Witness Statements

Esmaeil Maghrebinezhad

Esmaeil Maghrebinezhad

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


1. My name is Esmaeil Maghrebinezhad and I was born in 1954 in Tehran. I grew up in a traditional Muslim family of Sayyids [descendants of Muhammad]. I remember my mother praying, but my father didn’t follow Islamic rules. My mother died when I was 10 years old.

2. I considered myself a student of [Islamic intellectual] Ali Shariati. I was very fond of reading and read all his books during my time in secondary school and university. In 1973, while at Pahlavi University, one of my professors, who was active among Muslim organisations with leftist political tendencies, gave me the book “The Hajj” by Mr Shariati, and told me it was prohibited and that possession of it could result in six years’ imprisonment.

3. I had also spent some of my school years in Mashhad, where I had met [Ali Shahriati’s father] Mr Mohammad Taghi Shariati, who was one of the leading commentators in the field of Quranic studies. According to what I learned from him, I tried to become a so-called “intellectual”, gaining knowledge and seeking to understand the truth through wisdom, alertness of mind, and research.

4. After two years at university in Shiraz, where I studied electronic engineering, my future wife, Mahvash Mahmoudian, also began studying there and after a while we became interested in each other. At that time, I still adhered to Islamic beliefs, so it was difficult for me to communicate with someone from the opposite sex, but following encouragement from one of my friends, who understood my feelings, I wrote a letter to Mahvash, explaining my intention to marry her. We used to meet each other every Thursday, and after getting to know each other for a while, Mahvash responded positively to my marriage proposal. We were engaged for about six years, and got married in September 1978. Our first child, Maryam, was born in 1980, our second child, Ali, in 1982, and our third child, Mahsa, in 1988.

5. After graduating from Pahlavi University in Shiraz, I worked there for several years as an assistant professor of electronic engineering.

Conversion to Christianity

6. After the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran [in 1979], I quickly realised how I and the Iranian nation had been tricked, and for this reason I was drawn to atheism for a few years.

7. During the early days of the revolution, some people used to set up tables on the side of the street and put up all kinds of books for sale. Because I was an avid reader in various fields, when I saw the book of the Gospel of Matthew, I bought it to learn about the teachings of the Christian prophet to his followers. But the audience of Matthew’s Gospel was primarily Jews, so after reading the book very quickly, I didn’t really understand what the author meant.

8. At the end of that book, the address of the “Iran Bible Correspondence Course” was included, so I wrote down the questions that came to me after reading the book, and sent them to that address. Later, I found out that the person who ran this course was the late Rev Rafi Shahverdian, one of the pastors of the Assemblies of God Church in Tehran. At that time, it took almost two weeks for the letter to go from Shiraz to Tehran. Rev Rafi wrote back, answering my questions, and our correspondence continued for more than 18 months. I still have the letters we exchanged. Compared to the first day when I had read the Gospel of Matthew very superficially, over this time the Bible became like an ocean to me, and I wondered how it could be that this book seemed to have no end. Each time I read it, a new point was revealed to me, and Rev Rafi was a great help to me.

9. In 1982, Rev Rafi invited me to the Central Assemblies of God Church in Tehran, and I decided to visit him there and get to know him better. The day I went to Tehran, Rev Rafi invited me for lunch and we had a good time together. The next day, I went to his office at the church, and met Rev Edward Hovsepian-Mehr [brother of Haik Hovsepian]. After this meeting and praying with these church leaders, I was able to understand the gospel better.

10. After my conversion, I went to Mohammad Taghi Shariati’s house on Ferdowsi Street in Mashhad and told him that I had become a Christian. He put his little robe over his shoulders and went to the window, then after a few minutes said: “Jesus has called you. Go and serve him.” It was very interesting to me that God could speak to me through a Muslim and interpreter of the Quran.

11. At that time, one day a senior Christian leader came to Shiraz and asked me to go to Tehran with him, and there, along with many other students of the Bible Correspondence Course, I was baptised by Rev Edward Hovsepian-Mehr in the basement of the Central Assemblies of God Church, and after my water baptism, Rev Rafi prayed for me.

Church activities

12. After I became a Christian I was interested in attending church meetings, and I used to go to the Simon the Zealot Church in Shiraz, which was an Anglican church. Bishop Iraj Mottahedeh [leader of the Anglican Church in Iran] also introduced me to a senior Catholic leader, who supported me spiritually.

13. After I left my job at the university, I set up a workshop for the repair of audio and video equipment. The activity of my company was extensive, covering the districts of the neighbouring provinces around Shiraz. The Anglican church had a house in Shiraz, which they had repaired and painted, and I rented this house, which was near my workshop, from the church officials.

14. Over the next few years we started some house-churches and I taught the members the Word of God and prepared someone in each house-church to take over the teaching and pastoral care. I also did couples’ counselling.

