Witness Statements

Marjan and Mani

Marjan and Mani

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

Background

Mani

1. My name is Mohsen (Mani) Aliabady Ravari, and I was born on 29 June 1978 in Tehran. My wife Manizheh (Marjan) Bagheri was born on 22 July 1983 in Hamedan. We had a film rental shop, and one of our regular customers, Mohammad Reza (known as Sepehr), who now lives in the United States, spoke with us about Christianity. After six months of studying the Bible and the Quran at the same time, in June 2011 we decided to convert to Christianity; our daughter was three years old at that time.

2. Soon we found a house-church and joined it. We regularly attended meetings and evangelised. After two years our pastor officially invited us to serve in the house-church. I was a guitar player and led worship. In Kamalabad [near Karaj], in the garden of other Christian believers, on 16 August 2013 my wife and I, and several other Christians, were baptised.

Arrest

3. On Tuesday 10 November 2015, at 11pm, somebody rang our doorbell. My little girl, Dina, opened the door. I hurried to the door and saw from their appearance that the five people standing there were agents of the Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS). I asked them to show me their warrant. They showed it to me, but I didn’t fully absorb what I saw because I was in a state of shock. I only remember seeing mine and Marjan’s names, as well as the letterhead of the arrest warrant, from the Alborz Prosecutor’s Office.

4. The five officers entered, while insulting us, making my older daughter, who was eight years old, and my three-year-old daughter cry and cling firmly to their mother. They handcuffed me and told us to sit on the sofa. They didn’t even let us look at each other. Two of the officers had guns fastened to their hips, and several times they showed them to us. Their behaviour increased our children’s fear. My youngest child [Parna] is now eight years old, but because of her fears related to my arrest that day, she still visibly suffers from the impact of those events.

5. They searched our entire home, as well as our storeroom, and even my car. The search took about two hours, and they were trying to do it quietly so that the neighbours weren’t aware. They confiscated our laptop, tablet, mobile phones, contact book, a cross which hung on the wall, books, family photos, CDs and DVDs, USB sticks and external hard drives, birth certificates, national ID cards, passports and bank cards. From our storeroom they took a Bible, other Christian books, the hard drive of my computer, in which, because I was studying theology, I had saved tutorial videos and essays I had written. Even my children’s hard drive, with no information on it at all, was confiscated. They also wanted to confiscate my guitar. I explained that I was a musician, and as soon as they saw a wardrobe full of music books and notes, they didn’t take my guitar. Because I was in charge of the church library, the agents were able to fill their Peugeot Pride with books. They listed all the things they took away and asked me to sign it. 

6. I don’t know if the agent was just acting, or being serious, but through his walkie-talkie he said to another person: “Seyyed, this family has a small child. Shall we arrest the wife?” From what happened next, it seemed like Seyyed had replied: “Don’t arrest her, but get her to sign something promising she won’t leave town, so that we can summon her to court at any time.” So Marjan signed this document, but she asked how she was supposed to pay for her living expenses, since they had taken away my bank cards. They allowed me to take back one of my cards, and I gave her the card with the highest amount on it.

7. My wife knew that when they arrested someone, they left their families without any information, so she asked the agents: “Where are you taking my husband? Where should I go if you don’t contact us?” One of the agents, seeing my wife’s insistence on finding my place of detention, said: “Go to Fardis Prosecutor’s Office.” The back seat and the boot were full of books, so two officers sat in the front of the Peugeot Pride. The two other agents sat in the front of a Citroen Xantia and one agent sat in the back next to me. One of the agents had a blindfold in the pocket of his trousers and put it over my eyes. Then his colleague put on an Islamic mourning chant and turned up the volume; I suspect he either wanted to annoy me or prevent me from hearing their conversation.

