Witness Statements

Sahar Dashti

Sahar Dashti

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

Background and conversion

1. My name is Masoumeh Dashti Aqizadeh, but I prefer to be called Sahar. I was born in November 1981 into a Muslim family in Lenjan County in Isfahan Province. I have four sisters and three brothers. My father worked in an iron-smelting factory. While my mother was pregnant with me, he had a heart attack, after which he was paralysed from the leg down, so he had to retire. He didn’t receive much money after his retirement, so we were in a difficult financial situation. Then, when I was a teenager, he had a stroke, and this time he was completely paralysed. We took care of him at home, but he died a year later.

2. From then on, I, my mother, and my elder brother and sister all had to work. My mother used to look after children at nurseries, or care for the sick. Sometimes she would clean people’s houses as well, so we could meet our household expenses. Once, on the way to work, she was hit by a car and her legs were broken. Due to her injuries, she wasn’t able to work as before, so as a teenager it became even more necessary for me to study and work at the same time.

3. I loved my father very much, so his death had a significant emotional impact on me. I had no drive, no purpose, no hope or reason to live. I blamed God for his death and complained to Him, asking why He had taken my father away from us at such a young age. I seriously considered committing suicide. One of the few hobbies I had was participating in a theatre group, and a friend of mine named Sara, whom I had met in the theatre, talked to me about Jesus Christ. I had always liked the symbol of the Cross, but I didn’t know much about Christianity. In religion classes at school, Jesus had been introduced as a prophet of peace and friendship, but that was all I knew.

4. Sara had become a Christian a few days before we met, and she spoke about it with enthusiasm. I felt as though God must have heard my pain and seen that I was considering suicide, and that He had decided to rescue my life from its meaninglessness and stagnation. I remember the day well – it was 23 October 2001 – when I became a Christian. The problems in my life remained the same, but my personality and emotional well-being had changed. I felt a strange peace and happiness. The love of the Heavenly Father had filled all the voids created in me by my father’s death, and I eagerly read the Bible.

House-church activities

5. I lived with my family in a city on the outskirts of Isfahan, and Sara introduced me to the house-church group they had there. We used to gather in a home with other Christians, and in these meetings we prayed and worshipped, listened to teaching and sermons. Also, as a spiritual family, we got to know each other, and helped each other to grow and to change.

6. After a while, they asked if I would like to teach the children at the church, or as it was known among us, to serve in the “Sunday school”. I have dark skin, and in the neighbourhood where I grew up, all the other children had fair skin and I had often been ridiculed because of my skin colour. My friends used to make fun of my dark skin and curly hair, and it had made me question why God had made me that way. It felt unjust, and I questioned whether God could be a just God. “Why did you make me different?” I asked Him. As a result of these experiences, when they asked me whether I wanted to serve at the Sunday school, I had no real desire to communicate with children and only reluctantly accepted. But then, on the very first day that I went to a Christian couple’s home to see their child, the girl jumped into my arms and clung to me tightly. I was surprised, and over time the number of children in our group increased and everyone loved me in a special way and really cared for me. Some of the parents even said: “Our children aren’t even this close to their aunts or uncles!” In this way, a heart that had been broken in the past as a result of the words and actions of many children was healed by God through the children of our Sunday school. Through these children, I realised that I had been created beautifully and uniquely, and as a result of this my way of thinking about myself and God’s creation changed.

7. The number of children in our groups in Isfahan and the surrounding area increased day by day, and we held weekly meetings in order to train new helpers to serve at the Sunday schools. Sara and her two sisters, Leila and Atena, were the leaders of our house-churches, although we also had a pastor and a church overseer. I helped out in the Sunday schools we had in Isfahan and its suburbs, and also in Khuzestan Province [southwest of Isfahan]. Due to security concerns, I always wore a khimar [headscarf that also covers the neck and shoulders], and sometimes in certain villages and neighbourhoods I even wore a chador [full body covering] so as not to the draw the attention of people in those areas [to the presence of a stranger in their midst].

8. Sometimes I also used to attend Christian conferences outside Iran. As a Persian-speaking Christian, I wasn’t able to get baptised in Iran, but on 20 November 2011 I was baptised at one of these conferences, in Turkey.