15. Meanwhile, at Simon the Zealot Church, in addition to evangelism, I was responsible for preaching, teaching, and making disciples on behalf of the bishop. So I was an active participant in the Anglican Church, the Assemblies of God house-churches, and also the Catholic Church. I also visited some house-churches in other cities, and had fellowship with them.

16. I was twice invited to an interreligious dialogue conference, where I used Christian apologetics to argue in favour of Christianity. On the first occasion, I attended the conference, which was held at a university in Shiraz, on behalf of the Anglican Church, at the invitation of Bishop Iraj Mottahedeh. The second conference took place in Tehran, which I attended together with the Armenian archbishop, Der Mesrob Norik Ratous. This conference was held in a large hall in the north of Tehran, and a large number of representatives of different religions had been invited – from Muslim religious leaders to Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians. Due to the fact that I had become a Christian from an Islamic background, Der Mesrob asked me to write the text of his speech for him in an evangelistic and apologetic way. So I went to this conference with Bishop Der Mesrop and we talked about Christianity with the other attendees for about two hours.

Family problems

17. I never talked about Christianity at home. I prayed for my family, but I didn’t want to pressure them to become Christians. My wife had no problem with me becoming a Christian, but her father objected and said: “I gave my daughter to a Sayyid, and now you have gone and become a Christian! What a farce!” His opinion affected my wife, and one day she said we should go to court and get a divorce.

18. Before then, I had never imagined I might find myself in that situation. Based on the teachings of the Bible, I understood that if the spouse of a believer in Christ was willing to continue living with him/her, that person shouldn’t divorce their wife or husband, but if the non-Christian spouse wanted to divorce, in such a situation the Christian spouse wouldn’t be obligated to live with her/him. So I agreed to go to court with my wife. At the notary office, the mullah asked me: “Why do you want to get a divorce?” I said: “My wife wants to get a divorce.” So the mullah asked my wife the reason for the divorce. He asked her several times: “What problem do you have with your husband?” She didn’t say anything because she didn’t want to create a problem for me with the authorities, and when he didn’t receive any answer, he finally told her: “Even if God has made this man haram [forbidden] to you, I’ll make him halal [permissible].” Because of this, my wife gave up on the divorce. She later told me she had been reassured by the mullah’s words because she had been influenced by her father’s words and had felt the continuation of our marriage wasn’t permissible from the point of view of Sharia [Islamic law], due to my conversion to Christianity, and that to go on living with me would be a sin.

19. But some of my wife’s relatives worked in the Ministry of Intelligence and considered us “impure”. So from that moment on, only my wife’s close relatives stayed in contact with us.

20. Eventually, one day in 1999, at 3 o’clock in the morning, my wife also became a Christian after a very special and personal spiritual experience. My two daughters also became Christians at that time and were baptised that same year by an Anglican Bishop, Seroj Rostamloo. Later, both of my daughters and sons-in-law began to take part in Christian activities.

Beginning of threats and pressure

21. Living in a house that belonged to the church brought many challenges. One day in the mid-80s when I came out of the house, a young man came out of his Paykan car and began running towards me. He pushed me against the wall and put some kind of metal object, which was underneath a cover, against my stomach. I think it was a gun. He asked if I was the priest of the church. I looked at him and didn’t answer. He asked: “Shall I shoot?” I wasn’t afraid and just looked into his eyes. Another young man called him from inside the car and said: “Come. This isn’t him!” At that time, the Shiraz Anglican Church didn’t have an official priest. I think they just wanted to scare me. At that time, there was a group of Islamic fanatics who belonged to a group called Anjoman-e Hojjatieh, and they did as they pleased.

22. After that, I was pressured by the security agencies in various ways, for example by raiding and searching my workshop, which was under surveillance. The Ministry of Intelligence raided it and ransacked the whole place, but God kept all the Bibles that I had put in a big water barrel away from their eyes. They even opened the barrel, but it was as if they didn’t see what was inside, even though it was full of Bibles.

Intensification of pressure by Shiraz Ministry of Intelligence

23. I don’t remember the exact date, but one day in the early 90s, the Ministry of Intelligence called my workshop and told the person who answered that I had to go to see them. All my colleagues were scared, but I wasn’t worried. I remembered the words of Christ, who said [in Mark 13:10-11]: “For my sake you will be brought before governors and kings to testify before them, and among the nations of the world. But when they arrest you, don’t worry about what to say, for at that time the words will be given to you.” I believed that God would give me the words to say, even in court.

24. I discussed the issue of being summoned to the Ministry of Intelligence with one of the mature Christians from the Simon the Zealot Church, and they told me to take bed sheets and a bag of other necessary items with me because I might be detained.

25. The Shiraz Ministry of Intelligence office is on Zand St., near Setad Square. That first time that I was summoned there, I arrived at 8.30 in the morning and when I got there a soldier took me to the corner of a room and told me to face the wall, saying: “You aren’t allowed to turn your head and look at the interrogators, or things will end badly for you!” But then no-one interrogated me for about an hour. Their goal was psychological torture.

