September 2, 2020
by Omeed Jouyandé
I know of political dissidents who were imprisoned for their views and who emerged with the impressions that prison leaves on a person. I recall one former political prisoner who spent two or three years in the notorious Evin prison during the Shah’s regime. After his release, he looked broken. He was heard speaking under his breath, mourning the loss of the youthful vitality that prison had taken from him.
That is what prisons like Evin are designed to do, and one would expect visible signs of decline in their victims. Yet Farshid, and other Christian former prisoners, such as Ebrahim Firouzi, leave an entirely different impression. Farshid was incarcerated in a wave of arrests of Christians in December 2010, and he was held for five years – the first of which was spent in solitary confinement in a tiny cell in Evin. But he does not look or sound like a victim.
Rather, Farshid looks and sounds like someone who has seen Jesus fulfilling His promise: “I will be with you even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Asked what sustained him in prison, Farshid replies, “A number of things kept me going, the greatest of which was a different kind of relationship with the Holy Spirit. He gave me the deepest sense of encouragement and peace. I tasted grace in a new way, which strengthened me.”
A Choice – Escape or Prison
Another amazing aspect of the story Farshid shares on Insiders is the choice set before him by the circumstances surrounding his arrest. “I was staying with my family at my mother-in-law’s home,” Farshid recalls. “We didn’t know there was a plan to attack and arrest all the pastors serving in our group of house churches. They arrived at 6 a.m. to arrest my mother-in-law and brother-in-law, both of whom were serving in the church.”
Farshid was held for several hours by security officers before they let him go, unaware that not only was he a Christian, he was also the church’s lead pastor. This enabled Farshid to retrieve his confiscated mobile phone and wipe the names of the Christians in his care.
But a few minutes later, he received a call from his own home telephone number. Security officers had also gone to Farshid’s house, where they broke down the door. It was one of these officers who called Farshid, telling him to go home and give himself up.
“For me, that was a fateful moment,” says Farshid. “The choice was either to go into hiding, or – as lead pastor and the person who had started the group of house churches in 2005 – to go and join in the suffering of my brothers.”
As I heard this testimony, questions arose. What would I have done? Would I have stayed, or ran to the border?
Farshid stayed. “That day, I chose to say goodbye to my children, and – as I could not rescue my fellow servants – to at least be present with them and share in their suffering.”
The security officers, and later the interrogators, were baffled. They had expected him to run. They asked Farshid, “Why did you come back?” to which he replied, “I have done nothing wrong to feel I have to escape justice.”
Hope for the Future
Someone I know recently said that Farshid Fathi has paid a very heavy price for his faith. This is true, and the suffering of imprisoned Christians is painfully real. But as an Iranian-born Christian living in the United Kingdom, I also sense that those born in the free world sometimes forget the fragility of the freedoms we enjoy. We may have had a taste of restriction during coronavirus lockdowns, but in general, we have an expectation of being able to meet and worship without risk of reprisals. Many Christians in Iran have never had this expectation.
It is unsurprising, then, that Farshid’s own take on his experience is distinctly New Testament. He knew from the time he came to faith in Christ 24 years ago, just as is true for all like him who come from an Islamic background, persecution would be inevitable. “Jesus said, ‘In this world you will have trouble,’ so it was not a surprise when it came.”
According to Farshid, prison even offered a rare opportunity–the chance to come together with four or five other Christians and spend years living as a close-knit community. “On Sundays, four dear friends would come to my bunk, that being the only place in prison that is your own private space,” Farshid explains. “Imagine my bunk, six feet long, three feet wide, and two feet high, and we five men would sit more or less on top of one another.
“We had produced our own hymnbooks, based on what songs each of us could remember, and fortunately, we had been able to bring our Bibles. So we studied the Word, and we prayed. Sometimes the prayers would go on for some time, and someone might be sitting on my legs and my foot would go to sleep, and I would have to whisper, ‘Brother, please move a little,’ but on that bunk we were able to have communion. This was our church life.”
Despite the subject matter, a sense of hope infuses the entire conversation on Insiders. Another highlight is Farshid’s recollection of sharing a cell with Christians, Bahais, atheists, and a few Muslims–all prisoners for their beliefs who were kind and supportive towards one another. Farshid describes this as “a picture of the Iran of the future;” a powerfully hopeful idea, especially given the extreme mistrust that exists among Iranians, fed by decades of deepening division along political, religious, and social lines.
For me, hearing Farshid brings to mind heroes of the Western Church such as William Tyndale, John Wycliffe, and others who believed in and banked on the promises of Christ. Christ was with Farshid in prison, as He continues to be with others, including Ebrahim Firouzi, who is currently serving internal exile following years in prison.
Please join me in prayer for all who are imprisoned in Jesus’ name, praying that, like Farshid, they will tangibly sense the presence of God.
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Omeed Jouyandé grew up an atheist and, impacted by the writings of C.S. Lewis, became a Christian in the 1980s. He was born in Iran and in his teens moved to the UK, where he lives with his wife and two children. Omeed writes and translates for SAT-7 PARS.