Saturday was a day of celebration for Christians and religious rights advocates around the world. Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old Christian girl with mental disabilities, was flown to a secure location after spending nearly three weeks in jail on false blasphemy charges. And, Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani—who was to be executed for his conversion to Christianity—was finally freed. Our voices were heard and our prayers were answered.
We must not be fooled, however, in thinking the views of those who put Rimsha and Youcef in prison have changed. As one article headline put it: Rescue of Christian Girl May Be Turning Point in Abuse of Blasphemy Law. But, was this really a “turning point”? Or, do the oppressor’s motives remain the same, only to have succumbed this one time to international pressure?
In Pakistan, numerous Christians and other religious minorities, mainly Ahmadis, linger in prison for allegedly blaspheming Islam. Among them is Asia Bibi, a young Christian mother sentenced to death by hanging for blasphemy in November 2010. Two of her closest advocates, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s sole Christian cabinet minister, were assassinated for publicly opposing the laws that condemned her. Where is her justice?
In Iran, there are at least 16 Christians imprisoned for their faith, not to mention the hundreds of nameless Muslims that far outnumber Christians in the country’s jails for opposing the oppressive regime. Among them is Behnam Irani, a pastor suffering from stomach ulcers and being denied treatment. Where is his justice?
The release of two Christians last week was a great victory for the individuals and their families; in that we can rejoice. But, do not forget that thousands of prisoners of conscious, convicted for nothing more than their religious affiliation or political views, have yet to see justice.
When Christians rise up in defense of the persecuted Church, there is freedom. Your prayers, your advocacy, and your voices are heard. Please continue to be vigilant in prayer for Christians in Pakistan, Iran, and throughout the world who suffer discrimination, abuse, imprisonment, and even death for no other reason than following Jesus.
To support the persecuted church through assistance, advocacy, and awareness, visit Persecution.org. Sign our petitions to raise your voice for the persecuted Church.
Where Spiritual Growth and Physical Suffering Intertwine
On March 20, Iranians celebrated a new year, 1391, in accordance to the Persian calendar. For many Iranian Christians, the date means nothing more than another year spent behind bars. Yet, at the same time, ICC is reminded that the Gospel is being heard throughout the country in a way the Iranian church has never seen before.
“On the ground, we’re moving forward and talking to people daily. This month alone, we had over twenty people come to Christ,” an Iranian church leader told ICC. “Persecution is also on the rise daily and inside has become more and more volatile.”
Despite growth, the year was also defined by the church as a period of immense persecution. More than 44 Christians had been arrested and another five Christians – who had been arrested in previous years – remained behind bars, including Youcef Nadarkhani, a pastor on death row for apostasy.
Throughout history, the growth of the church and the suffering of Christians often occur simultaneously. It reminds us that the Gospel’s ability to redeem the hearts of mankind is not of our own doing but is the work of God. As much as we sometimes try – and fail – to rely on our own strength, it is in our weakness that He is made strong:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” – 2 Corinthians 4:7-10
Clinging to these promises in Scripture, many within the Iranian church exemplify this message today. Rather than fleeing persecution, they endure it by running the race set before them and fixing their eyes on Jesus (Heb. 12:1-2).
“[We] have accepted persecution and are using it to our advantage,” said an Iranian pastor. “In fact, the church is thriving under persecution.”
“When they put me in the prison and shut the door, I just fell on my knees and kissed the ground. I said to God, you have got a purpose that we are here.”
Rahim, whose name has been changed for security reasons, ran away from home at an early age following his father’s death. Living on a meager income and often sleeping on the streets, Rahim’s single mission soon became to get out of Iran.
Rahim resented God for his hardships and began experimenting with witchcraft.
“I knew that God was there, but God was doing nothing for me so I went to Satan instead,” Rahim told ICC.
By God’s grace, Rahim met a Christian who gave him a Bible. An inner-struggle consumed Rahim’s thoughts and conscience while he was reading the Word of God.
“I have lived so long with you, and I have done everything with you, but I am still in a bad situation and always in a bad mood,” Rahim said in opposition to the demonic thoughts within him. “I just want to see what the Bible is saying.”
Rahim began asking God why he felt ignored during his most difficult trials. Scriptures revealed to Rahim that God had not deserted him and that Rahim had to surrender his life completely to Christ by walking away from his sin. Still, the demonic influence over Rahim’s life continued to torment him.
During a prayer gathering that Rahim attended with his new Christian friend, a group of Christians laid their hands on Rahim and began praying for him. Rahim found himself weeping and aching.