26. Finally, after that hour someone entered the room and my interrogation began. Then, from that morning until 5pm, four different people interrogated me. Most of the questions were ideological and about Christianity. Finally, they gave me a form to fill out, which had several pages, on which I had to write down my personal details and those of my family members. I was finally released at 5pm.

27. The house-church that met in my workshop in Shiraz was managed by my friend Jahangir and me. Over time it became much bigger, so the Assemblies of God Church sent Rev Sourik Sarkissian to Shiraz to manage the church and we handed it over to him. Rev Sourik rented the second floor of my father-in-law’s house, and meetings were held there. Because the house belonged to my wife’s father, he was regularly threatened by the Ministry of Intelligence.

28. The day before my summons, Rev Seroj Rostamloo, an Armenian priest in the Anglican Church of Shiraz, was beaten by the Ministry of Intelligence. He said it was because he was married to a Persian-speaking Christian [convert] and not a fellow Armenian [who are recognised as Christians by the Iranian authorities]. So I was also expecting to be physically tortured, but they didn’t beat me. The interrogator said: “OK, we officially recognise you as a Christian, but you are only allowed to go to church on Sundays and you must sit in a row where no-one else is sitting. Then, when the prayer is over, go back to your home. You don’t have the right to talk to anyone else about Christianity, and you don’t have the right to associate with anyone else in the church.” I didn’t respond, and they didn’t take any written commitment from me.

29. After I was released, I went to visit the family of a man named Gholamshah, who was one of the active Christians in Shiraz who had been in solitary confinement for about 40 days due to an argument with a judge. After more than 20 years of service in a company in Shiraz called ZamZam, which was a producer of all kinds of soft drinks, he had been fired from his job without any explanation and his children had been expelled from school. His house was attached to the Anglican church and he had rented it from them. I went there on purpose because the Ministry of Intelligence had told me I had no right to communicate with them. I told his wife to share any problems and needs she may have with me. When I left their house, I saw an agent of the Ministry of Intelligence outside. I had a Bible in my hands and I passed him calmly. I had decided to ignore their threats.

30. Going to the Ministry of Intelligence became a normal thing for me in the 90s. About three to four times a year, they would summon me, threaten me and tell me who I could and could not continue to have contact with. But I was never ready to provide them with a written pledge submitting to their orders. I used to tell them: “If I wanted to follow your orders, I would have to leave the world behind and go to live in a village or monastery! Your requests are illegal and inhumane! How can you ask a Christian to cut off their relationship with other Christians? Do you, who are Muslims, cut off your relationship with your Muslim friends?”

Work problems and family harassment

31. My wife was an employee of Iran Electronics Industries, which was part of the Ministry of Defence, and she was repeatedly summoned and interrogated by their intelligence unit. Before she became a Christian they pressured her and said: “Your husband is a Christian. You should divorce him.” We had two children at the time and their constant threats bothered us a lot. My wife told them that she also loved Jesus very much, even though she wasn’t yet a Christian, and this caused them to question her even more and to keep her under constant surveillance. Finally, when she became a Christian, she was fired from her job after 18 years.

32. Meanwhile, in my private electronics company we used to record all the work we did in our books, but when a tax officer came to visit, he said: “You are lying! This record isn’t even one hundredth of your work!” They said our income was more than what we had written, so they imposed 10 times more taxes on us than they did on other similar companies.

33. Separately, if items in a shop don’t have a price tag, the governmental department responsible for trade issues a fine, and I once received a summons to that department and they fined me because the items inside our workshop didn’t have a price tag, even though I explained to them that our company did repairs and didn’t sell or supply items. We just had various electrical items on hand so that we could use them when we needed to help customers with installations or repairs. But I think they were just trying to harass me in different ways, due to my faith.

34. Then, when I was applying for my pension, Pahlavi University, where I had studied and worked, had become Shiraz University of Technology, and had taken over all its files. I visited the university several times over the next year, pleading with them to find my academic and work files, but they told me they had been lost. Some of my friends were still working there, but despite their testimonies on my behalf, they wouldn’t provide me with any official proof that I had worked there. Meanwhile, when I went to access my insurance history with the Insurance Institute, even though I had been an official member and had insured my company’s employees, they said I owed them four million tomans [approx. $900]. They said I had to pay it for my retirement to be processed, but even after doing so I felt they planned to cause me more problems. In all these things, it seemed I was being treated differently.

35. I also paid a lot of money for my son to study in a private secondary school. On one occasion, he was told to pray Islamic prayers but refused, and I was told to come to the school. I said: “We are Christians.” After that, they held a meeting for the parents of my son’s friends and told them: “This family is Christian. They don’t pray [Islamic prayers] and they’ll lead your children on the wrong path.” My son’s best friend then cut off contact with him because his family had threatened him and forbade him from having contact with my son. As a result, my son became isolated and anxious.

