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Iran: ‘My whole life was affected by persecution and harassment due to my faith’

The U.S. State Department has classified Iran as a “country of particular concern” for “having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

For previous coverage of Iran, see here.

“‘My whole life was affected by persecution and harassment due to my faith,’” Article 18, February 28, 2024:

Esmaeil Maghrebinezhad is pensive as he relates the story of his conversion to Christianity in the early days of the Islamic Republic and the knock-on effects this decision had on every aspect of his life.

“My whole life was affected by persecution and harassment due to my faith,” says Esmaeil, who will turn 70 later this year.

“After years of hard work, I couldn’t even get my retirement papers and had to leave Iran because of my judicial conviction; my wife got cancer due to the stress and pressure we were under and died; I lost my home; and my son also suffered from acute fear and obsession due to the pressure and threats of the Ministry of Intelligence.”

When Esmaeil first converted, the primary source of pressure came from his family, with Esmaeil’s father-in-law even encouraging his daughter to seek a divorce and the wider family cutting off contact with them when they stayed together.

“Some of my wife’s relatives worked in the Ministry of Intelligence and considered us ‘impure’,” Esmaeil explains. “So from that moment on, only my wife’s close relatives stayed in contact with us.”

It wasn’t long before Esmaeil and his family were also being harassed by the authorities, who also routinely referred to him as “impure” and demanded that he return to Islam.

“In the 1990s, going to the Ministry of Intelligence became a normal thing for me,” he says. “About three to four times a year, the Ministry of Intelligence would summon me, threaten me and tell me who I could and could not continue to have contact with.” 

When Esmaeil’s wife died in 2013, Esmaeil requested that her body be laid to rest in the local Christian cemetery, but despite receiving a written confirmation from the Anglican bishop of Iran that Esmaeil’s wife had been a Christian, the request was rejected.

“On the day of the funeral, three agents from the Ministry of Intelligence were present as my wife’s body was washed in the Islamic way and placed in a shroud filled with Quranic verses,” Esmaeil recalls. “They prayed over her body, and after an Islamic ceremony was held by the caretakers of the Shiraz cemetery and the three agents, she was buried in the Muslim cemetery. Only five members of my family were allowed to attend the funeral: my two daughters, son, son-in-law, father-in-law, and myself.”

And still the pressure continued, culminating in Esmaeil’s violent arrest in 2019.

In his subsequent interrogations by the Ministry of Intelligence agents who detained him in solitary confinement for a week, it became apparent that a recent convert who had been asking Esmaeil questions about Christianity was married to an agent of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and both she and her husband had now fled the country.

Despite Esmaeil’s protestations that he hadn’t known this man, his position, or even that the couple had fled the country, he was threatened with execution if he didn’t reveal their whereabouts.

Three separate prison sentences were eventually prepared for Esmaeil, on charges of “propaganda against the state”, “membership of a group hostile to the regime”, and “insulting sacred Islamic beliefs”.

While the third conviction was eventually overturned, Esmaeil’s appeals against the other two sentences failed, leaving him facing imminent imprisonment.

Esmaeil says he was “ready to be imprisoned for my Christian faith’, but decided to leave Iran for the sake of his son, Ali, who had developed acute obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)….

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