.

35. But in 2011, as Christmas approached, I remember saying to my wife one day, after returning from visiting a church in Bushehr: “I feel that the days of my arrest are approaching. I think they’ll call me soon and I won’t come back. So, if this happens, I leave the responsibility of our children and our church to you.”

36. Then, on 23 December 2011, we gathered together with our church members to celebrate Christmas, and about an hour after worshipping together, the bell rang. We thought it was another member of the church, but the member who opened the door told us: “The intelligence agents have arrived!” Before ringing the doorbell, some agents had climbed the wall of our house. They surrounded the house and even shut off the road on both sides. There must have been around 40 agents, and they introduced themselves as belonging to the Ministry of Intelligence. They wore tinted glasses and balaclavas to cover their faces. Three of them had cameras, and filmed what they did. First of all, they confiscated all our mobile phones, and separated the men from the women. I said to the person who seemed to be in charge: “I know you have come here to close this church and deal with the person responsible for it. I am in charge of this church, so please don’t do anything to the rest of the people here. Let them go.” At that moment, the idea that our church would be closed after all our years of hard work was the worst feeling I have ever had. The agents searched the whole house in a brutal way, and confiscated many things, such as our computer, Bibles, videos, and cassette tapes.

37. One of the members of our church was a lady who had become pregnant after many years of trying, and she was in the early, critical months, and wasn’t in a good condition. With the agents’ raid, she was shocked and fainted. We were very worried about her. The children were also crying and screaming, and didn’t know the reason the agents had entered, and why they looked the way they did. The agents had created a really horrible and terrifying atmosphere; all of us were anxious and worried. One of the agents went to my wife, Shahnaz, and said: “Put a headscarf on!” My wife said: “This is our house; I don’t wear a headscarf here. You came here, and you aren’t a mahram [member of the family in whose presence, under Islamic guidance, a headcovering is not necessary], so you should leave as soon as possible.” The agent raised a gun to my wife, and said: “If you don’t put your headscarf on, I’ll beat you with this gun!” My son Emmanuel couldn’t bear it, and got into a fight with the agent. If the other agents hadn’t separated them, Emmanuel would have been seriously injured.

38. The members of the church who were present at the Christmas party were put on the buses the agents had brought with them, and taken to the Revolutionary Court. They interrogated every one of them for about three hours, and got written commitments from them that they would go to court or to the offices of the Ministry of intelligence for questioning whenever they were summoned. They were released only after signing these written commitments.

39. The officers had an arrest warrant for me, my wife Shahnaz, and our children, Emmanuel, who was 21 years old at the time, and Angel, who was 19, along with two men who also helped lead our church, Nasser Zamen-Dezfuli and Davoud Alijani. One of the intelligence agents said: “If you don’t resist, and cooperate with us, we won’t take Emmanuel and Angel to prison, for now at least.” Shahnaz and I were then put into a car with tinted windows, and blindfolded, and the two other leaders of the church were taken away in another car.

40. Myself, Shahnaz and the two other church leaders were first taken to the Revolutionary Court. After our church members had been interrogated and made their commitments, I said goodbye to them and said to some of them: “God-willing, we’ll see each other soon; if not this week, we’ll continue our meetings again next week.” But the agent who was responsible for arresting us said: “No! There is no more church! The Assemblies of God Church will no longer exist in Khuzestan Province!” Hearing this placed a heavy burden upon my heart; I was deeply saddened, and it was hard to accept this.

Shahnaz

41. During the sweet and pleasant moments of Christmas, for which we had been preparing for months, the agents brutally entered our house and completely ransacked it. All the children of our Sunday school were scared, and crying. After pushing us around, one of the agents said: “We’re going to take you and Farhad, and I’m not sure when you’ll return home, so make sure you children understand this!” So I told my children: “Take care of each other, and protect our home and life until we return. Don’t worry about us; be sure that God will help us, and that this issue will be resolved.” My daughter, Angel, cried, and I told her: “My daughter, we must stand strong on this path that we have chosen, until the end. Make your heart strong, don’t let yourself down, and stand firm until we see what will happen.”