Wife’s burial in Muslim cemetery

36. Once, when my wife was walking, several men got out of a car and tried to force her into it. She screamed, so they couldn’t execute their plan. Also, there was always a car in our street, watching our apartment, so we were sure we were under surveillance. My whole family was worried and anxious that the agents would raid our home. We were sure that our movements were being monitored by the Ministry of Intelligence, and our telephone line. Because of that, we couldn’t use it. So when we wanted to go to a Christian’s house, or to make a call, we always had to use a public phone. It was as if we were living in the century before the invention of the telephone. It was awful. Due to the pressure and threats of the Ministry of Intelligence, my whole family was anxious and stressed. When, for example, our children came home from school a little late, my wife was worried the Ministry of Intelligence might have harmed them.

37. In 2007, my wife was diagnosed with leukaemia, and she struggled with this disease for the next six years. I supported and served her in those years. At the Shiraz Oncology Hospital, I was always by her side. We always had some Bibles in the drawer of her bedside table, and my wife and I prayed for others who were sick and gave Bibles to some of them. But my wife’s illness wasn’t cured, and she died in 2013.

38. We requested that my wife be buried in the Christian cemetery, and for a week her body remained in the morgue of the hospital. I sent a letter to the bishop of the Anglican Church in Iran, Azad Marshall, and requested that he send a letter confirming that my wife was a Christian. Bishop Marshall wrote a letter confirming my wife was a Christian, a member of the Anglican Church of Iran, and had been baptised in the church. I took the letter to the Ministry of Intelligence and they agreed to my request, so we prepared a grave in the Christian cemetery, but before the burial I was contacted by the Ministry of Intelligence and they told me: “There is an order from above that you cannot bury Mrs Mahvash Mahmoudian in the Christian cemetery.”

39. On the day of the funeral, three agents from the Ministry of Intelligence were present as my wife’s body was washed in the Islamic way and placed in a shroud filled with Quranic verses. They prayed over her body, and after an Islamic ceremony was held by the caretakers of the Shiraz cemetery and the three agents, she was buried in the Muslim cemetery. Only five members of my family were allowed to attend the funeral: my eldest daughter, son, son-in-law, father-in-law, and myself.

40. After my wife’s the death, I divided my property among my children. My daughters wanted to continue their studies, but due to the pressure caused by our persecution, they abandoned their higher studies and went to Turkey to serve in the church. My eldest daughter, Maryam, now has degrees in electronic engineering and architecture, and my younger daughter, Mahsa, is a mechanical engineer. Both of them now live abroad.

2019 arrest

41. On 25 January 2019, at 3am, I woke up to the sound of my phone ringing. I answered the call, and the person on the other end of the line said he was calling from the Ministry of Intelligence. Our apartment was in Sadra, [just north of] Shiraz, and the person who had called told me to go to a famous three-way crossroads in Sadra. To make sure the call had been legitimate, I called 113, the telephone number of the Ministry of Intelligence, and asked them to confirm they had made the call, and they confirmed.

42. So I got dressed and drove to the crossroads in my car. When I got there, there were about six cars, with four to five agents in each, and when I got out of my car, they came at me. One of them punched me in the face and pushed me into one of the cars. Then they held my head down, blindfolded and handcuffed me, and took me away. My car was left at the crossroads.

43. We were on the road for a long time, and I didn’t know where they were taking me or for what crime they had arrested me. I tried to make out the route from behind my blindfold but it felt like they were deliberately driving in different directions to confuse me so that I didn’t know the place where I was about to be detained. When they took off my blindfold, I found that I had been taken to a solitary-confinement cell in an unknown location. I looked at the ceiling, and realised they had installed a small camera in the cell and could watch me.

44. At 10am, they blindfolded and handcuffed me again and put me into another car. Once again, we were on the road for a long time, until finally we neared my home and they removed my blindfold and handcuffs. We lived in an apartment block, and they told me to ring the bell. My son answered the intercom. “Open the door,” I told him. “Four of my friends and I want to come inside.” But I never brought friends home, due to the anxiety that my son suffered from, so he knew from my words that I was with agents of the Ministry of Intelligence. My son managed to remain calm as the agents searched our home for about three hours, and ransacked the whole apartment.

45. They claimed they had a warrant to search my apartment. I asked them to show it to me, but they refused. After searching and ransacking the apartment, they confiscated some items, such as my desktop computer, laptop, mobile phone, some USBs containing family photos, CDs, Christian books, my journal, and even my wife’s diary, which had nothing to do with Christianity. I also had some dollars in my desk drawer, and one of the agents took them out and wanted to take them with him, but another agent said they shouldn’t confiscate money. Then they emptied one of my suitcases and put everything they were confiscating into it. They told me: “It’s better if all your stuff is in the same place, so it won’t get lost.” But they never returned any of the items they confiscated. After we left the apartment again and got into the car, they blindfolded and handcuffed me again. About two hours later, we arrived back at the detention centre and they took my mugshot and fingerprints.

