[Pictured above: Iranian ex-prisoner Wahid now pastors a church of 200 in Turkey.]
In Iran’s infamous prison systems, convicted Iranian Christians are jailed and treated as “prisoners of conscience.” Iranian ex-prisoners report being forced to endure intense physical and emotional torture, as they’re pressured to renounce their faith. While many ex-prisoners testify about God’s presence in jail, they also must cope with horrendous memories of prison that keep chasing them long after they’ve been released. Recognizing that, Open Doors partners with local ministry partners and churches to offer trauma care training for Christian ex-prisoners.
Earlier this year, more than 30 Iranian ex-prisoners jailed for their faith recently participated in a training in Turkey–many of whom were house church leaders in Iran and are not leading ministries in Turkey. Below, Wahid, Saman* and Mojtaba—all former house church leaders now living as refugees in Turkey—share their stories and how God has used this ex-prisoner training to impact them both personally and in their current ministries.
“I cried a lot, but I was also comforted a lot.”
A former Iranian house church leader and ex-prisoner for his faith, Wahid now pastors a church of 200 in Turkey. For him, the training allowed him to be transparent with believers who understood firsthand what he has gone through.
“In the training, I met people who went through the same experience as me,” he says. “We understood each other, and we learned from each other. I cried a lot, but I was also comforted a lot.
“As a former Iranian prisoner, I have often felt alone and thought nobody cared about me. This training proved me wrong. You showed me I’m not alone. In daily life, I find it difficult to talk about my time in prison, it’s a horrible story. And, as a leader, it’s a big temptation to pretend you are stronger than you actually are. To heal from my experience is a painful process. Some wounds are healed; others not yet. But, with the experiences and teaching at the training event, I have become stronger as a leader. It was a joy for me to be part of the training.”
“Sharing reminded me what God taught me in prison, ‘Be silent, I will be close to you.’”
Former house church leader Mojtaba is now counseling fellow Persian-speaking believers in Turkey, which initially triggered difficult memories. The trauma care training helped him understand what he needed to do to stay physically and spiritually healthy and able to counsel others.
“In the training, I learned how to create a safe space for myself. The training has been a good start to my healing process. Day by day, my wounds are healed more. After my imprisonment, the stress of the memories caused me to suffer from dizziness. After a while, this disappeared, but it came back when I started counseling fellow believers here in Turkey, a task that included lots of emotions.
“In the training, I learned how to create a safe space for myself. While I am counseling people, [I sometimes get caught up in] their problems. Now, I have learned to keep a certain distance. In the long run, this will mean I can do more for them. Creating this safe space has helped me stay healthy in the last few months while I have continued counseling, and during which time there was also conflict in my church. Despite the many emotions, I stayed physically and mentally healthy. I don’t get dizzy anymore.
“Sharing about my prison time also reminded me about the lesson God taught me there: ‘Be silent, I will be close to you.’ I try to apply that lesson to my life again. I don’t want to speak up anymore just to receive recognition from other people. I don’t want others to see me as an important person because I spend time in prison for my faith. I am no more than any other Christian: I need God just as all of us do. And I need Him now too. So I try to focus on Him first.”
“Maybe God is teaching me something here” …
In Iran, Saman* was also a house church leader—before he was arrested and imprisoned. Now he is living in Turkey but dreams of one day going back to his home country to serve the Lord there.
“It’s a difficult choice,” he says. “I’m still talking with God about my future. It is in His hands. It is difficult to be a refugee here in Turkey, but I hear from friends in the West that life is so rushed there that believers hardly have time to pray and worship on a daily basis. I don’t want that for myself either. Maybe God is teaching me something here that I can use when I go back to Iran.”
The trauma care he has received has offered “long-lasting refreshment,” he says.
“I am still in contact with some of the pastors I met in the training; they help me to continue learning. My friends say I have become stronger since I attended the training. I try to apply what I learned. Every day, I learn something new.”
For Saman, knowing that the global Body of Christ is praying for him and knows his story has strengthened him.
“I was encouraged by the invitation to attend this training. And I am encouraged that you visit us, that my story is shared, and that people pray for me. You can’t imagine how much it means to me to know that I am not alone in this.”
*For security reasons, Saman’s name has been changed.