42. Every time the Ministry of Intelligence had previously summoned my husband Farhad for interrogation, I had tried to comfort my children, and they had seen my courage and resistance, and were encouraged. But this was the first time that both my husband and I had been detained, and as a result I saw that my children were more stressed and worried than ever before. One of our relatives came to our house to take care of them during the 10 days of my detention at the Ministry of Intelligence. Later, I learned that my daughter would sit in a corner, not eating, due to her anxiety and worry. As a result, she had even fallen ill, and had to be taken to the hospital.

43. After making their commitments in the courthouse, our church members went back to our house, where our church meetings were held. They were used to going there every day. But the Ministry of Intelligence summoned them again and told them that they had made their commitments and mustn’t go to Farhad and Shahnaz’s house again, under any circumstances. They answered: “The parents of these children are now in prison, so we are going there for the children.”

Interrogations in Ministry of Intelligence detention centre

44. They took me out of the car and led me somewhere, blindfolded. One of the agents said: “You have entered the security prison.” They took me into a dark and small cell. I felt extremely scared, and said to myself: “Shahnaz, you’re here now because of the faith you have stood for, for years. All the things you learned and all the things you talked about with others, what God said in His Word, is happening to you now. So stand up for your faith, and know that you are only experiencing the things you have taught others to expect.” These thoughts helped me to get through those difficult days in detention.

45. After three days, I told them that I needed to talk to my children. “I still don’t know why I was arrested!” I said. “My husband has also been arrested; you can interrogate him, but let me be with my children!” The interrogator said: “You’re here for the crime of Christianity!” They demanded that Farhad and I write down the names of our church members in Ahvaz, and also in the other cities where Farhad supervised churches. They said: “You have overstepped the limits we set for you! You have rebelled! We will not allow you to convert Muslims to Christianity!”

46. The interrogator told me: “You can no longer have a church in Ahvaz! Why do you stay in Ahvaz? Go to the church in Tehran! It’s bigger there, and the scope for Christian activities is greater; you can no longer live here!” I said: “We are from Ahvaz! How can we live anywhere else?” What the interrogator was suggesting was very painful and difficult to hear. We and our church members were like family; we loved each other. They were a brave family, too, who were by our side until the last moment, and didn’t leave us on our own.

47. I prayed regularly during my detention, and one day I heard the voice of God inside me, saying: “Those who wait on the Lord will not be put to shame.” I was encouraged, and my hope was restored. Later, I realised that not only had our church members not turned away from their faith, but the news of our arrest had actually spread and many people had as a result become eager to hear more about Christianity, and even became Christians.

48. In the detention centre, they played the call to prayer and it was very loud. I didn’t sleep well. Meanwhile, from the words that were written on the walls of my cell, I realised that other Christian prisoners had been detained there before me. When Farhad and the two other leaders from our church were being interrogated, I could hear it, but when the interrogator began to shout, they would turn up the volume of the television they had so that other prisoners couldn’t hear him. Once, I heard Farhad being interrogated from early in the morning until 10 or 11 at night, and I became very worried that the interrogators planned to interrogate us for such long hours every day.

49. In actual fact, I was taken for interrogations every other day. Once, at around 10 o’clock at night, they took me to the prosecutor’s office, where they put a sheet of paper in front of me with questions written on it. I was surprised, because all the questions were the same ones I’d already answered. I said: “I already answered these questions! Why do you want me to answer them again?” The man standing behind me said: “Don’t turn around! The prosecutor of your case is here, so you have to answer these questions.”

50. After I was released I found out that the Ministry of Intelligence had regularly summoned Emmanuel and Angel during my detention, and interrogated them about the photos they had found on our computer, demanding they identify people.

Farhad

51. They took me, blindfolded, to a cell in the detention centre of the Ministry of Intelligence. It was around 1 or 2pm. In that cell, the light was constantly on, and you could only guess the time of day by the meals you were brought. The call to prayer was played unusually loudly. I would go to sleep late at night and be awoken at 4 in the morning with the loud call to prayer. Then, from 6 in the morning until the end of the day, they kept a television on extremely loudly, depriving prisoners of comfort and peace. Meanwhile, the screams of other prisoners enduring torture made me anxious and worried about what would happen to me.