Marjan

8. It was about 1.30am when my husband was arrested and taken away. Later that day, I drove my children to my sister’s home. With my brother-in-law’s mobile phone I called a friend, who had discipled us. I told him that my husband had been arrested and that he shouldn’t come to our house. I asked him to inform our pastor. So he sent my pastor an email and explained what had happened. At that time we didn’t know that our pastor had also been arrested. Later we found out that he and his wife were held in solitary confinement for more than two months. Later on, with someone else’s mobile phone, I called our friend again and we decided to meet at 2.30am in Fardis. Together, we went to some of the homes of the believers with whom we had contact, and found out that some other members had also been arrested. We arranged to go together to the Fardis Prosecutor’s Office, as the agent had suggested to me, so we could try to secure bail for all those who had been arrested.

9. On the day of Mani’s arrest, a Wednesday, I stayed at home the whole time; I thought that I might be contacted, but nothing happened. Then on the next day, Thursday, at 8am, I went to the Fardis Prosecutor’s Office. First, they fooled me and said there wasn’t any case-file related to the person I was speaking about and that I should talk to the police. But when I went there, they said such cases weren’t given to them and that the MOIS was responsible, so I should go back to the prosecutor’s office for answers to my questions.

10. At 11am, I arrived back at the prosecutor’s office and realised that they had just wanted to pass me around like a ball. So I started to shout loudly: “I won’t go home until someone tells me where my husband is!” Since they didn’t want people to raise their voices and draw attention to the situation, one of them came and asked me what I was upset about and what information I was looking for. I explained where, which date, and at what time my husband had been arrested and that I had been told to come to the Fardis Prosecutor’s Office for more information. He checked and confirmed that my husband’s case-file had been sent to another prosecutor’s office branch. So he sent me to the interrogator, Mr Nasser Khaki. 

11. For about four hours, myself and the other families who had come to pursue the cases of those arrested waited for Mr Khaki, until he finally called for us. He told us: “They were members of a church, so they were severely charged. From the point of view of Islamic law, their crime is apostasy and the sentence is execution, but Islamic mercy will benefit them. We have to look at their files and the evidence confiscated from their homes, and whether they were in contact with the Zionists of Israel, America or Britain – did they spy, and so on. If not, they will be jailed for six months to 10 years.”

12. Of those arrested, the church’s accountant, whom the judge treated very harshly, and my husband Mani, the librarian, were charged most severely. I asked what crimes they had committed, and he answered: “Apostasy, actions against the security of the regime, illegal goods, and illegal gatherings.” Every morning, at eight o’clock, myself and some of the other arrested Christians’ family members went to the prosecutor’s office and waited there until it closed.

13. Once, I went to the interrogator’s office and said that we hadn’t done anything against the law; we didn’t climb anyone’s wall or commit robbery or murder! I also said that becoming a Christian was a personal matter and that even if they sentenced us to 10 years in prison, we wouldn’t turn away from our faith. I said that maybe if he put a gun to my head, I would accept to revert to Islam out of fear, but in my heart I would still hold a different belief. The interrogator said that nothing like that was expected from us. I continued that I knew that maybe they didn’t understand what we were saying, but this was our spiritual belief and I would expect them to understand that. I said that I was sure they had found out through their investigations that the Christians they had arrested were good people. “Yes, we know,” he said. “It’s only that you have been fooled.”

Dina’s school

14. We lived in Shahrak-e-Naz, near Fardis. My eldest daughter, Dina, was in the second year of primary school at the time of my husband’s arrest. She went to school from 23 September until 10 November, when Mani was arrested. In our previous neighbourhood, I had met my daughter’s headmistress, shared the Gospel with her and given her a Bible. In tears my daughter had explained the story of her father’s arrest to the headmistress. She contacted me and when we had a meeting she said: “The Ministry of Education ordered us to identify the children in the school from religious minorities.” She said with kindness and compassion: “I didn’t mention your name, but please be careful and keep your faith secret.” However, since the school was a private school, she also thought that in the school’s interests she should avoid coming under the gaze of the Ministry of Education.