Interrogations in detention centre

46. They took me back to solitary confinement. There was no toilet in the cell. Instead, they left a card inside the cell, and I had to throw it out of the opening in the door whenever I needed to go to the bathroom. So when I needed to go, I would place this card outside, but sometimes it would take an hour for the guard to come and take me to the bathroom. This was very difficult for me, and was like torture. They even handcuffed and blindfolded me to take me to the bathroom.

47. There was a ventilation fan or heater in the corridor outside of the cell, which made an annoying noise. I couldn’t sleep well because of it. Also, the call to prayer and recitations of the Quran were played regularly over loudspeakers.

48. During my seven days in detention, I was interrogated every day for hours. Sometimes I was interrogated for 14 hours in one day. Several times they took me for questioning at 2am. In the interrogation room, they put me on a chair. There was a bar under the table in front of me, and they attached one handcuff to that bar and the other to my left hand. A large one-way mirror was in front of me. I couldn’t see through it, but the interrogators were on the other side of it, sitting and watching me. I know this because there was an opening underneath the mirror, through which we used to exchange paper and pens.

49. During my first interrogation, they passed me a pen and a sheet of paper, on which were written some questions. One of the questions was: “What is your religion?” I was familiar with their methods and drew a line next to this question and said: “It isn’t legal for you to ask me to write about my religion. Is this a court of inquisition?” I wasn’t afraid of arguing with them.

50. The interrogators spoke loudly to me, using swear words and insults. Because I was a Christian, they told me I was “dirty” and “impure”. They demanded that I return to Islam and asked me why I had evangelised. They knew that one of my activities was counselling Christian couples, although during the inspection of my home they hadn’t found any evidence of my Christian activities. The interrogators mocked me and said: “Who do you think you are to counsel them?”

51. “You were part of our red list,” said one interrogator. “You are very lucky to be alive! No-one knows where you are now. We’ll kill you and no-one will find out.”

52. They questioned me about what activities my daughters and their husbands, who are active in the Church, were engaged in abroad.

53. A member of my church had recently asked me to meet a lady whom she said was interested in Christianity and had many questions, and was trustworthy. So I met this lady in the park and answered her questions, and she decided to become a Christian. Then she talked to her husband about Christianity and he also became a Christian, though I never met him. During my interrogation, they would regularly bring up a lady’s name and say: “Tell us where they are! Why did you help them run away? If you don’t say where they are, we’ll execute you!” I told them I didn’t know. They said: “You made them Christians! Their name is saved in your phone!” When I saw the person’s name on my phone [which had been saved under an alias], I realised they meant the same lady, who also had a PhD in economics. I hadn’t known but it seemed this lady’s husband must have been an intelligence agent of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and now the couple had fled from Iran. My interrogators wrote a confession for me to sign, saying I had known this person and guided them to go to church. But actually I didn’t even know this lady’s husband, and even his wife I only knew by the nickname she had introduced herself with. Anyway, I refused to sign.

54. The interrogators asked me repeated questions, which was aggravating. On the last day of my interrogations, I threw their questionnaire through the opening under the mirror and said: “From now on, I’ll only answer questions in the presence of a lawyer.” They threatened me that they would physically torture me, though they didn’t, but they did make a case against me on falsified charges.

55. After my arrest, my son had gone to judicial institutions, the police station, the Ministry of Intelligence and various other places to find out where I was being detained. But no governmental body had taken responsibility for my arrest. The Ministry of Intelligence told my son: “Don’t look for your father. Consider him dead!” During the seven days of my detention, my son suffered a lot as he tried to find out where I was being detained, but it was futile.

56. My daughters, meanwhile, were out of the country and were very worried about me. The issue of my arrest was discussed with Article18 and they agreed to the publication of my arrest in the media. Looking back now, it is clear to me that the publication of the news of my arrest caused my interrogators to worry. I remember how one day their attitude towards me suddenly changed and it was as though they no longer knew how to deal with me. At the time, being unaware of the media coverage, I was surprised by their change in behaviour. Only after my release did I realise what had happened, and I thanked Article18 a lot. If the news of my arrest hadn’t been published in the media, maybe the intelligence agents would have killed me. We Christians, as one family, should support each other.

Release on bail

57. On the 17th day of my detention, 31 January 2019, I was taken in a van, blindfolded and handcuffed, from that unknown place where I had been detained to the 6th Investigation Branch of the Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office of Shiraz. Three officers of the Ministry of Intelligence accompanied me and, once inside, they removed my handcuffs and blindfold.