52. The thoughts that went through my mind during my time in that cell were: will we no longer have a church? Is it possible there can be another solution, and that we can find a way of keeping the church alive? But I knew in my heart that this was the end of the road and that they were going to close the church. I had a strange sadness in my heart. In the solitude of solitary confinement, I anticipated possible questions from the interrogators and considered what answers I might give to avoid causing harm to our church.

53. I experienced many inner conflicts, challenges and struggles during those days. Sometimes, while praying, I would ask God: “Why did you allow me to be arrested?” But the struggles, wrestles and battles that I had with myself, and with God, made me remember His promises in the Bible. Firstly, I regularly remembered the story of the apostles of Christ who were praying in prison, and how the prison doors were opened and they were freed. What a testimony, and what an incredible thing to have happened! In my first days in detention, I was constantly anticipating that such a miraculous event would take place for me, that I would be released from prison in an amazing way, and that this would be an encouragement and testimony for myself and other believers. But after two, four, five and 10 days passed, I gradually understood that this wasn’t going to happen in my case, and I asked God why this miracle hadn’t happened. It was then that I realised that I must deal with difficulties more realistically, and understand that miracles won’t always happen – at least not every time – and that sometimes God allows things to take their natural course.

Temporary release

54. I was detained in the Ministry of ّIntelligence detention centre for two months. I was interrogated for about 10 to 12 hours every other day, and the interrogations were intense. The interrogator threatened me that I would face very serious charges and punishments; I had many fears and worries in those days.

55. My wife Shahnaz was released sooner than me [1 January 2012]. Then, after two months’ detention [21 February], Nasser and I were released on bail until the day of our trial, when the charges against us would be heard. Davoud was also released shortly after us [8 March].

56. It was only after my release that I realised that during the period Shahnaz and I had been detained, some of the leaders of the AoG had been constantly calling the Ministry of Intelligence, demanding our release. Some church leaders had also come to Ahvaz to visit Shahnaz, who was released earlier than me, and hearing this was a comfort and encouragement to me.

Forced to leave Ahvaz

57. After our temporary release, the Ministry of Intelligence wouldn’t allow us to stay in Ahvaz. We were given a choice either to go to Tehran, or to be exiled to Sistan and Baluchestan Province [in the far southeast]! So we had to move to Tehran. The cost of living in Tehran was very high, and our church had closed so I had no income. But as it was part of the Council of AoG churches, I started working in the Tehran church, and they did everything in their power to meet our needs. During this time, many Christians called us and comforted us, and we found this even more encouraging after learning later that the Ministry of Intelligence had threatened some of them not to communicate with us.

58. The MOIS interrogator had also told me: “By the way, you should know that from now on you are stripped of your clerical collar and title. You are no longer recognised as a Minister!” I laughed, and he asked the reason why. In response, I said: “Did you appoint me to the position of Minister, or place the clerical collar around my neck, such that you are now able to remove it? Feel free to give such orders to your own religious order, but my title and clerical collar is a matter for the Church to decide on, not you!”

Court and prison sentence

59. Around seven months after my temporary release, our court hearing was held [in the second branch of the Ahvaz Revolutionary Court, presided over by Judge Seyyed Mohammad Baqer Mousavi]. The primary charge against us was “propaganda against the regime”, and as examples of this “crime”, the judge said we were guilty of “converting to Christianity”, “inviting Muslim people to change their religion”, and “spreading Evangelical Christianity”.

60. Finally, [on 21 October 2012] the judge of Ahvaz Revolutionary Court sentenced me, my wife Shahnaz, and the two other church leaders to one year in prison each, under Article 500 of the Islamic Penal Code, and issued an order of confiscation for several of our personal belongings, including computer equipment, laptops, books, and educational pamphlets, which were all considered the “tools” with which we had committed our “crime”.