“I became free. It was suddenly like my eyes were open,” Rahim said. “I did not even have the strength to think about anything. It was like I was seeing everything for the first time.”
Rahim’s newfound freedom changed every aspect of his life. He no longer wanted to flee Iran, but longed to grow in the Christian faith. He soon met Farrin, his wife, at a Christian gathering and was introduced to her friends who had been instrumental in Farrin’s conversion to Christianity (click here to read Farrin’s testimony). Together, they began serving in the church and evangelizing.
On September 4, 2010, Iranian security forces raided a house fellowship in Hamadan. Rahim, Farrin, and other Christians were arrested. Rahim was immediately put in solitary confinement and would stay there for 43 days.
“When they put me in the prison and shut the door, I just fell on my knees and kissed the ground. I said to God, you have got a purpose that we are here.”
Interrogations were intense that first month, Rahim recalls. “The whole goal was to get me to confess that [a certain pastor] had forced me to become a Christian.”
The hardest part for Rahim, however, was not the interrogations, but hearing his wife crying in a nearby cell. “I heard the crying and weeping of Farrin… It was very hard; very heavy… I was not able to do anything. The only thing I could do was to find refuge in God.”
After his time in solitary confinement, Rahim was moved to another prison where he was able to interact with other inmates. Rahim remembered praying before his arrest to be sent “where suffering is, even if it is a prison.” Several people gave their lives to Christ during Rahim’s ministry during the next seven months in prison.
However, circumstances in prison never improved. Rahim witnessed the brutal killing of a fellow inmate by a guard and heard the screams from countless suicides. Even so, Rahim did all he could to help ease the suffering of prisoners and learned how to smuggle blankets and clothes into the prison to give to those who were freezing in cells with open windows in the snowy winter.
“I knew that some of these people were killers and thieves and dealers, but Jesus was a friend of sinners. So, I started to disciple these people,” Rahim explained.
The only place Rahim was not being watched was in the prison mosque. Every week, he would gather the new believers to worship together and proclaim the name of Christ in the mosque. Rahim also witnessed miraculous healings of the sick.
Rahim and Farrin were finally released after eight months in prison. “The fact is that they had no excuse to detain us in the first place,” Rahim said. “My wife and I are both from dysfunctional families and backgrounds. We have been directly touched and saved by our Lord Jesus Christ, who turned our lives around. For this reason and to thank God for his deliverance, we only spoke of our own personal experiences with Jesus Christ to people and especially other social victims. After eight months I guess they realized they were wrong about us, and caught on to the fact that we are but simple witnesses to Christ.”
Rahim and Farrin continue their ministry today among Iranians living abroad.
Please continue to pray for the Iranian church. In recent months, the Iranian government has raided numerous house churches and arrested many believers. Additionally, Youcef Nadarkhani, a pastor from Rasht, Iran, is scheduled to be executed any day now for his Christian faith. Click here to read about the current persecution of Christians in Iran.
In Iran’s 1979 revolution, many Iranians believed that an Islamic-based government would offer the reforms and freedoms they had long sought under the Shah. Thirty-three years later, however, Iranians have grown disillusioned as their government has plunged them into economic stagnation and has isolated them from the international community. Though massive protests have thus far failed to grant Iranians the freedoms they desire, idleness and hardship have led many Iranians to seek answers outside of Islam. Thousands are now finding hope in the Christian faith, but not without great cost.
Religious freedom violations committed against Iranian Christians began in 2012 in the same manner that marked the end of 2011 – with mass arrests, lengthy prison terms, and potential executions. In February alone, eleven Christians were arrested; their health and circumstances unknown. Another Christian, Leila Mohammadi, was issued a two-year prison sentence for “deceiving citizens by forming house churches,” among other charges. The recent wave of arrests, beginning with a raid on the Assembly of God Church in Ahwaz in late-December, signifies that a renewed crackdown on Christians may be underway.
Christians Arrested in Church Raids
In the latest incident, Iranian security forces raided a house church meeting in a residential building in Shiraz. According to sources in Iran, ten Christian converts from Islam were detained, Bibles were confiscated, and the homes of those arrested were thoroughly searched for Christian literature.
Among those arrested were a family of three, including a 17-year-old boy and Mojtaba Hosseini, who was imprisoned once before along with eight other Christians in May 2008. The detainees have been unable to contact their families and their location remains unknown.
On the same day, Maasis Mosesian, an Armenian Christian and elder at Narmak Jama’at-e Rabbani Church in Tehran, an affiliate of the Assemblies of God church (AG), was arrested at his workplace and taken to Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj. Like those in Shiraz, Mosesian has been denied visitations with his family.