58. I asked the judge [prosecutor]: “What is my charge? They came and took me away at 3am. I don’t know who arrested me, where they detained me, or what my crime is!” I found out later that my accusations in the indictment prepared by the judicial officers were written in the following order: “apostasy”, “propaganda against the regime of the Islamic Republic”, “membership in anti-regime groups”, and “insulting the sacred in cyberspace”. The judge asked me two questions: whether I was an apostate, and whether I had insulted Islam. I denied both accusations and said I had never insulted Islam. I also explained that different Shia authorities have different opinions and fatwas [rulings] regarding apostasy.

59. The agents of the Ministry of Intelligence tried to make the judge give me a harsh sentence. They constantly stressed that I was a “disruptor, a ‘Zionist’ evangelist, and an enemy of the system”, and that I should be punished. I denied all these accusations and defended myself, telling the judge that after taking me away they had detained me in an unknown place and made up a case against me. The judge took a cursory look at the contents of my file, and closed it. He talked briefly with someone on the phone, then took the file and left the room. About a quarter of an hour passed and then he returned with my file, and ordered that I be freed on bail.

60. My bail had been set at 10 million tomans [approx. $800], so I called one of my friends and he came as my guarantor, by bringing a payslip. So, that same day, I was temporarily released on bail.

61. After my release, I saw three agents of the Ministry of Intelligence in the courtyard of the court. They came to me and said: “Forgive us. We had no bad intentions.” I was surprised that those who insulted me and had called me “impure” were now apologising to me!

62. I called my son and told him where I was. He was very happy and came to pick me up. The moment we met was a special moment. My children had suffered a lot during my detention because they didn’t know where I was detained.

Prosecutor’s office summonses

63. I was summoned to the prosecutor’s office again in July 2019. When I arrived, the person in charge of the investigation office there wrote a letter, stamped it, and put it in an envelope. Then he gave me the letter and said: “Take this to one of the offices of Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, and bring his answer back to me.” It transpired that the judge had made an official enquiry, and wanted to ask the opinion of a grand ayatollah close to the government regarding apostasy. Two days later, I found the person in charge of the office of Makarem Shirazi and [Ayatollah] Nouri Hamedani in Shiraz. This person was an old and simple mullah, who sat me down next to him and opened the letter in such a way that I could see it. I therefore saw that the director of the investigation branch had enquired whether it counted as an example of apostasy if someone who once believed in the Shia religion converted to Christianity after investigation and research. The mullah asked me questions, and I answered them clearly, explaining that I had been a Muslim but had now become a Christian, and that this letter had been given to me by a judge. Then he wrote a handwritten answer to the court and put it in an envelope, but he didn’t close it. After I had left, I read the letter and saw that he had responded to the question by saying that if a person doesn’t deny that Islam is true and only considers the ethics and behaviour of Christianity better, that person isn’t an apostate; they are only wrong.

64. I took the letter back to the prosecutor’s office, and Judge Mehdi Ghorbani read it and asked me why it was open. I explained that it had been open when it was given to me, and gave him the phone number of the mullah in charge, saying he could call to verify that. So he called, and discovered that the letter had indeed been delivered to me in an unsealed envelope. Ghorbani, who seemed to be trying to help and to clear me of the charge of apostasy, turned to me and said: “For now, you may go, but I will summon you for another meeting and my opinion will be decisive as to whether you are an apostate or not!”

65. On 22 October 2019, I was summoned again to the Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office, before the same young judge. My son was with me and, when we entered, the judge asked me: “Who is this man?” I told him it was my son, and he was allowed to stay.

66. Ghorbani gently talked to me about the charge of apostasy. He had put the letter from the office of Makarem Shirazi and Nouri Hamedani on his desk. After I had given my own defence against the charge, he told me to write down everything he dictated and that if I did so he would throw out the charge of apostasy. I said: “Please first tell me what you want me to write, so that I know whether I want to write it or not.” He said: “Write that I know Prophet Muhammad is a prophet and believe in his book.” I said jokingly: “Hajagha! [a man who has been to Mecca] Let’s go and pray together at noon!” He also laughed, before controlling himself, and I explained to him that I was a Christian. “I believe in Jesus Christ,” I said, “so I cannot approve anyone else’s mission. You tell me to write that I accept Prophet Muhammad, but if I accepted Prophet Muhammad I wouldn’t be a Christian!” He said nothing more about it. He only asked me to stand in the dock, and write whatever I wanted. So I wrote down that I was a Christian, then gave it to him. He looked at it and said: “We’ll look into your case.”

67. Then he said: “You started a Telegram channel, where you propagated evangelical Christianity. So the accusation of ‘propaganda against the Islamic Republic’ is correct. Therefore, you cannot be freed on your current bail. For this charge, you must post at least 100 million tomans [equivalent to $9,000 at the time], and so he increased my bail from 10 million tomans to 100 million tomans. I told him I couldn’t pay such an amount, and he said: ”Bring two guarantors with payslips and I will order your release. Then he gave me back my phone and I called two of my friends, and they submitted their payslips to the court and became responsible for 50 million tomans each.