61. We appealed against the verdict, but the [13th Branch of the Court of Appeal of Khuzestan Province] upheld the verdict [on 28 March 2013, under Judge Gholamhossein Zat-Ajam and Counsellor Nasser Hejazian].

Prison

62. Davoud submitted himself to the Ahvaz Revolutionary Court to serve his sentence [on Wednesday 1 May 2013]. Shahnaz, Nasser and I, went to the court on Saturday 4 May, after learning of our own summonses, and from there we were transferred to Sepidar Prison in Ahvaz.

63. They took me to the general ward for men, and Shahnaz to the general ward for women. Upon arrival, one of the prison officials told Nasser and I that we didn’t have the right to tell other prisoners about the crime for which we had been imprisoned. I asked: “What should I say if they ask about this?” The officer said: “I don’t know; think of something. For example, say, ‘I have a problem with my wife. My wife took me to court, demanding payment of her dowry, but I couldn’t afford it.’” I said: “That would be a lie! Why should I lie?” The officer said: “I don’t know; say whatever you want, but you have no right to say that you came to prison because of Christianity!” However, very soon the news spread in the prison that a priest had arrived.

64. After some time, Nasser was also transferred to my ward, and Nasser and I would pray together and sometimes even have Communion together. Being in prison was difficult and stressful, but we had the opportunity to talk with many prisoners about our Christian faith, and some of them accepted what we said.

65. The visiting hours for male prisoners were different from those of female prisoners. For this reason, Emmanuel and Angel had to come from Tehran every week – one week to visit me, and the next to visit Shahnaz. The distance between Tehran and Ahvaz is about 900km, and we were worried about them having to make all these journeys. On the way from Tehran to Ahvaz, many buses had had terrible accidents, and many passengers had been killed. And when my children came to see me, we could only see each other through a screen, and speak via a telephone.

66. In the first meeting with my son, I discovered that a week after I had gone to prison, the central Tehran church of the AoG had been closed under the pressure of the Ministry of Intelligence, and that the pastor, Robert Asseriyan, had also been arrested. So on the one hand, I was happy to have been able to see my son, but on the other, hearing this news was terribly painful. During our meetings, my son and I tried hard to control our emotions for each other’s sake. For example, I didn’t want him to be discouraged by appearing downcast, while at the same time I could see the lump in my son’s throat. Still, we managed to laugh together, and it was clear throughout how we were both looking out for each other.

67. I had taken my Bible with me to the prison, but upon entering they took it away from me. I protested and said: “This is our religion’s holy book!” They ignored my protest, so I said: “How is it that Muslim prisoners can have a copy of their religious book, the Quran, but we can’t have a copy of ours! I am here because of my faith, and this very book!” I insisted on my rights. But they said: “We cannot legally allow you to have a Bible, but let us ask the security officers [from the Intelligence Ministry], and if they allow it, we’ll give you your book.” After a few days, they handed me a book bound in a package, and inside was my Bible, which had been returned to me! However, I was warned that I shouldn’t show it to anyone else, or talk to anyone about it. Even so, just receiving my Bible back again felt like being reunited with a missing part of me; it was such a precious moment! I kissed the Word several times out of sheer joy; being able to read the Bible was a source of great strength and comfort to me.

Shahnaz

68. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon when I entered the women’s ward of the prison. No-one was allowed to speak. A lady came beside me and said: “Sit here for the next hour, in silence. You must not talk. These are the hours of silence in the prison.” I imagined that I would be taken to a security or political prison, but I was imprisoned alongside people who had committed violent crimes, such as murder, armed robbery, drug trafficking, kidnapping, etc. It was very scary, and my body trembled even just seeing these people. I prayed and said: “Lord! If it’s your will for me to be here, pour your love into my heart so that I can love and care for these prisoners, in spite of the terrible things they have done.” After a while, the other prisoners began to say to me: “We committed terrible crimes, but what have you done wrong that you, too, should be made to come to this prison?” I used to respond: “God must have wanted me to be with you!” God had changed my vision, and these other prisoners respected me and were sympathetic towards me. I also prayed for them. So those days were hard, but I learned a lot.

