Ali and Zahra have an obvious and playful bond, clearly a couple who’s been married for decades and gone through the years with love. Daniel, a 20-something in fashionable aviator sunglasses, is excited about his new apartment—the first time he’s lived away from his parents. Samuel is a teenager and spends a lot of his time trying to occupy the family computer so he can play PC games his parents don’t begin to understand.
It’s a normal family, happily throwing out the inside jokes and teasing asides that only close families can get away with.
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. They aren’t comfortable in Turkey and aren’t sure if they want to remain there.
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, primarily within his mother’s extended family. “[My parents] were living together but they were emotionally divorced, so we were on our own, working and growing up,” Ali remembers. “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, from my mother’s side,” Ali says. “If you weren’t using, you would be ridiculed and laughed at.” 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 and the expense of drugs, we lived in poverty and could not have what we wanted or … have a comfortable life.”
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. “I wanted to end my life—and I was thinking that my death would be a relief for my wife and children.”
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. “When I woke up, I felt strange. I was crying, and Zahra woke up.” 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.
Ali was so desperate to find the person from his dream that he even began to look outside Islam. 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. “Since I knew that guy really well, 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.
A costly choice
“In Iran, when someone becomes a Christian, their family becomes defensive,” Ali explains. “It is either because of fundamentalist ideas or out of fear because of the regime’s attitude toward converted Christians. Therefore, [the family] rejects the person. If someone like me becomes a Christian, I am [seen as] defiled, and my life is considered filthy by them.”
Ali and Zahra knew this was the reality they were entering once they made 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 I was coming over, she left home and didn’t allow me in. [Another time,] when I was eating something with them, they would take the dish and tell me, ‘It is dirty because you have eaten on it, and we have to clean it [according to Islamic guidelines].’ It was really hard because I did not have the backing of my family.”
The couple also lost all their friends. “They did not come to our home and did not allow us to go to theirs,” Zahra says. “I remember they said, ‘If we hang out with you anymore, people will think bad things about us.’”
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 makes sure 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. “We were trying to hide the information we had, and we did not open the door. Then, we saw them coming in from the window. We were on the second floor, and they rushed the home and arrested us. First, they blindfolded us, and then they put us in a car and drove us somewhere we couldn’t see. They put us in different rooms and started interrogating us. They decided to arrest Ali, too. They called him with my phone and said, ‘Your wife had an accident; come to the hospital.’ They took me with them for the arrest, and they arrested him in front of
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. “I didn’t want others to get caught. 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, and we couldn’t see where we were going. 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 for one week 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. “They asked questions about other believers and if I was a Christian or not. I answered, ‘I am,’” he says. “The worst part was that at two or three in the morning they would take us for interrogation for three to five hours. Whatever the questions and answers were, they would start all over again.
“Their goal was to identify underground church[es], and they knew that we were active in ministry and knew a lot of people. They wanted to infiltrate the churches. They even said, ‘Cooperate with us, [and] you can have a church without any interference.’ It was interesting that when I complained [to them], ‘What you are doing is illegal,’ they said, ‘I am the constitution; whatever I say is the law. Even the president is not above me.’”
For Ali, the abuse wasn’t only verbal and psychological. “During the interrogation I was beaten a lot,” he says. “[My interrogator] asked, ‘Who is your pastor? And if you say Jesus Christ, I will make you suffer badly.’ I said, ‘I have none.’ He punched me on the shoulder, [but] since I was blindfolded, I couldn’t tell where the punch [would land]. Then they picked me up and sat me on a chair and tied both hands to the chair. He asked, ‘Do you know where you are sitting?’ I answered, ‘I am blindfolded; I don’t know.’ He said, ‘You are on an electric chair.’”
Eventually, Ali and Zahra were released. But the situation wouldn’t grow 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], there was a chance of me not coming back. [The authorities] would ask me to go for interrogation on different hours of the day, and each time I had to call Zahra and tell her that I might go and not come back. Each day was suffering and torture.”
The couple endured two years in Iran after their arrest, under constant harassment. They knew at any moment they could be summoned back to prison, with no idea when they might be released. “[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 would serve the Lord and live our lives. For me and my family, our immigration was an unbearable burden because it was not out of choice. We were thrown out. We were deprived of everything. Even the company [where] I worked for many years did not pay my pension because [they were] ordered [not] to do so. We had two choices: to stay and suffer, especially our children, or to [leave] and reach a relative peace.”
The memory of that time continues to linger for the couple. Zahra still can’t talk about the moment they crossed the border into Turkey without crying. “I cannot forget that on the border I looked at the flag and said, ‘It’s [my] last look at [the Iranian] flag.’ It is really difficult,” she says through tears.
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; they can do to you whatever they want. 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. As refugees in Turkey, they are forbidden from working or going to school. They still mourn the loss of their family and friends back in Iran. That day they crossed the border, Ali, Zahra, Daniel and Samuel really did lose everything for Jesus.
Would they still choose to follow Jesus, knowing everything they’d give up? “The person interrogating me asked me the exact same question,” Zahra says. “He said, ‘Imagine I am not your interrogator, and you are not a convict. If you go back knowing all this [about prison], would you pick Jesus again?’ 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,” Ali says. “Lots of people forsook me, but through hardships, He didn’t leave me alone. When Jesus told Lazarus, ‘Rise from the 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.”
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.