Mosesian’s arrest was not the first time members of AG churches were detained in recent months. On December 23, state security raided the AG church in Ahvaz and arrested everyone in attendance, including children.
“The authorities herded the entire congregation, including children, into two buses that had been brought specifically for this purpose,” Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported. “The majority were interrogated, threatened and eventually released. However, the church’s senior pastor, Pastor Farhad, remains in detention.”
Pastor Farhad Sabokroh along with two other church members, Naser Zamen-Defzuli and Davoud Alijani, are reportedly being held in Ahwaz’s Karoun Prison. Prior to his arrest, Pastor Farhad underwent cataract surgery, but does not have access to the medication he needs in prison. Farhad’s wife – who was also arrested and released on January 1 after submitting the deed to their house as bail – has since visited her husband in prison and is very concerned about his health.
While most churches targeted by Iranian authorities are not registered with the government and consist of Muslim converts to Christianity, the AG church in Ahwaz is officially recognized. Nevertheless, Pastor Farhad has been detained on several occasions in the past and was warned not to allow Christian converts into his congregation.
On January 18, Leila Mohammadi, was given a two-year prison sentence by the Revolutionary Court in Tehran for “collaborating with foreign-dependent groups, broad anti-Islamic propaganda, deceiving citizens by forming house churches, insulting sacred figures and acting against national security.” Mohammadi was arrested at her home on July 30, 2011 and was held for 74 days in solitary confinement at Tehran’s Evin prison before being released on bail. After the verdict was issued, sources said that Mohammadi’s attorney sent the case to Tehran Province’s high court for review.
While Mohammadi was issued the first known prison term for being a Christian by an Iranian court in 2012, many other Christians remain behind bars, serving long-term sentences following arrests in previous years.
Noorollah Qabitizade and Farshid Fathi, both arrested during Christmas and New Year’s celebrations in 2010, have now spent over a year in prison.
Qabitizade (left) is being held at Karoun prison in Ahwaz and has reportedly been under severe psychological pressure. Fathi is being held at Evin prison in Tehran and is scheduled to appear in court in the coming weeks.
Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani – arrested in 2009 for denouncing Iran’s educational practice of requiring children to read the Quran in public schools – is on death row for apostasy. In December, the Iranian judiciary decided to delay Nadarkhani’s final verdict for up to one year following aggressive international pressure. While in prison, Nadarkhani has been struck by authorities during frequent interrogations and placed in solitary confinement for extended periods of time. Nadarkhani has also reportedly been given materials aimed at discrediting the Bible and propagating Islam in hopes that Nadarkhani will renounce his Christian faith.
Behnam Irani, who belongs to the same denomination as Nadarkhani, the Church of Iran, has been in prison in Karaj since May 2011. In January 2011, a court found Irani (below) guilty of “crimes against national security” and sentenced him to one year in prison. Irani is also serving a five-year sentence that was handed down during a previous arrest in 2008. Irani has been beaten by fellow inmates in prison.
A Glimmer of Hope
The arrests and sentences mentioned indicate merely a few of the numerous Christians and other minorities – mainly from the Bahá’í faith – that are imprisoned for nothing more than their religious beliefs. Although far less severe, some churches in Iran – while unharmed by raids – face other forms of discrimination. On February 10, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security ordered Emmanuel Protestant Church and St. Peter Evangelical Church in Tehran to stop holding Farsi language services. If the churches comply, there will no longer be services offered in Farsi in any officially registered church in Tehran. The AG Church in Tehran was ordered to cease their Farsi services in October 2009.
However, despite church crackdowns, mass arrests, long-term prison sentences, and a potential execution for apostasy, Iranian Christians continue to worship in secret and share their faith somewhat openly.
“On the ground, we’re moving forward and talking to people daily. This month alone, we had over twenty people come to Christ,” an Iranian church leader, who requested anonymity, told ICC in December. “Persecution is on the rise daily and inside has become more and more volatile. People are scared of the Iranian government. They’ve filled the streets with undercover officers to entrap people who speak against the government.”
Whereas anti-Christian crackdowns appear to be used to discourage the church, some speculate that Iranian officials realize that the opposite is true. Nonetheless, officials are still intent on persecuting the church.