15. I explained to my daughter that she shouldn’t speak about the issues we were having at home to anyone, but she was so stressed that she felt she had to share her pain with the headmistress. Since I had paid the school fees for that term, I didn’t take Dina out of school immediately, but because of her deteriorating mental health she wasn’t able to finish the school year.

Prison

Mani

16. When we arrived at the prison, they made me stand in front of a wall. They knew my nickname so someone said: “Mr Mani, welcome!”  They handed me over to an older prison guard, who was in charge. He gave me some clothes and told me to put them on. I answered that I couldn’t see. He said: “You can raise your blindfold a little bit, just enough so that you can change your clothes.” Then they took me to another room. One person, who I only saw that day and never again, told me to remove my blindfold and to fill out the form in front of me. The form was more about personal details, but also questions like: “How did you become a Christian? Have you been baptised? Where and by whom were you baptised?” And so on. I didn’t tell the truth about my baptism, because I didn’t want to get anyone else in trouble or arrested.

17. I was unaware that our house-church had been under observation for a while, and that agents had also been to the houses of some of the other Christians and arrested them. They had arrested members from other house-church groups in Karaj as well, and had a lot of information. I could hear and recognise the voices of some other believers from Karaj. I thought at the time that only the members of the house-churches in Karaj had been arrested, but after my release I realised that they had also arrested Christians from groups in other cities.

18. When I was taken to my cell, through the hatch I was told that I could now take off my blindfold. Then after taking my fingerprints, they didn’t call for me for another five days! It was a very hard time, and for me it was like time was standing still. I didn’t know what was happening or would happen to those of us who had been arrested. I was very anxious.

19. One afternoon, I heard the voices of some of other Christians that I knew, so I realised they were also being held in the same place, or at least being interrogated. After five days, when they were transferring me from the detention centre to the prison for registration purposes, I managed to take a look around, and saw that I was in Rajaei Shahr Prison. I had worked at a taxi agency for many years, so I knew the streets well. From there I was taken to Ghezel Hesar Prison. Then they took my fingerprints and mugshot to create a criminal-record file about me.

20. Again I was transferred to the MOIS prison, Rajaei Shahr. I was taken to a cell that was 3m x 3m, and had a little window with thin metal bars across it. On a raised platform in the cell there was a toilet and a shower. They gave me three blankets: one as a pillow, one a blanket, and one to lie on. The light in the room was on 24 hours a day. Food was handed over through a small opening in the cell door.

21. We had heard from some Christians that had previously been arrested and imprisoned about the kind of questions that Christians are asked during the interrogation. They wanted us to be ready for that day. Five days after my arrest, the interrogations began. During those first days on my own, I prayed a lot and told God that I didn’t know how any of this had happened but that I really didn’t want to cause trouble for anyone by giving information. I also prayed: “God, you prayed for us not to lose our faith. Be gracious so that I can stay strong and faithful. I don’t want them to put me under pressure to turn away from believing in you, the truth.” For seven days I was interrogated, and some days not once but twice – at noon and in the afternoon. The interrogator never asked me to return to Islam.

22. My interrogator was a middle-aged man who was called Seyyed. He wrote his questions on paper, and asked me to write down my answers, then sign them and add my fingerprint to confirm I had written the answers. I was told with an insulting and mocking tone that one of my charges was that I was a member of “Evangelical Christianity” and had been evangelising others and doing church activities. He kept asking about the names of the other church members and active Christians. His aim was to get as much information as possible.

23. He asked: “Who is Mahan?” I knew that Mahan had been arrested, because I had heard his voice, and also some of the other church members, so I wrote down their names, or the names of a family who had already emigrated to Turkey three months before our arrest. So I wrote down the names only of people the agents already knew, or those who couldn’t be found. He asked me to talk about our pastor and to give his address. I answered that I didn’t know his address and that he would come to the house-church meetings from Tehran and always leave the meeting first. Actually, I really didn’t know the pastor’s home address.