9. On 20 February 2013, I and other church volunteers gathered together at the home of a couple named Ramin Bakhtiarvand and Nasrin Kiamarzi, in Shahin Shahr [north of Isfahan]. We had all typed up our reports about our various activities, to give to our pastor. Then, at 8.30pm, the pastor read from the Bible, and we were meditating on these verses when the doorbell rang. Ramin looked through the spyhole in the door and said: “It’s a man I don’t know.” Our pastor said: “Maybe it’s a neighbour.” Ramin opened the door and a few strong male agents in uniform, together with one female agent, entered the apartment. There were 15 agents in all, some inside and some outside the apartment, keeping the building under their control.

10. One of the agents had a video camera and filmed everything from the moment they entered. He asked each of us our name, surname, and the names of the cities where we lived, and filmed us as we answered.

11. One of our friends, whose name was Arash, asked the agents: “Do you have a warrant?” One of the agents replied: “We’ll show you the warrant in time!” They didn’t allow us to say anything else. The women were told to put on our manteaus [loose-fitting cardigans] and headscarves. Then they searched all our belongings and the apartment, and put name-tags on all our electronic devices.

12. At around midnight they put us in a van. Some of us were handcuffed, and some blindfolded. Both Sara and I were handcuffed. They took us to Dastgerd Prison in Isfahan. We had to wait a lot outside the prison because they didn’t have an arrest warrant for us, so at first they couldn’t take us inside the prison. But after many phone calls, they finally succeeded and we were taken into the prison compound. Then they took us inside the prison, to the Alef-Ta [“A.T.”] ward.


13. We were placed on chairs, set apart from each other, in a room in the A.T. ward, and at around 1 or 1.30am one of the interrogators came up to me. He held a piece of paper towards me, and said in a rude tone: “Answer the questions on the paper!” I said: “My mother has a heart problem, and it’s now 1.30 in the morning! My mother doesn’t know where I am, so I won’t write anything until you give me permission to call my mother!” Another interrogator, who always wore purple and therefore became known by us simply as “Purple”, intervened and allowed me to call my mother and let her know that I was fine. I actually called my brother, who worked at the iron-smelting factory, and said: “Ali, I have been arrested and taken to Dastgerd Prison in Isfahan. Please tell Mum.” The officer took the phone from me and said: “You had no right to say that we arrested you!” That night, my brothers and sisters took everything related to Christianity out of our house.

14. The next day, the agents of the Ministry of Intelligence went to our house and searched it. Then, because they couldn’t find any evidence, they threatened my family a lot.

15. My interrogator’s questions focused on my Christian faith and church activities. He asked: “What year did you become a Christian? When were you baptised? Who was your supervisor? Who were you in contact with? In which places have you been active? Which foreign countries did you travel to? Who were your teachers there? What did you teach the children?”, etc. I was just responding to the question regarding baptism, by writing that I had been baptised by the Holy Spirit, when the interrogator read my answer and kicked my chair hard. If the chair hadn’t been up against the edge of the ledge behind me, I’m sure my head would have hit against the wall and been broken.

16. It was unfortunate that the Ministry of Intelligence had arrested us on the day we all had our written reports with us about our activities. I had even bought a bus ticket to Khuzestan for two days later, which would have been the Friday, and this ticket was still in my bag.

17. I told my interrogator that I just played with the children at the church, but over time they read my activity reports on my laptop and found out that I also taught them about Christian beliefs. This led them to say: “Your sentence will be heavier than the others, because you have been misleading children!”

18. My interrogator knew that my brother worked in a factory and received low wages. After reading the reports I had written, he said: “You’re clearly very talented in your ability to attract children, teenagers and young people; you had a positive impact on them, worked very well with them. Come, cooperate with us, and we’ll give you a high salary and you can attract and guide children towards Islam!” I replied: “They weren’t attracted to me; they were attracted to the true God!”

19. The interrogator made fun of my words and even the colour of my skin. 

20. That night, they took mugshots of all of us who had been arrested. We hadn’t had dinner, and they interrogated us until morning. In the early morning, we were taken to our cells with great fatigue. Sara, Bita [another woman] and I were in the same cell. The floor was carpeted, and there was a refrigerator, TV, some books, a toilet, and a shower. They gave each of us three blankets, but it was cold so we asked for more, but they didn’t give them to us. The blankets were also very dirty and smelly.

21. It was a day or two later when they took us, one by one, to the prosecutor, Mr Aghili, who explained our charges. The accusations against us were: “Propaganda against the holy regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran through membership in anti-regime groups by forming groups and recruiting members with the coordination of foreign elements to propagate evangelical Christianity” and, to increase the pressure on us, because several men and women had been arrested while we were together in a home, they added the charge of “illegitimate relations, though not adultery”.