68. I asked the judge if I could get myself a lawyer, and he said: “Yes, you can definitely get a lawyer.” When I gave him the name and details of the lawyer I wanted, a Mr Farshid Rofoogaran, he said: “We happen to know this person, and at this stage in your case you can have him as your lawyer.”

69. The final decision of the prosecutor’s office was issued on 10 November 2019, and my case was sent on to court, where I would face three charges: “propaganda against the regime of the Islamic Republic”, “membership in groups opposed to the regime”, and “insulting the sacred in cyberspace”. The charge of “apostasy” had been removed.

70. Due to the types of charges in my case, it was sent to two different courts: the Revolutionary Court to deal with the so-called “security” charges, such as “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and “membership in anti-regime groups”, and the criminal court for the other charge of “insulting the sacred”.

Revolutionary Court

71. I secured the services of Mr Rofoogaran as my lawyer, and on 17 February 2020 we went together to the Shiraz Revolutionary Court. In addition to us, the judge, the clerk of the court and two other people were present. I didn’t know whether those two other people were from the Ministry of Intelligence or not, as I hadn’t seen them before and they didn’t say anything. The charges that were dealt with in this court were those of “propaganda against the regime of the Islamic Republic” and “membership of an anti-regime group” – because I had subscribed to the Telegram channel of a Christian TV network.

72. The judge of my case was Seyyed Mahmood Sadati, and he also knew my lawyer. In Shiraz, Mr Rofoogaran had also taken on other ideological cases, such as for Baha’is, so he had experience regarding these cases. The judge declared the court session official, and asked me to stand in the dock and defend myself. So I stood there and said: “Ask me questions, so that I can start to defend myself.” He opened my file, and took out a sheet that contained verses from the Bible – from the book of Philippians. I had received these verses in a Telegram message [from the Christian channel], and the message had been taken from my mobile phone, printed, and attached to my file. Sadati asked what the passage meant, and I explained that it was from the Bible. He asked me only that one question, then ordered me to sit down. He didn’t ask my lawyer anything. Then he wrote down some things in my file, and asked me to leave the room. I don’t know what he talked about with my lawyer, but I waited outside the room for about an hour. Then my lawyer came and told me: “Today’s meeting is over. Let’s go. The verdict will be announced later.” He didn’t tell me anything about his conversation with the judge. I suspect that Judge Sadati had a private problem with my lawyer and this is what they talked about.

73. The verdict of the Revolutionary Court, signed by Judge Sadati, was announced to me that same month, though I wasn’t even allowed to have a copy of the verdict. They said that the protocol of the Shiraz Revolutionary Court was that they don’t give the verdict to the accused and that we could only read it and write it down, and couldn’t even take a photo.

74. In the verdict, Sadati referred to the Intelligence Protection Organisation of the Iranian Armed Forces, which had been responsible for my arrest; the “explicit confession of the accused”, because I had acknowledged I had received a passage from the Bible; and the “message that was sent in cyberspace”. On the charges of “propaganda activity against the regime” and “membership in an anti-regime group (Zionist evangelical Christianity)”, based on Article 499 of the Islamic Penal Code, he issued a sentence of two years in prison.

75. A few days later, a new summons was sent to me by the court, and on 27 February 2020 I appeared again at the Revolutionary Court, and my lawyer came with me. Judge Sadati said he was unhappy with his initial verdict, and wanted to make some “corrections”. He didn’t ask me any questions; he just dismissed me and talked to my lawyer, though again my lawyer didn’t tell me anything about their conversation. My family and I hoped the verdicts against me might be overturned.

76. A few months passed, until on 9 May 2020 the amendment was finally issued, and we were notified a few days later. Judge Sadati had increased the sentence of two years’ imprisonment that he had given in the previous court hearing to three years. I wasn’t very surprised, because I hadn’t expected anything more from Judge Sadati. I appealed against the verdict.

Criminal court

77. Separately, on 8 January 2020, I had gone to branch 105 of the Shiraz Criminal Court with my lawyer to deal with the charge of “insulting the sacred in cyberspace”. This charge came about because I had reacted with a smiley-face emoji to a joke about some Muslim seminary students in Iran that had been posted on the Telegram channel I had set up. Even though I wasn’t the originator of the joke, my reaction had been considered an example of “insulting the sacred”.

78. The head of the court, Mahmoud Fakharzadeh, was a very aggressive and fanatical person regarding Islam, and even worse than the judges of the Revolutionary Court. He insulted me a lot. My lawyer was upset and protested: “Mr Judge, declare his charges!” Even though the judge knew that he was my lawyer, the judge asked who he was, and he responded: “I am his lawyer.” The judge didn’t ask me any questions related to the charge. He only asked about my daughters and sons-in-law living abroad and what they were doing there. I said: “What does the work of my daughters and sons-in-law have to do with the accusation of insulting Islamic sanctities?” The judge only responded: “You must answer my questions!” Then he dismissed us.