“The issue has little to do with perceptions of how Christianity might respond, but rather with the obligation under Islamic doctrine to put and keep [non-Muslims] in their ‘place’ within Muslim society,” Clare Lopez, a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy, told World Net Daily. “The forces of Sharia Islam are in the ascendant all over the Middle East these days and with the new-found sense of empowerment combined with what is perceived as Western complicity and weakness in the face of that situation, it is to be expected that all religious minorities, especially Christians and Jews, increasingly will feel the brutality of Islamic supremecism.”
While it appears that a renewed crackdown on Christianity is underway, the church remains undeterred. “Iranian church leaders have accepted persecution and are using it to their advantage,” an Iranian pastor told ICC. “In fact, the church is thriving under persecution.”
Farrin, whose name had to be changed for security reasons, has lived in hardship since her early childhood. Her mother was a drug addict and her father was a dealer. “He was either in prison or when he was at home, he took so much drugs that we were unable to speak with him,” Farrin remembered.
Her family became so addicted to heroin that they could no longer afford to keep their house and sent their youngest children to beg on the streets. In their drugged state, Farrin’s brother and father verbally abused her and, on two occasions, tried to sell her as a prostitute.
Farrin could not take it anymore. She worked in a clothing shop for infants, earning just $20 per month, before making enough to escape. “I took this money and ran away. I wanted to be anywhere else but with my own family. I also wanted [to commit] suicide.” But, three months later, she found herself back in her family’s home.
“[They found me] and they took my arms and they cried and I thought everything had changed. But, it didn’t take a long time, just one week later, that my brother started talking really bad things about me. The brother told me, ‘You’ve been gone three months away from home, and we don’t know with whom you slept.’ And I said, ‘It wasn’t like that, because… I am still a virgin.”
She ran away again to her aunt’s house, but only to find similar abuse and judgment. Late one night, with her cousin and cousin’s boyfriend, Farrin attempted another escape. Drifting off to sleep in the backseat of the vehicle, all Farrin remembers next was waking up in a hospitable bed. A terrible accident proved fatal to her cousin and the boyfriend, but Farrin had survived. Farrin’s family took her home and she was bedridden for two months. Physical abuse from her brother pursued and, once healthy enough to leave, Farrin escaped for the third time.
Without money, anywhere to go, and not having the ability to walk without crutches, Farrin did whatever she needed to survive, mainly begging for assistance from strangers. Among the first was a Persian man she met in the park. “The Persian guy took me to his home and there were two people, two guys from Afghanistan, and they took me and abused me. It was terrible. I cried and didn’t like it and asked them to stop, but they didn’t stop. After this situation, everywhere I liked to stay at night… they always asked if they were going to be able to use my body.”
Farrin decided that rather than selling her body for a place to sleep, she might as well earn some money. Farrin had become a prostitute. “When I started this, I couldn’t understand this life and it wasn’t the life that I wanted, but I couldn’t go back and I saw no light. Really, really old guys came; they were as old as my grandfather even. And, I was like all the time asking, ‘Why doesn’t the earth open up and eat them, or just take them away?’
“To be able to do what I was doing I started to drink alcohol. After awhile, alcohol didn’t give me rest, so I had to take hashish. After a while I started to take another drug, and so on. I fell from depression into more depression. I was really broken inside, because so many times, many guys started to abuse me and use my body. I started cutting myself. I had no strength or power to do something to the other people, so I took it out on myself. I was looking for something to give me peace, but nothing could give me this peace.”
Looked down upon and cursed, Farrin began making up stories to justify her circumstances and to get the love she craved. “I started to become a liar… I was hungry for love. When somebody told me that he loves me, I just thought that he loves me. I was so hungry for his love and he just touched me and gives me kind words. But, afterwards when he finished his work with my body, he just threw me off, like rubbish.”
Farrin eventually met a woman, who she later found out was a Christian. “She rented this small apartment and the rest of the money they used to buy some stuff that I needed. I was so happy because it was like, ‘It’s my own and I’m going to buy something for myself.’ After five years, it was the first night that there was nobody that used my body. So that problem with my body came to an end.”
However, other problems arose. A brace that was placed in Farrin’s leg that should have been removed after one year was still in her four years later. No longer able to walk, she went to the doctor who told her that she only had two months to remove it or she would be paralyzed. However, Farrin had no way to get the $10,000 needed for the operation. “Every time I went to somebody for help, they always had another idea to use me or abuse me in a bad way.”
The friend who had helped her with an apartment had also told her about Jesus and that only He “can change your life.” Farrin remembered seeing Christians pray during her childhood and decided to give it a try.