22. The interrogators took us for interrogations at night, when our minds were very tired, and they interrogated us until midnight or early in the morning. I had heard before that girls were raped in prison, and I was very afraid and prayed about it. Once, during an interrogation, I heard Ramin moaning as he was being tortured. The interrogator threatened me that if I didn’t answer his questions, he would do the same to me. When I was taken back to the cell, Bita and Sara said they had also heard Ramin’s cries from the cell. I found out later that even Atena, Arina and Nasrin [another lady], who were in the cell next to us, had heard them.

23. Once when they were transferring me to my cell after an interrogation, I suddenly saw some officers looking at four computers and saw they had placed cameras in our rooms and were watching us. I was very upset, because they could see us even when we went to the bathroom or changed our clothes.

24. I had a backpack with me, and with the pen and paper in my bag we wrote down the parts of our story that we wanted to make sure we all agreed on, so they wouldn’t hear us. On our first day in the cell, we prayed together and sang songs, and asked God to protect the Christians we were serving. There were also verses from the Bible on the wall of the cell, written by Christians who had been arrested before. We were encouraged and strengthened by reading them. We were consoled to think that other people had trodden this path before us, and endured the same experiences. We also used my pen to write other verses from the Bible on the wall. One day, they took us to the women’s prison to take our fingerprints, and then brought us back.

25. Then after four days in the detention centre, we were transferred to the general ward of the women’s prison, and they took my backpack away from me. It was very cold, and upon arrival we had to shower, wash our clothes and, after borrowing clothes from other prisoners, wait in the cold for our own clothes to dry. Due to the dirty environment of the cells in “Alef-Ta” ward, Sara had contracted head-lice. They cut her hair very short and took her to quarantine [an area of the prison where prisoners are taken before they are transferred or released]. The rest of us – Bita, Arina, Atena, Nasrin and I – were transferred to the general women’s ward. Most of us stayed awake till morning, with fear and trembling, because there were dangerous criminals in that ward who raped girls and younger women in the prison. The next day, when the interrogators learned that we had been transferred to the general ward, they were very angry [that we had been able to mingle with the other prisoners] and ordered that we be taken to quarantine.

26. The quarantine room was square, with a toilet and two bathrooms. It was a very cold and small room. The radiator we were sleeping next to was leaking, and the water spilled onto our things. The space where we could sleep was so small that we had to sleep on our sides and couldn’t move. There were some drug addicts there, who were in a very bad way and didn’t have any concern for personal hygiene. But us all being together in quarantine had an advantage, as we could sing songs together, pray, and even play little games.

27. One of the prisoners with us in quarantine was a lady named Mrs Golkar, who had been sentenced to death. Because of her kind heart, the prisoners called her “the mother of prison”, or “Maman Goli”. The first day she saw us was her daughter’s birthday, so she was sad and cried. I had been wearing three silver-hoop earrings when I went into the prison and had given one to Sara on her birthday, when we were in A.T., and now I gave one to Maman Goli to give to her daughter when they next met. Maman Goli was also very kind to us. We weren’t really allowed to go outside, but because Maman Goli was in charge in quarantine, she would allow us to go outside for a few minutes each day. In addition, she got hold of some medicine and fruit juice for Nasrin, who had a cold, and made it possible for each of us to call our families and talk with them, even if only very briefly.

28. They continued to take us for interrogations during our time in quarantine, and tried to convert me back to Islam. They said: “If you repent and return to Islam, we’ll release you!” I refused, and defended my faith in Christianity. They threatened me and my family, but I refused to sign the sheet they put in front of me, on which they wanted me to say that I repented. I refused to do this every day until my release.

29. When I was in prison, one of the interrogators called my family and said: “Your daughter has been sentenced to death!” My mother was shocked to hear this and, because of her weak heart, her condition worsened and she had to go to hospital. My brothers and sisters came to the prison every day to follow up on my case, but I was able to meet my sisters only once, on the day before I was released.

30. We used to pay the mortgage payments on our house every month, and the deed hadn’t yet been transferred to my mother’s name [so she couldn’t submit it for bail]. And because my brother also received only a low salary, they initially wouldn’t accept his pay slip as a guarantee for my bail. But he was persistent and begged them to accept it, and eventually they did. My bail amount was 20 million tomans [around $5,000], and I was released on bail on 4 March 2013.