24. When he asked me questions about house-church members and their activities, it was clear that groups were being arrested nationwide: in Karaj, Tehran, the north of Iran, Anzali, Hamedan, and so on. I guess that in the first five days of our detention they wanted to collect information from members of the other groups and then interrogate us to compare the answers so they could catch us contradicting each other.

25. I wasn’t blindfolded in the cell or the interrogation room, but everywhere else along the way to the cell and the interrogation room I was blindfolded. The interrogator was sometimes harsh and sometimes kind, so that he could reach his goals through various techniques. During one interrogation, there were several agents in the room, as well as the interrogator. During that interrogation, they didn’t remove my blindfold. They tried to use verses from the Quran and Hadiths to show that I had been deceived, and told me that when someone evangelised to me they had attacked my culture and religion.

26. I spent 12 days in solitary confinement and one day in the general ward of the prison. My wife had been following up on my case and the interrogator told her: “You can bail him out, so he can be released.” Marjan immediately did everything necessary and I was released on a 100 million toman bail [approx. $25,000], secured by submitting the property deed from my mother-in-law’s house.

27. On the last day of my imprisonment, I told an official that I would have to explain at my workplace where I had been for the past 13 days, so they handed me a letter with the prison’s letterhead, stating the date and duration of my detention, and the reason for my imprisonment. But there was no signature and no stamp. In that letter they wrote my charges: “actions against the security of the regime, propaganda against the regime and smuggling illegal goods”. As they had confiscated Bibles and many other Christian books from our home, they saw me as a smuggler, belonging to “Evangelical Christianity”, and the Bibles were the illegal goods.

Marjan

28. Our little girl was three years old at that time. Ten days after my husband’s arrest, she missed her father and I’d told her that he was in hospital. For three days she had a severe fever and every time I wanted to go out she would say: “Mum, you want to go to the hospital like Daddy and never come back!” When the interrogator at the prosecutor’s office found out that my little girl was sick, he asked if I could provide a 100 million toman bail or a property deed. I said that I could try. Then he continued: “Go and look for a property deed and I will take care of your husband’s case so you can release him on bail.” That was on the 10th day of Mani’s detention.

29. On the 12th day, they called me and told me to bring the bail. It took a whole day. I had to go to various different places within the prosecutor’s office to have stamps put on the property deed, which was then handed over to the government. During that time, my children were both at my sister’s house, so that they were removed from our difficult home environment and also so that they could play with my sister’s children and be distracted from what had happened. As for me, I was in the prosecutor’s office throughout its opening hours, and when the office was closed I was at home, so that I could be available if anyone from the prosecutor’s office or prison called. 

Family

Mani

30. At the time of my first interrogation, I asked my interrogator to allow me to call home. One week after my detention, on a Thursday, he told the prison guard that I was allowed to speak with my family for a few minutes. It was the first time since my arrest that I was allowed to call them. Prisoners could use a phone that was on the wall of the hallway, and which could be activated with a card. I was blindfolded, so the prison guard allowed me to take a look at the numbers so that I could dial. I talked to my wife for two minutes. 

31. The interrogator had told me a few times: “Your wife is very rude! I’ll bring her to jail too and arrest her, and do something so bad to her that she’ll learn her lesson!” I thought Marjan was still continuing with her activities and that is why the interrogator was talking angrily about her, so I told her on the phone not to contact anyone until I got home. I didn’t know that Marjan was aware of the arrests of the other Christians. 

After release

32. I was released on 23 November. After that, Marjan and I were summoned twice to the MOIS building in Gohardasht, Karaj. I think the first interrogation we were summoned to was at the end of January, and the second was two weeks later.

Marjan

33. We arrived at the MOIS building between 9.30am and 10am. We rang the doorbell. It was very quiet, as if no-one was in the building. An elderly man, whom I suppose was responsible for the kitchen, guided us to a room. Mani’s interrogator, Mr Seyyed, proceeded to ask me, for about four and a half hours, the same questions he had been asked during the 13 days of his detention.