“People said that you can take my problems away and you can change my life,” she prayed. After, she went to church and felt, “all [her] problems go away like a mountain was taken away from [her] shoulders.”
The next day, however, worrying about the money, Farrin fell back into depression. “At that time, I didn’t know that it was the devil talking to me. The devil told me, ‘Kill yourself. You are a lonely person, nobody loves you, so kill yourself.’ I tried suicide several times, but Jesus – although I didn’t know that it was Jesus, but now I know – didn’t allow me to die.”
At midnight in the rain, Farrin cried out to God. “I have nowhere I can hide myself and no protection. I have no protection… Please do not allow them to cut my leg. If they cut my leg, what should I do? What am I going to do?”
“I was just crying and asking the Lord, ‘Help me.’ I cried a lot before Him and I just told him that He alone can protect me and I have no other refuge or place where I can hide myself.” Less than a week later, Farrin found out that the Christian friend was willing to pay for the operation and, after the surgery was over, sat beside Farrin at her bedside in the hospital.
The woman invited Farrin to church where a verse struck her core. “They read, ‘All you, that have so much burden and work so much come near to me.’ It was so amazing that God knows me.” But, not long after, afraid of getting too close to her new Christian friends, Farrin took off again and remained out of contact for more than a year. However, loneliness and the temptation to revert back to drug use set in. Miserable and without hope, she again sought the Lord’s help.
“I wanted to share my pain with somebody, but there wasn’t anybody. I just wanted to have someone that would take me in their arms and give me a hug, but there was nobody.
“I had the Bible so I started looking into the Psalms to find something that would give me a little bit comfort. I closed the book, but… it was like a magnet. I couldn’t put it away. I wanted it near me. My heart shook in a way. My knees broke and I fell on my knees, and I just cried and said, ‘Jesus, I feel so miserable, horrible, please come and help me, I’m alone. Please help me and bring me out of this situation and this emotion.’ I cried so much, I can’t tell you at what time I fell asleep.”
The next day, Farrin called her Christian friends to tell them what had happened. They had been deeply concerned about her the past year and were so glad to hear she was okay. While Farrin, for the first time, told her friends about her past, she felt a love that she had never experienced before.
“When I started telling them the stories of my real life… I was crying, but they cried more than me. [Everyone else judged me], but they were so loving, giving me their heart and taking me in their arms. I was wondering why they showed so much love.”
With the help of her friends, Farrin slowly started breaking her addictions and cutting off relationships with old boyfriends. Because of their love, Farrin had the strength to begin life anew. Farrin never again questioned the source of that love.
“When they told me that Jesus is God, I just believed this. I never said, ‘It isn’t like this,’ because He has a kindness, a love, something special that draws me close to Him.”
One night, in her loneliness, Farrin again prayed for comfort. “When my prayer finished, I came and prepared a sleeping place. I closed my eyes and fell into a sleep. Do you know who came and cared about me? It was Jesus. It wasn’t a dream because I felt so terrible and my body was hurting and every time when I woke up, I just saw that Jesus is beside me and He is sitting there and caring for me. Do you know what He told me? He told me, ‘You are never, never alone. You were never alone before.’ Do you know when God showed Himself to me? It was at that time when I thought that there was nobody that would care about me. At that time He came and showed Himself to me… He washed, in a way, all the circumstances [of] my childhood away, all the bad things that I experienced in my childhood. I never felt such a love.”
Farrin was never the same again. “A lot of people told me, ‘You are really a joyful, happy girl.’ And my answer to these people is, ‘For twenty-one years I cried. But from the day that I knew Jesus, He put His joy, His happiness, into my heart and still since the day that I met Him, there is no place to be sad.’”
Farrin soon began praying for a godly spouse and it wasn’t long before she met and married Rahim (not real name), a man who, like Farrin, went through tremendous hardship before knowing Jesus.
On September 4, 2010, while worshipping with friends at a house fellowship in Hamadan, Farrin, Rahim, and the others were arrested by Iran’s state security agents for their Christian activity. Farrin was separated from her husband and held in solitary confinement for 11 days.
“I was under such huge pressure that I thought I was sleeping or dreaming. After awhile when [the guards] left me for twenty minutes alone, I started crying and screaming to the Lord. I asked the Lord, ‘Why did you let them to do this with us? If you didn’t want it or didn’t allow it, they couldn’t do this with us.’ Suddenly, I heard the voice of God in my heart, and it reminded me of a prayer I had made, ‘Can’t you remember that you prayed, ‘If you see the strength in me, send me to prison?’ So, He told me, ‘I’m seeing the strength in you and now continue, go on.’” It took awhile for Farrin to see the same strength in herself but, although afraid, she remained faithful to the Lord.