Temporary release

31. Many Christians in our house-church were worried about my family’s reaction to my arrest, and whether they would continue to accept me after this incident, or not. But not only did they accept me back into the family, but my brother told the Ministry of Intelligence and other related offices in my defence: “If something bad happens to my sister, we’ll all become Christians!” One of the interrogators told him: “We arrested your sister in a group with other men, with whom she was having illicit relations.” My brother said: “If it’s true that my sister was found with some men, I am sure these were good men, and that my sister’s relationship with them was innocent and pure, because I know my sister well.” When my mother found out about the accusation of “illegitimate relations, though not adultery”, she said: “I can still hold my head up with pride, because I know that my daughter stood up for her faith and beliefs, and that these shameful labels won’t stick to her.”

32. After my release, the agents of the Ministry of Intelligence continued to follow me. They also summoned me twice for questioning at a residential house on Mokhaberat Street in Shahin Shahr, which didn’t have any signs outside to say what kind of building it was. Later I found out that they weren’t legally allowed to do this. There was an outbuilding in the yard, where they interrogated me about the [house-]church we had in Khuzestan. But I only gave them false information and names.

33. I was sure that they had installed a listening device in our home and were listening to our conversations because, sometimes, after conversations I’d had with my family they would call me and talk to me about these same conversations.

34. They harassed me a lot when I tried to get back the things they had confiscated from me. Every day I travelled from my home to this house in Shahin Shahr, or called the Ministry of Intelligence, trying to get my stuff back. One of the things I was desperate to get back was my mother’s bank card, which I had always looked after, and from which I would take out the money she received because of the death of my father, and give it to her. After six months, they finally returned these confiscated items to me.

35. Before our arrest, our pastor had asked us to write down the items at our homes that belonged to the church and, unfortunately, they had found this sheet in Ramin and Nasrin’s home. For this reason, the interrogator forced me to hand over the printer that was in our home to the Ministry of Intelligence. They considered the belongings of our church to be the property of the government, and said: “If you don’t hand over the printer, we’ll do whatever we want to you and your family!” They didn’t even return the video camera that had been in Nasrin and Ramin’s home and belonged to the church.


36. Our court hearing took place on 19 June 2013, in the first branch of the general court of the judiciary in Shahin Shahr, presided over by Judge [Jahanbakhsh] Ahmadi.

37. The judge asked me: “Who are you in contact with?” And: “Do you want to return to Islam?” I told him: “No, I am a Christian and I don’t want to return to Islam.”

38. Our verdict was issued on 18 July 2013. We were all part of the same case, and all of us were sentenced to one year in prison and a two-year ban on leaving the country. Abbas [Leila’s husband] and Sara went to Shahin Shahr Court to receive the verdict for us. Judge Ahmadi was in his office and told them: “I wanted to let you off, but the claimant in your case was the prosecutor’s office, so I had no choice; I had to issue a one-year prison sentence for all of you. Another group of Christians were arrested recently in Tehran, and they were sentenced to four years in prison. And you have up to 20 days to appeal, so you should try this.” 

39. We did appeal, with the help of our lawyer, Mr Mehdi Jahanbakhsh Harandi, but on 5 April 2015 the verdict of the first court was upheld and finalised in the 14th branch of the Court of Appeal of Isfahan Province.

Leaving Iran

40. Our case was heard at the Court of Appeal on 19 of February 2014, but I had already been forced to leave Iran by this time. I applied for refugee status on 28 February 2014.

41. My mother became a Christian after my release, and even now, from time to time, the Ministry of Intelligence calls my family and threatens them. After I left Iran, agents of the Ministry of Intelligence went to our house twice, at 6.30am or 7am, to arrest me. My mother protested: “You are coming to our house to terrorise us, even though you know Sahar has left the country!”

42. My mother died in 2018, and I wasn’t able to see her even once after leaving the country, as the doctor wouldn’t let her fly because of her heart disease. My mother was very selfless and kind, and I really struggled after her death. But, thank God, my Christian friends have supported me a lot, and with their help I have continued my Christian activities. Currently, I help with the children and young people, and also the women of the church in the city where I live.

43. In 2019, I married Parham, who had also been active in the Church in Iran. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we couldn’t hold a wedding reception that we had planned for the next year, but getting married and starting a new chapter of life brought me a sense of freshness and hope, because I was very sad after my mother’s death.

44. Since 2013, I have been in an uncertain situation. Although my asylum application was accepted, due to the recent US immigration laws, our case, like that of many other refugees, has remained stagnant.