Imprisoned, beaten, spied on—these Iranian believers still choose Jesus

May 3, 2022 by Christopher Summers in Asia

Ali and Zahra are among the thousands of Iranian believers forced to flee their country because they follow Jesus. Now in Turkey, they see God’s hand at work in their lives, even in the darkest moments.

When you first meet Ali and Zahra and their two sons, Daniel and Samuel, you probably wouldn’t notice anything remarkable about them.

But talk to them for a bit longer, and you start to sense that these four believers living in Turkey aren’t quite your average family.

None of them are able to work legally. They need police permission to travel more than a few miles from their home. They don’t speak fluent Turkish.

When you discover the reason behind their current situation, everything clicks into place: Ali, Zahra, Samuel and Daniel were forced to flee their home in Iran, leaving behind their house, their family and everything they’d ever known.

All because they follow Jesus.

Heading toward rock bottom

Ali didn’t grow up as a Christian. Like most Iranians, he was raised in a Muslim family. But he also grew up in a family troubled by emotional strife: “My mother’s family were all into drugs, crime, fights, prison or other sorts of trouble.”

This toxic legacy also impacted Ali, who began using drugs as a teenager. “Drugs and alcohol were really common in my family.” Soon Ali was addicted to heroin, an affliction that would continue even after he married Zahra—and after they had their sons.

Ali’s addiction was devastating to his family. “My husband was mostly not at home and was at places that he could take drugs,” Zahra remembers. “I was alone in raising my kids. Because of his drug problem,, we lived in poverty .”

As the years went by, Zahra grew deeply depressed. “I could not keep myself together and couldn’t control my tears [even just walking in the] streets,” she says. She didn’t even want to be around her children because she didn’t want them to see her so sad.

As a deeply religious Muslim, she turned to God to try to find answers. “I also cried while saying prayers to God, and I used to spend hours complaining to Him and ask Him, ‘Why did this happen to me?’”

But then, Jesus changed everything.

A burning flame—and a sense of peace

Ali had reached rock bottom. “One night I was using drugs and thinking about killing myself,” he shares, staring at the ground. “

But that night, something happened to Ali. “In my dreams, I saw a man from Heaven holding out his hands to me, and he was saying, ‘Give me your hands, if you dare!’ And when I took his hand, a flame burned me from head to toe,” Ali recalls.

Ali told Zahra about his dream, and the couple went all over the city to the sacred places of Shiite Islam trying to find out who the man in the dream had been. The couple’s search led them to a group of Christians who knew Ali was an addict since one of the group had been an addict as well. Ali knew his friend’s life had changed but didn’t understand what Jesus had to do with it.

“He told me that [he is] a Christian, and started talking about it,” Ali says. “I knew that he would not make up something. We started talking more, and he said, ‘Do you want us to pray for you to get free of your addiction?’” Ali told his friend to go ahead, though Ali didn’t believe in prayer.

His friend started praying the Lord’s Prayer, and as he did, something remarkable happened to Ali. “The same flame and person from [my dream] entered my body; then I realized that Jesus Christ [was the man who] met me that night. It was then that I gave my heart to Christ.”

Though at first she was uncomfortable with Ali’s new faith, Zahra soon found Jesus as well. God had taken away Ali’s addiction, and because of that miracle, Zahra knew there must be some truth to Jesus. She began searching and soon felt herself called by Jesus, too.

Zahra, Ali and their sons were overjoyed. Their family had been miraculously healed, and God’s goodness was so apparent. But they are from Iran, and decisions to follow Jesus are never easy in Iran.

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A costly choice

“In Iran, when someone becomes a Christian, their family becomes defensive,” Ali explains. “I am [seen as] defiled, and my life is considered filthy by them.”

Ali and Zahra knew this was the reality of their faith decision. “When I became a Christian, I said to myself, My family, my country and everything are behind me,” Ali says. “It was a huge step because there was no support anymore; everyone was opposed to me, so I knew what path I chose.”

Zahra, who was close to her Muslim family, felt the loss deeply. “One night, I was going to my mother’s home. When she realized that coming over, she didn’t allow me in.”

Eventually, as the family’s faith became more public, more consequences followed. Ali lost his job, and the family lost social privileges. But as everyone and everything fell away, their love for Jesus only grew. They joined the ministry team of a network of underground house churches, excited about joining other believers in worship and prayer.

And that’s why they were arrested.

You’d better die.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are the branch of the Iranian military that ensures Islamic law is followed. And it was a group of these guards that showed up at a meeting of the church network that Ali and Zahra belonged to. They arrested and interrogated everyone at the meeting. The authorities discovered that Ali and Zahra—who were not at the meeting at the time of the arrest—were also part of the church network and started looking for them too.