Interrogators demanded that Farrin write down the names of the Christians she knew in return for her and her husband’s release. She took the pen and started to write, but again heard the Lord’s voice, “With whose hands are you going out of this prison? With mine or someone else’s?” Farrin remembered that without Christ, she had no freedom. Therefore, it became clear that she must wait on His timing for her release. A sudden strength swept over her. She told the guards she would not make the confession they wanted.
“What are you going to do? You’re going to kill me? Jesus had already told me in the Bible that to go after Him means there will be persecution.”
Farrin could hardly believe the words coming out of her mouth, but the Lord was giving her the strength He had promised.
When the peace of the Lord came over her, she grew more and more emboldened. About sixty women heard Farrin’s testimony while in prison. One of them gave their life to Jesus.
A guard overheard and was amazed, saying, “God loves you so much.”
“This love of God is also for you,” Farrin responded.
The threats continued. “Everybody told me, ‘Because you’re from an Islamic background and you moved away, they will kill you.’ [But], the words from the Bible came up and I just brought the Scriptures before the Lord, and I also mentioned, ‘God, in your Word it’s written, where two or three people come together and ask you something,’ I know that people are praying for me… there weren’t just two, three, four, or six people, there were more. I just know that all over the world there were people coming together to bring their hearts before God and asking before God to let us go.”
Throughout her entire imprisonment, where inmates are routinely abused, tortured, and raped, no one laid a hand on Farrin. Farrin and Rahim spent eight months in prison. Though being advised to leave the country after their release for their own safety, Farrin and Rahim continue their ministry today among Iranians living abroad. Through it all, Farrin continues to praise God.
“It was the strength of Jesus that brought me forward. And I just want to pronounce and profess that all glory belongs to Him. He didn’t allow me to fall… or to tremble in my faith.”
Crushing demonstrations, killing political opponents, and silencing religious minorities, Iran’s regime has attempted to suck dry the hopes and aspirations Iranians have for a free society. Under such oppression – which outlaws anything not deemed Iranian or Islamic – many Iranians turn to addictions if they cannot find a healing faith to fill the void inside them. Farzad experienced both. From drug abuser to Christ follower, from being healed to being imprisoned and tortured for his faith, Farzad’s astounding testimony encourages us to rejoice in times of both joy and affliction.
Born into a Muslim family, Farzad (not real name) left his home at the age of fifteen after disagreeing with his father for taking a second wife. He began living with his aunt whose husband was an opium addict. “Their son stole opium from them and shared it with me,” Farzad told ICC. “Because of my inner anger and troubles, it was not long until I started smoking it on a normal basis.”
After three years, Farzad was so addicted that he would inject himself 16 to 20 times a day. “I realized that from my neck down there was nowhere to inject myself. No vein was available; I was damaged so badly.” Farzad went to the hospital to ask if they would inject him, but instead they called the police. When the policeman arrived, he refused to take Farzad to the station. “Let the refuse (garbage) collectors take him,” the policeman said. “I don’t want him in my car.”
“After this session at the hospital, I had lost faith in myself,” Farzad said. “I had been reduced to such a state that life wasn’t worth living after that. I decided to kill myself. Why live if I couldn’t live like a human being?”
Late one night, Farzad attempted suicide by overdosing. Halfway through the injections, everything went black. “It was like the electricity went out,” he recalls. Suddenly, Farzad saw a man standing between two bright lights who called him by name, saying, “Listen to me. You are not supposed to die. You are not supposed to just exist. You are supposed to go on living.”
“Who are you?” Farzad asked while trembling in fear. The voice replied, “The Father loves you so much that He sent me to save you.” Farzad’s eyes were then opened and he saw his body lying on the kitchen floor as if he was looking at his dead corpse. The syringe had fallen out of his arm and blood was oozing out.
Suddenly, Farzad awoke. He immediately flushed his remaining drugs down the toilet and realized what he needed to do. With a long and difficult road before him, he felt a strength to overcome that was not his own.
One night he relapsed by getting drunk and went to his Armenian friend’s home. His friend asked Farzad why he started drinking so much, trading one addiction for another. The friend went on to tell Farzad about the Bible. When Farzad told him about his dream, he directed him to Colossians 1:15, which says that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God.”
“When I asked my friend about the concept of embracing your enemy, he brought out the passage in the Bible. And, when I talked about sexual desire, he brought out the verse that says if you even look at a woman in a sexual way than you have sinned,” Farzad said. “I was quite impressed. What a fantastic God you have, I told him.
