By Sara Westhead www.RoyalGazette.comA young man is forced to squat on the floor of a small, closed room. Soldiers cock their rifles. Bound and blindfolded, the man does not know if a shot will ring out, or if that it will be the last sound he hears.
A young woman is arrested for no reason and held, isolated, in a solitary room, and interrogated for 14 hours straight, not knowing whether she will ever see her family again.
An entire family is on edge as they are warned to not turn off their phones, so they can receive their daily threat of interrogation and incarceration.
As terrible and unreal as these three situations may sound, they are regular occurrences for Christians living in Iran in 2012, as testified to by Pouya and Tarsa, two young people presently visiting and ministering in Bermuda at local churches with international missions group, Youth With A Mission (YWAM).
Over the last few years, many in Bermuda have received e-mails or seen posts on the internet requesting urgent prayer for Christians in Iran and for people to sign petitions to encourage the release of release of religious prisoners.
One recent e-mail highlighted the plight of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was arrested in October, 2009 for speaking out against changes to policies in the Iranian education system, which would force his children to read from the Quran while at school, after he attempted to register his church. After being arrested, the charge against the 34-year-old father-of-two was changed to that of apostasy, and he was also accused of attempting to evangelise Muslims, a crime in Iran (see Levitt Letter, September 2011, p. 32).
Then, in June 2010, his wife, Fatemah Pasindedih, was also arrested under pressure to convert to Islam, and the couple were threatened that their children would be taken away and given to a Muslim family if they continued to refuse to convert to Islam. Pasindedih was later released, but the case against Pastor Youcef continued and the court convicted the pastor of leaving his Islamic faith and sentenced him to death in November 2010.
Despite appeals against the court’s ruling that apostasy is not a crime under Iran’s penal code, the Supreme Court held in June 2011 that apostasy was still punishable under Sharia law. The court also asked a lower court to review whether Pastor Youcef was a Muslim when he became a Christian at the age of 19.
During the proceedings, which took place in September 2011, the pastor was told he would be given three chances to renounce his Christian faith in order to have the charges removed, which he refused, and on September 26, the court determined that, because he was born into a Muslim family, he was a Muslim, and therefor a national apostate, in spite of witnesses testifying that he never practiced Islam.
Pastor Youcef continues to remain in prison, and in spite of international pressure, including a petition by 200,000 Americans and a call by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton for the pastors release, remains under a death sentence.
Watching world news and hearing about the atrocities that occur, Iran seems a world away from Bermuda. How can Westerners support change in Iran?
Pressure from international news organizations has definitely made a difference in many cases, as world attention has been spotlighted on specific abuses within the country. According to friends of Tarsa, when the world found out about the mass arrest at her church, interrogations decreased from four or five a day, to only one a day.
There have also been far fewer killings, both murders and executions, however torture and sexual abuse still remain rampant within the prisons and detention centres.
“The hope of most local Christians is that their Western brothers and sisters… will continue to put pressure,” on Iranian authorities, according to Pouya.
Learning more about what is going on, and supporting organizations that support persecuted Christians, are excellent ways to support persecuted Christians within the country.
“The church in Iran needs practical help,” Pouya explained.
Revival has been taking the country by storm.
According to Elam Ministries (which works specifically to support the Church in Iran): “In 1979, there were less than 500 known Christians from a Muslim background in Iran. Today, the most conservative estimate is that there are at least 100,00 believers in the nation.”
“We are very strong for evangelism,” Pouya explained, but the church there desperately needs training and discipleship materials.
“Eighty percent of active believers are under 30, and under five years in the faith.”
He suggests that one of the best ways is to bring Iranian church leaders out of the country to receive the Christian discipleship and ministry training they desperately need, and then send them back home to do the work.
However, it is prayer that Christians in Iran most seek from their Western brothers and sisters–prayers for boldness in the face of fear, for wisdom and for freedom.
* For her protection, Tarsa’s name has been changed. Some details from Pouya’s and Tarsa’s stories have also been left out, for the protection of family members and church associates remaining in Iran.