Zahra was at a church meeting without Ali when they found her. “We saw them coming toward the home,” she remembers. “Then, we saw them coming in from the window. First, they blindfolded us, and then they put us in a car and drove us somewhere put us in different rooms and started interrogating us. Then they called Ali with my phone and said, ‘Your wife had an accident; come to the hospital.’”

Ali remembers the day he got that call. He phoned a friend who worked at the hospital, who told him Zahra wasn’t there. Ali soon realized what was happening and went to the hospital to face the authorities.

“On the way, I started deleting phone numbers from my phone to keep other believers’ identities safe,” Ali says. “When I got there, agents handcuffed and blindfolded me, put a bag over my head and threw me in the car. It was then that I realized Zahra was in the car, too. They started driving, They took Zahra away, and I didn’t know where they took her. Then they took me to a jail cell with no lights, toilet or blanket.”

Once imprisoned, the couple lived in separate cells and endured days of interrogation. “They held me in solitary confinement, in a tiny room with no lights or windows,” Zahra recalls. “There wasn’t any electricity. There was no pillow or blanket or bed. Late [at] night, they would take me upstairs for interrogation. I did not answer a single question. He [would say], ‘You are filthy; you are pulling others in your filth. This is not your country—if it was, you would not do this … and you’d better die.’”

Ali endured similar treatment. “Their goal was to identify underground church[es], and they knew that we were active in ministry and knew a lot of people. They even said, ‘Cooperate with us, [and] you can have a church without any interference.’

For Ali, the abuse wasn’t only verbal and psychological. “During the interrogation I was beaten a lot,” he says. “At one point, they sat me on a chair and tied both hands to the chair. The guard asked,

‘Do you know where you are sitting?’

‘I am blindfolded. I don’t know.’

You are on an electric chair.'”

Eventually, Ali and Zahra were released. But the situation wouldn’t get any easier.

No place to go

Being out of prison didn’t make their lives better—far from it. And that seemed to be the plan of Iranian authorities.

“When I came out of prison, I told myself that I will start building again,” Ali says. “But I got fired from every job that I had after a week: [the authorities] would just send a letter and ask my employer to let me go.

“My sons weren’t allowed to go to school; each day [I went out out], there was a chance of me not coming back. Each day was suffering and torture.”

The couple endured two years in Iran after their arrest, under constant harassment. “[The authorities] themselves said that it is better for you to leave the country—you have no place here,” Zahra echoes. “My husband said that we have no place here, we have to go.”

And so, the family made the impossibly difficult decision to leave Iran. “It is really painful to leave your country like this,” Ali says. “If there was a way, we would have been in Iran now. We had two choices: to stay and suffer, especially our children, or to [leave] and reach a relative peace.”

God is still good

As they look back, Ali and Zahra still see God’s hand at work in their lives, even in the darkest moments.

“When you are inside the jail, you know you are no longer in control,” Zahra says. “No one can help you. While in prison, I thought to myself, ‘There are people who love me and cry for my pain and suffering— and, most importantly, pray for me.’ Because without God’s power, you cannot tolerate [prison] and keep going.”

“[It] doesn’t matter where we are from,” Ali adds. “The only thing that matters is that we are part of the same Body. When we were in solitary [confinement], the only thing that strengthened us was prayer; nothing else would work. Only God can go to those dark places and dungeons and be strength for His children.”

Though they have found a more peaceful way of living, their new country doesn’t mean life is easy or even comfortable. Ali, Zahra, Daniel and Samuel really did lose everything for Jesus.

Would they still choose faith, knowing everything they’d give up? “The person interrogating me asked me the exact same question,” Zahra says. “I said, ‘Yes!'”

Even after all they’ve been through, all they’ve given up, the hope of Jesus shines through the family. “Through all these sufferings, Christ never left me alone.” When Jesus told Lazarus, ‘Rise from dead,’ Lazarus didn’t say, ‘No, I don’t want to.’ Jesus did the same for me and raised me from the dead. I cannot live without Him; there is no other way around it.”

This adapted article originally appeared in Presence magazine. To read the full article and issue, click here

Healing deep wounds

Once they left Iran, Ali, Zahra, Daniel and Samuel had a chance to attend a seminar that teaches believers how to persevere in persecution, supported by Open Doors partners. The lessons they learned there have helped them begin to sort through what happened to them in Iran—and begin to heal.

The participants at these seminars learn how to stand strong for Jesus, no matter what, and how to recover from the trauma of imprisonment and interrogation. Church leaders also learn practical tactics to avoid capture and keep Iranian secret police from learning the identities of entire church communities.

These seminars strengthen the secret church in the region and help believers remain firm in faith—and recover when they’ve been through severe trauma. Your gifts and prayers make these kinds of seminars possible, strengthening the Church and helping deeply wounded Christians to persevere.

Help secret believers persevere
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