34. He asked me: “What was the purpose of the house-church-meetings that your pastor and his wife started? Who supported them? From where did they get money? Did they hold seminars and conferences?” The interrogator thought that our pastor wouldn’t do his activities only for the sake of God, and that there had to be benefits for him. I said that in the Bible it says “freely you have received, so freely give”, and that our pastor, because of the love for other people that God had poured into his heart, and the salvation he had received, wanted to evangelise and serve others.

35. Mr Seyyed asked what we did at the meetings. I answered that we would pray and worship and said that our pastor actually prayed for the government and the officials, and that he had also taught us to do so. He asked what we prayed for them, and I said that we prayed that God would save them. He said mockingly that we must have had nothing else to do, so that is why we prayed for them! Then, misunderstanding what I meant, he asked if we knew him or the other interrogators, because I’d said we prayed for them. I replied that we didn’t know their names and hadn’t seen them before but that Christians always pray for the government and the officials because this is what we are taught to do. Mr Seyyed asked me why I had become a Christian and what was wrong with Islam. I explained that faith was a personal thing and that he would have to experience Christ for himself to really be able to understand what I meant.

36. Most of his questions were about our pastor. My husband and I told him the truth about everything we were asked. He wondered why, after all that had happened, with Mani taken to jail and my children and I going through a lot of stress, I still believed in Jesus. I answered that I loved Jesus now even more than before my husband was arrested. Then he asked who I believed Christ was. I said that I knew Jesus as my God and the second person of the Trinity. He responded: “Stop this nonsense!”

37. He asked if we had been to Khorramabad [in western Iran] to teach other Christians. In fact, our pastor had asked us to go to Khorramabad but I had said “no” because I didn’t want to cause problems for the Christians there. Mr Seyyed accused me of looking him in the eyes and lying. He also said that he could bring a witness, and if the witness confirmed that we had been to Khorramabad, he would tear off our skin! I said that, very well, he could bring the witness. Mr Seyyed replied: “You are very rude!” Then I remembered that actually we had been to Khorramabad once, to pray for my friend’s son who had cancer, so I told him that. He asked what the results had been, having taken so long to journey there. I said that he wouldn’t believe it but that the child had been healed! He wrote down whatever he asked, and I had to answer both verbally and in writing, and then sign it. He said that one member of our group had spied on us, then he let us go and told us to wait to be told the date of our court hearing.

Mani

38. The next time we were summoned for interrogation, Mr Sahaf Kashani, an Islamic cleric dressed in a suit, spoke to us. He was accompanied by two clerics in training. Their aim was to convince us to return to Islam. Mr Sahaf Kashani said he wished we could have met somewhere else and talked to each other like friends, and that maybe he would then be convinced by our arguments and become a Christian himself. When he spoke like that, we asked if we could talk about our beliefs without worrying about any problems afterwards. He assured us that there wouldn’t be any problems.

39. A camera was filming us during the interrogation. When we complained about it, he said the camera was off, but he was lying. An interrogator then told us that we should cooperate with them and go anywhere they asked us to. The MOIS agents kept calling us at home, putting pressure on us and demanding us to promise to take part in no further Christian activities. Finally, we had to promise not to have any more church gatherings. Once Mr Seyyed and once Mr Nasser Khaki received that promise from me, and Marjan had to make that commitment too. Thank God, they didn’t demand any commitment from us to revert to Islam.

40. It was quite obvious that we were under observation. Our apartment was in a cul-de-sac with just three buildings, and there was always a Peugeot 405 outside, with two or three agents in it. I couldn’t see their faces clearly, but they were in their late 30s or early 40s and wore suits and shirts, with the particular type of collar that agents and mullahs usually wear. They also had long beards and were staring directly at our home. From the window of our living room we could see their car. Our home wasn’t secure anymore, our phone calls were listened to, and I felt like they would enter our home as soon as we went out. They called us several times and said: “You are being watched; we are monitoring your conversations and activities.”