69. The prison was small, and there were about 300 women in it, including some who had infectious diseases. It was a very dirty place, and I went through many difficult days, but God was by my side at all times, helping me and comforting me.

70. On one week Angel would visit me, and the next week Emmanuel would come. In the first face-to-face meeting with Angel, we hugged each other and cried a lot. I consoled her and asked her to take care of herself and Emmanuel, and to reassure her other brother, Samuel, who was studying in Armenia, that I was fine. I said: “Remember, we are here because of our precious faith!”

71. In my first meeting with Emmanuel, I saw that he was very anxious and worried. He said: “I don’t understand! Now that Dad is in prison, why was it necessary for them to put you in prison as well? What crime did you commit?” He had heard about fights and riots taking place in prisons, so that’s why he was worried about me. But I reassured him that the other inmates treated me with respect.

72. I had taken two Bibles to prison. When I entered, they took them from me and told me: “It is forbidden to have these books in the prison!” I protested and said: “You think I can survive without these, but I need to have my Bible! I came to prison because of Christianity, and part of my worship is reading the Bible.” The jailer gently said: “Don’t worry, write a letter to the prison chief and tell him, ‘I want my Bible.’ I am sure they’ll give you your book.” So I wrote a letter, and about a week later my Bible was returned to me with a new cover over it, and they told me: “Please don’t remove this cover, so that no-one else will know what this book is.” But the prison was small and crowded, and everyone else was curious to know what was the book that I read every day. So I told them that it was a Bible, but that, “I’m not allowed to show you what’s inside this book.” But when I left my cell, some of the other prisoners would read parts of it, and then when I returned they would apologise to me for reading it without my permission and ask me questions about the parts they had read. I happily answered their questions and wrote down some Psalms and other parts of the Bible for them. Then they would read what I had given them later on, in private, and this gave me great joy.

73. While we were in prison, the church [in Tehran] took care of Emmanuel and Angel’s essential needs; they didn’t abandon them. Many Christian brothers and sisters asked about our wellbeing during this time, prayed for us, and also supported my children financially.

Conditional release and pressure to leave Iran

Farhad

74. Finally, after 214 days’ imprisonment, having served more than three-quarters of our sentence [including days in detention before trial], Nasser and I were released from Sepidar Prison [on Wednesday, 4 December 2013]. Davoud was imprisoned until 13 January, until finally he was released from Karun Ahvaz Prison after 257 days. My wife, Shahnaz, was released a few days later [on 28 January 2014].

75. Before we were released from prison, they wanted to get a commitment from us that we would leave Iran. But I said: “I have served my sentence, and everything it was judged that I must endure has been carried out, so why should I leave Iran?” They said: “You can’t live and work here; if you do, we cannot guarantee your safety! Mr Sabokrooh, if you want to stay in Iran, you will be killed! We have passed on your case to every security office across Iran, so any city you go to, you’ll be quickly identified and monitored, and if you carry out your activities again, this time we’ll put you in prison for five years!”

76. So, practically, I couldn’t do anything useful after my release. In order to secure our release on parole, they had actually made us sign a commitment that we would leave Iran within two months! And after our release, the officials of the Ministry of Intelligence constantly called us and put pressure on us, saying: “Leave Iran! Your lives are in danger and we can’t protect you!” So, we lost everything we had accumulated in 30 years of living together and were forced to leave the country and go to Turkey, where we registered ourselves [as refugees] with the UNHCR.

77. I remember that we arrived in Turkey, in the city of Denizli [in the southwest], on a Thursday, and I was invited to preach at the church there on the Sunday. I was very tired, but the church members said: “No reverend has preached in our church for years! Please preach for us this Sunday!” So I accepted, and after that day the leaders of the church there asked me to take over the responsibility of leading the church. There were 19 people in the church at that time, but after nine months, this increased to about 200. We were in Turkey for about three years, until we finally immigrated to America in the summer of 2016. I have done several different jobs since arriving here, and I am also a pastor of a Persian-speaking church. My wife, as always, serves alongside me.