29 February 2024, The Tablet

Hold Iran ‘accountable’ for persecution, says exiled pastor

“When they commit atrocities and there is no response from the international community, they feel they have a sense of impunity to carry on.”

Hold Iran ‘accountable’ for persecution, says exiled pastor

The launch of the report “Faceless Victims” in Portcullis House, with Farhad Sabokrooh third from left.
Article 18

A pastor previously imprisoned in Iran on charges of “insulting Islam” has urged the UK government to hold Iran “accountable” for violating the rights of Christians.

For 25 years, Farhad Sabokrooh and his wife Shahnaz Jizan ran an Assemblies of God church in Ahvaz, in southern Iran.

Banned from meeting in churches, their congregation had state permission to gather in the Sabokroohs’ home. Despite this, the couple report they were continually harassed, they told an event in Westminster.

During three separate arrests by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, Sabokrooh was invited to spy on fellow Christian pastors for the state, which threatened to stop his ministry. Family telephones were tapped. Two government agents, in a parked car near their home, would note the licence plates of every visitor.

“We had constant anxiety, worry and stress,” recalled Jizan. “We were even threatened that if we don’t cooperate with the government, they can easily send weapons and drugs into our house and arrest us.”

She continued: “Every time my husband and children left home, I feared he would be killed and the children kidnapped.”

In December 2011, 40 masked, armed government agents, broke into their home, disrupting a Christmas service. Some carried video cameras, confiscating Bibles and telephones. Children were separated from their parents.

“There were about 20 [children] and they were extremely anxious and scared,” recalled Sabokrooh. His son was beaten by an agent after trying to defend his mother, when she was attacked by another official.

The couple were blindfolded and taken on a bus to a revolutionary court located underground. Separated, they were interrogated and accused of “being spies of Israel and the United States”, of “spreading Zionist Christianity”, and of “acting against national security and insulting Islam”.

“None of the allegations was true,” said Sabokrooh. “But under pressure, they forced me to confess to what they had dictated whilst filming the forced confession.”

After 35 days where he was interrogated every day, sometimes from 8am to 11pm, Sabokrooh was released after the payment of a $250,000 bail.

He and his wife were sentenced to a year in prison by a judge during a 10-minute hearing without a lawyer. She was released in 2014.

Sabokrooh told The Tablet: “I felt comforted knowing that Jesus Christ went through a similar experience. So, every time my interrogation session was finished, I would kneel down and pray for my interrogator and for their family, that the Lord would open up their eyes that they would see the truth.”

After leaving prison, the couple were told to by Ministry of Intelligence officials to leave Iran within a month or face death. They sought refuge in Turkey and from 2016 in the United States where they now lead a Persian-speaking church.

Attending Christian services in Persian is illegal in the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose constitution only recognises Christians as those belonging to Assyrian, Armenian or expatriate communities.

Speaking at Portcullis House for the launch of “Faceless Victims”, a report on violations of Christians’ rights in Iran, Sabokrooh urged MPs to “make the Iranian government know that those who are persecuted are seen and heard and hold them accountable”.

He added: “When they commit atrocities and there is no response from the international community, they feel they have a sense of impunity to carry on.”

Responding to the Iranians’ testimony, Jim Shannon MP broke down in tears. The DUP member for Strangford, Northern Ireland, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief, promised to do “all I can” to help Christians in Iran, for whom he said “I pray often and fervently”.

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