Marjan

41. We had been told that the one who was giving them information and spying on us was one of our members. They wanted us to distrust our own shadow. They even suggested we spy for them and that we go to our house-churches and do whatever they said. We said we were no longer in touch with the people from our group. 

Pressure continues

42. After our pastor was released, we met him at the home of another Christian in February 2016. He told us that he couldn’t tell anyone to leave the country or to stay, but that we couldn’t continue to serve in house-churches in Iran. He said that if we visited other Christians, we could get into more trouble and maybe end up back in jail, and that we’d also be putting others in danger. 

Mani

43. Our identification documents were confiscated the day of my arrest, so our passports were in the possession of the MOIS, and I wouldn’t be able to get passports for my children without their birth certificates. For that reason, before the second interrogation, I went to the Fardis Prosecutor’s Office to see my interrogator, Mr Nasser Khaki. He asked why I had come to his office. I explained that our landlord wanted us to move out and that I needed identification documents to quickly rent another place; otherwise the landlord would throw our belongings onto the street. He wrote a letter and handed it to me, saying: “Take this to the Karaj MOIS building.” That same day I rang the doorbell at the MOIS building and handed over the letter and said that I wanted my documents back. The man there told me that they would be in touch. Because of the excuse I had made up about looking for new accommodation, they gave me back my birth certificate and national ID card, and then during my second interrogation they gave back all our identification documents. But none of the other stuff they had confiscated was returned. I am most upset about our family photo album because now we don’t have any photos of our children from the time before my arrest.

44. Once, the interrogator told us: “You either have to convert to Islam or you don’t have the right to live in Iran.” I’m sure that they were keeping us under surveillance and putting pressure on us so we would leave Iran. They even told me once in the MOIS building that so many believers had left Iran. The agent handed me a letter and wanted me to write that a Christian family that we knew had fled Iran. I answered that I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said: “You know very well! You accompanied them yourself and wished them well!” It turned out they even knew which flight they’d got on.

45. After being released from prison, I was told that I wasn’t allowed to travel with anyone other than my immediate family, and I even had to sign a commitment that I wouldn’t see anyone other than them. But my wife and I couldn’t break off our contact with the other Christians we knew and had ministered to for five years in our house-church. So we would meet up in the park, or our car, or at night. Once they even stayed over, but although we met and kept in touch, we had no more house-church gatherings. In February, when we left our home and were getting ready to leave Iran, even then we stayed at the house of another Christian family. 

46. But until the last moment, I didn’t know if I would be banned from leaving. However, since I had been released on bail, I was certain that at least they wouldn’t put me back in jail until after the trial. Nevertheless it was very risky and until I got on the plane I was scared they might not let me leave. We fled Iran on 3 March 2016, and arrived in Turkey.

Court

47. The trial was held on 23 July 2016 at 2nd Branch of the Revolutionary Court of Karaj, presided over by Judge Safari. My case was heard alongside those of the other Christians who were arrested. Our lawyer called afterwards and said: “I went to the court. You have been issued a sentence of one year in prison on the charge of ‘propaganda against the Islamic Republic through the formation of a house-church, and the promotion of Evangelical Christianity and converting Muslims’.” We asked him to send us the written verdict, but he said the judge hadn’t given it to him. Our appeal was held on 12 December 2016, and the judge upheld the one-year sentence.

48. Before the trial, I gave my brother absolute power of attorney. He had talked to my lawyer, about trying to get my mother-in-law’s property deed released. But the judge said in court that either we had to go to jail for a year, or the property deed would be kept as our bail. I asked Mr Rahimi to do whatever he could to get it released, but he said: “I can’t do anything legally, because you’d have to go to jail to get it released.” But later we paid a 14 million toman [approx. $5,000] fee and he was able to secure the release of the document somehow.