79. Fakharzadeh clearly said in the same court session that, “In my opinion the offence is obvious.” Three days later, on 11 January 2020, the court issued its verdict and sentenced me to three years in prison based on Article 513 of the Islamic Penal Code for “insulting the sacred”.

Criminal court appeal

80. After the issuance of each verdict, we had 20 days to appeal, and my lawyer also wrote an appeal against my criminal court conviction. In this appeal, he mentioned the lack of proof of my crime, my clear rejection of wrongdoing and, more importantly, that I hadn’t been the sender of the message. Referring to the rules of Islamic jurisprudence, my lawyer argued that even assuming I had sent the message, the Islamic seminary students who had been mocked would not constitute an example of Islamic sacredness, such that laughing at them could be considered a crime.

81. Finally, the decision of the 17th branch of the Fars Court of Appeal was issued on 5 July 2020. The head of the branch, Jamshid Kashkouli, accepted my lawyer’s defence and concluded that the content of the message and my reaction weren’t examples of insulting Islamic sanctities. Therefore, I was acquitted of this charge, and my three-year prison sentence was overturned.

82. When I found out that Mr Kashkoli had overturned my sentence, I went to the Chief Justice to thank him, but he wasn’t there. So I went to the head of the judiciary, who was a higher authority, a mullah named Mousavi. When he saw me, he said he recognised me but couldn’t remember where from. Then he said: “I overturned your sentence. I was being easy on you.” Some young clerics had come to visit him and were also in the room as he was saying these things. He said: “In fact, we should have executed you as an apostate!” I replied: “It is written in the Quran that ‘there will be no-one among the People of the Book who will not believe in Jesus Christ before they die’ [Surat An-Nisa, verse 159]. When I was a Muslim, I came to know Jesus through the Quran.” I also mentioned some other Quranic verses and he became angry and swore at me. “You impure filth!” he said. “Get out of here! I made a mistake overturning your three-year prison sentence! You should be executed! You should go and spend six years in prison! We’ll reinstate your three-year sentence and give you another! Even if we reduce your sentence, you’ll still spend two years in prison, though if you ask for forgiveness there, perhaps we’ll let you go.”

Revolutionary Court appeal

83. A few days later, I was informed that the decision of the Court of Appeal in connection with the verdict issued by the Revolutionary Court had also been announced and signed by Jamshid Kashkoli.

84. My lawyer had tried hard to prove I wasn’t a member of a “hostile” group or organisation in any way and had argued that the indictment was “very vague” and “lacking legal reasoning”, and that the only clear charge was that I had received a message from a Christian satellite TV channel, and that I hadn’t even sent it to anyone else. In addition, he questioned the use of the general term “Zionist evangelical Christianity” in my case file, and wrote that: “It is not clear what group of people are being referred to by this term, and it is unclear whether any such group has ever existed.”

85. However, the appeal-court judge didn’t acquit me this time, and didn’t consider our appeal to be justified. So in this verdict, which was issued on 11 July 2020, he upheld my two-year sentence, but changed my sentence of an extra year in prison to “seven months and 31 days”.

Leaving Iran

86. Finally, after eight summonses and several court hearings, it was clear that I would be imprisoned. I was ready to go to prison for my Christian faith and I had no intention of leaving Iran. Before the Islamic revolution, I could have easily emigrated to another country, but I hadn’t. But now, my son Ali, because of the events that had happened in our life, had developed acute obsessive compulsive disorder. If I went to prison, he would be alone, and given his situation I felt that I couldn’t leave him on his own. Our relatives had cut ties with us because we were Christians, and had rejected us. So I decided to leave the country because of my son. I was responsible for his care, and he needed me.

87. So, with my son, I left the country. Our departure coincided with the Covid-19 era and it was difficult to find flight tickets to Turkey. Flights were either reduced or cancelled. In the end, we had to pay 35 million toman [approx. $1,500] for a return flight to Turkey, via Doha.

88. So after years of hard work, I couldn’t even get my retirement papers and had to leave Iran because of my judicial conviction; my wife got cancer due to the stress and pressure we were under and died; I lost my home; and my son also suffered from acute fear and obsession due to the pressure and threats of the Ministry of Intelligence. My whole life was affected by persecution and harassment due to my faith. But I am sure that God preserved me so that I could tell the world the story of Christians’ persecution by the Islamic Republic’s security institutions and the story of God’s work in the lives of Christians.

89. After we had left Iran, the court contacted those friends who had acted as my guarantors, so I had to compensate them for their loss and repay them for my 100 million toman [approx. $9000] bail.