“All the years I had lived with religious convictions that were in opposition to what I was hearing, yet the words I heard from the Bible were touching my heart.”
The Armenian friend said, “Wait. I’ll show you something.” He read from John 3:16 that God loves the world enough to send His Son to save him. “Suddenly, it came to me,” Farzad said. “It was Jesus Christ who came and saved me.” At that moment, Farzad confessed his sins and gave his life to Christ. “It was very emotional,” Farzad said. “My heart was pumping. It was the moment I will never forget.”
Farzad went in for a medical test following his conversion. “The doctor said I had hepatitis C. My liver was 70 % dysfunctional and 96 % of my blood was contaminated. The doctor said it was too late for me. There was nothing I could do,” Farzad explained.
Farzad’s sickness was announced at a church he had begun attending. “The whole church decided to fast and pray for a whole week,” Farzad said while trying to hold back tears. “No one ate anything and they had a 24-hour chain of prayers for me.”
One member had a vision and at the next service he thanked God for giving Farzad his health back. He told Farzad that God had saved him and that he should return to the doctor for a second test. The test results came up negative. “Do you believe in miracles?” the doctor asked Farzad. “Yes, God has performed a second miracle in my life,” Farzad replied. Handing the doctor a Bible, Farzad said, “Read this so that you will know how miracles are performed.”
Farzad began dedicating his musical talents to the church and completely surrendered his life to ministry. He sold everything he had to open a studio to record Christian music in Farsi. “It took off nicely,” Farzad said. “But, one night I got a call from the police that the studio had caught fire and burned down. I couldn’t believe it. Where had the fire come from? We had taken every precaution to prevent a fire when we built it. And, it was a rainy night!”
Just like that, Farzad lost everything and was $65,000 in debt. “I resorted to driving a taxi for a while to pay off the bills,” Farzad said. “Yet, this never stopped me from sharing about my faith in Jesus Christ.”
With the help of an organization, Farzad began training outside the country to become an assistant pastor. After returning home to share the Gospel and baptize new believers, an informant for Iranian intelligence who had slowly infiltrated into his church group arrested him. “They arrested me; tortured me to get names. They hung me by the feet from the ceiling and lashed me,” Farzad said. The picture at left was taken weeks after the lashing.
Farzad’s uncle, a mullah who had refused to speak or even shake Farzad’s hand after his conversion, asked Iranian authorities to release Farzad temporarily so he could receive medical attention at a hospital. After the treatment, the mullah promised, Farzad would be brought back to prison. The Iranian authorities agreed.
“I was worried about my uncle,” Farzad said. “He had promised to return me to the prison.”
One night, however, Farzad’s uncle knocked on his door. “He said to me, take your wife and children and leave the country. It’s too dangerous for you. They’re determined to kill you. Don’t worry about the bond, just leave,” Farzad said.
They left the next day. “We didn’t even have time to say goodbye to the family,” he said.
Today, Farzad continues his incredible ministry by teaching Iranian fellowship groups and leading worship services. Please pray for Farzad and his family who live off a meager income provided by donations alone as they are not allowed to be employed as refugees in a foreign land.
In February, we celebrated the release of Said Musa, our brother in Afghanistan who had been imprisoned for his faith in Christ. One of the crucial elements that led to his release was the publication of letters that he wrote while in prison. ICC worked with contacts inside Afghanistan to gain access to these letters and make them known to the world. Said’s nine letters (which you can find here) not only detail his experience inside prison, but they also collectively provide a picture of a man engaging with God to come to grips with suffering and learn to live as a light in the midst of darkness.
The Father has a way of making pearls out of immense pressure. There is much the Western church can glean from the lives of our brothers and sisters who are shaped daily by this kind of pressure. In addition to encouraging you to read Said’s letters, I want to share a few pearls I’ve drawn from a letter written last year by Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was arrested in October of 2009 and remains in prison today, facing the death penalty for his faith in Christ.
Pastor Youcef begins his letter by asking his brothers and sisters to remember him and “those who are bearing efforts for His name” in their prayers, but devotes the majority of his letter to encouraging the Church. Drawing heavily on Scripture, he reminds us that though “heaven and earth will fade, His word will still remain,” and encourages us to “commit [our] souls to the faithful Creator” and “earnestly contend for the faith that was once delivered to the saints.”
We are reminded that trials are not to be considered strange in the life of the believer but counted as joy as we participate in Christ’s suffering:
“As we have learned from Him in Gethsemane, He surrendered His will to the Father, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.’ What we are bearing today is a difficult, but not unbearable situation, because neither has He tested us more than our faith and our endurance, nor does He do such. …Consider these bumps and prisons as opportunities to testify to His name.”
Giving us a clue as to the key to his own patience in suffering, Youcef writes,
“Have we not read and heard: because straight is the gate and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Many attempt to flee from their spiritual tests, and they have to face those same tests in a more difficult manner, because no one will be victorious by escaping from them, but with patience and humility he will be able to overcome all the tests and gain victory.”
Pastor Youcef signs his letter with a challenging question from Scripture, “As a small servant, necessarily in prison to carry out what I must do, I say with faith in the word of God that He will come soon, however, ‘when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?’”
Amidst intense and ongoing persecution, arrest and potential execution, an increasing number of Iranians in the country and those who are refugees abroad are turning to Christianity. Since the presidential election of 2009, there has been a surge of Muslims leaving Islam. Thousands have turned to Christ, but not without great cost.
Last October, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, denounced the network of house churches in a speech, calling Christians “enemies of Iran and the people.” This was the first time the new church movement was publicly branded by the ayatollah. Khamenei’s rhetoric encouraged a massive crackdown against Christians at the year’s end.
On December 26, government authorities arrested 25 Christians in Tehran and across the country and announced plans to detain others if they could be located. They were branded “evangelical missionaries” who were proselytizing Muslims, yet none were formally charged. In late December and early January, at least 70 Christians were arrested. Most were released from prison quickly, but church leaders said that 14 were imprisoned for more than a month.
Today, the crackdown continues. On March 17, a house church in the city of Kermanshah was raided and ten Christians were arrested. On April 5, five Iranian Christians who were recently sentenced to one year’s imprisonment for crimes against the Islamic Order in Shiraz will stand trial for blasphemy charges. Their trial follows the execution of an Armenian man and his Jewish wife in mid-March. The reason for their execution is unknown, but many worry it may be a sign that the government is heightening its efforts to stomp out Christianity.
Most disconcerting of all, however, is the plight of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani who currently awaits the death sentence for apostasy. A church leader in Rasht, Iran, Nadarkhani was arrested on October 12, 2009 for protesting against the Islamic education practice that requires Christian students – including his own children – to read the Quran in school. An appeal to the Supreme Court was filed in December, and a hearing is due within two months.
Iranian Christians in Exile
Within Iran, some say that there are as many as a million Christians who worship in underground house churches. Outside of Iran there are thousands more. During a recent visit to Cyprus, ICC heard the testimonies of a few of these believers who now live as refugees and are unable to return to their homeland without being arrested. To protect their identities, we have not used their real names.
Ebrahim fled Iran to Turkey and eventually to Cyprus after his outspoken criticism of Islam put him in danger. “I received a court order that they were going to try me for apostasy,” he said. “I had already been put in prison for months and tortured. They broke my bones. Day after day my hate of Islam built. That’s why I escaped from Iran.”
It was in Cyprus that Ebrahim found the God he had always been longing for. “I hated Christianity and I hated Islam. I hated religion. But, I liked how Christians prayed so I started reading about Jesus. Step by step, I became more and more interested. I was comparing Jesus with Muhammad and asking myself if I believed in Him. God eventually broke me as he broke Paul. I was an atheist. It was so difficult for me to believe in God, but he changed me.” Soon after, Ebrahim was baptized in Cyprus’ capital city Nicosia.
Another Christian, Ramin, also came to Cyprus after fleeing Iran for speaking openly for political reform and against the regime. Unlike Ebrahim, Ramin was a devout Muslim while in Iran. However, he too found faith in Christ while in Cyprus and believes that many more Iranians would also become Christians if they were free to hear the Gospel. “I think that ninety percent of Iranians would be open to the Gospel,” he said. “People are tired of Islamic dictatorship, tired of lies and corruption. I was tired of Islam, tired of the pressure, tired of religion, tired of actions without fruit. Iranians need hope and assurance. There is no hope in Iran.”
Fearing it too dangerous to return to their country, many Iranian Christian refugees in Cyprus have sought asylum, but most wait years before receiving an answer from the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). Iranian Christian refugees in Cyprus are not authorized to leave the country, cannot be legally employed, and are in constant danger of being deported back to Iran. Ebrahim and Ramin are among thousands of Iranians who struggle each day to survive, trusting that God will provide a way. Please remember these and all Iranian believers in prayer.