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Freedom of belief
5 min read

Freedom of belief: The harsh scars of lived experience in Iran

Belle Tindal meets Dabrina, an Iranian contemporary, and compares their experience of living – from cars to believing.

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen &Unseen 

A somewat beaten white car parked on the side of a street.
An Iranian street scene.
Foroozan Faraji on Unsplash.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, 
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me…’ 

Those are Jesus’ words. You may well recognise them, they’re among his most famous. Probably because they’re so darn bewildering, fairly uncomfortable too. At least, they are to me.  

You see, I’ve only ever read these words. I’ve never actually lived them.  

I read them on Wednesday morning, in fact. And there was nothing inspired, intentional or special about that. Nearly all of my days begin the exact same way - tucked up in bed with a cup of tea and an allocated chunk of Bible to read through – and, on Wednesday, it just so happened to be this chunk. It was a fairly mundane affair, business as usual. Except, on this particular Wednesday, which incidentally started with these particular words, I met someone for whom these words have been lived, not merely read.   

Someone for whom these words hold memories and scars, for whom they are as precious in their truth as they are painful.  

Someone who does not have the privilege of regarding these words as bewildering or uncomfortable, as I do.  

On Wednesday, I met Dabrina.  

I was fending off deadlines and 9am lectures. Dabrina was fending off sexual threats from the guards and physical assault at the hands of the interrogators. 

Dabrina is from Iran, the ninth most dangerous country to be a Christian in the world. And on a bitterly cold January evening, she stood behind a podium in the Houses of Parliament, a place which has Bible verses etched into its very walls, and told us of her country, a place where belief in those very same verses is a punishable offense. With Christianity regarded as a conspiracy to undermine the Iranian government and Islamic law, much of the Christian way of life is illegal.  

Gathering in large groups, illegal. House churches, illegal. Evangelism (or, more accurately, anything that is perceived to be evangelism), illegal. Teaching children, illegal. Translating the Bible into their own languages, illegal.  

And not only that, but Christians are considered inherently ‘unclean’, second-class citizens in almost every way. A Christian in Iran could never be a doctor, a teacher, or a lawyer. They are also not allowed to touch food, meaning that they cannot work in retail or hospitality either. There are restrictions on what schools and universities they can attend, where they can go, and who they can socialise with. In short, they are persecuted. Christians in Iran are in danger, constantly.  

I learnt all of this from Dabrina’s speech that day; a speech that left me wondering how on earth we can have so much, and yet so little, in common.  

You see, both Dabrina and I believe that Jesus existed, and more than that, that he was and still is everything that he claimed to be - Son of God, light of the world, saviour to all – the whole thing. And we both try to live our lives accordingly. We have the same answers to the same questions, the same worldviews, the same God.  

But the parallels get more specific than that. 

Both of our parents led our local churches throughout our childhoods. But there’s a key difference; Dabrina grew up used to her father frequently disappearing with no explanation. Again and again, he would vanish, and she would be forced to anxiously await his return. I have never had to lay awake wondering if my dad was dead or alive.  

I spent my teenage years working in a local coffee shop, relishing the first hints of what an independent life might feel like. Dabrina tried to get a job as a waitress too, but it was illegal for her to touch food, so she was turned away.  

I spent my early twenties doing a theology degree and soaking up every moment of what I was told would be the most care-free years of my life. Dabrina spent her early twenties in an all-male prison.  

I had friends who would (good-naturedly) roll their eyes at my Christian faith, wondering why I would willingly choose to wake up so early on a Sunday morning. Dabrina had friends who were spying on her and reporting the details of her life to the government.  

I was fending off deadlines and 9am lectures. Dabrina was fending off sexual threats from the guards and physical assault at the hands of the interrogators.  

I remember buying my first car, Dabrina remembers hers being tampered with by the authorities – on three occasions.  

I live in the country I was born in. Dabrina has had to flee hers.  

So, you see – While I read Jesus’ words about persecution, Dabrina lives them. Dabrina, and 365 million others around the world.  

Talking to Dabrina was humbling, and astounding, and challenging - and a million other things too. The details of the trauma that she has gone through will undoubtedly continue to humble me for a long time yet, and I’m glad about that. But her answer to my final, and arguably ever-so-western, question left me utterly stunned. I asked why, after everything that she has been through and with every danger that it poses, is she still defiantly living a Jesus-shaped life. And her answer,  

‘When you encounter God, when you encounter Jesus, when you are healed, when you witness signs and wonders, when you encounter the love of God as your father, as your saviour, as your provider – how can you walk away from that? 

… When you’re in that much danger, you will cry out to God and he will meet you there.’ 

Here was a woman, for whom belief in Jesus has her caused physical harm, calling him a healer. A woman, whose faith in God has taken away her home and everything that she had built within it, calling him provider. A woman, whose Christian conviction has landed her in endless danger, calling God a saviour. A woman who told me that the Jesus I have got to know in comfort, she has seen show up in peril. A woman who told me stories of the underground church, which just so happens to be the fasting growing church in the world.  

 And in that moment, I thought about how much, and yet how little, I had in common with this incredible person before me.

And I thought about how mystifying it is that these 365 million people are hidden in plain sight, suffering under a blanket of silence, and how that surely cannot go on? And I pondered how so many people are being denied their freedom of belief, a basic human right, and yet we barely speak about it? And I felt indignant in a way that must infuriate those who have spent more than an evening engaging with this issue.  

And then I thought back to that bewildering sentence from Jesus – where he puts the words persecution and blessed together - and realised that it is a sentence that I shall likely spend my life pondering, while Dabrina knows it to be totally and concretely true.  

 

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Freedom of belief
4 min read

Why should society care about the persecution of Christians?

Believers revere martyrs, but others are also inspired by sacrifice.

Ryan Gilfeather explores social issues through the lens of philosophy, theology, and history. He is a Research Associate at the Joseph Centre for Dignified Work.

A stone monument within which set, in the shape of a cross are statues of numerous standing praying figures.
Martyrs monument, Nagasaki, Japan.

The story of Christian martyrdom began with the death of St Stephen. On the 26th December 36 AD, Stephen the Deacon proclaimed the Christian faith before the rabbinic court in Jerusalem. His apology enraged the crowd before him. They dragged him outside of the city gates and stoned him until he perished. Looked at from one angle, all we see is chaos, fear and violence. Viewed from another perspective, however, we see remarkable courage and love for God. Stephen’s love for God so consumed his heart and mind, that he preferred to die violently than turn against Him. He became the first Christian martyr, a term which means ‘witness’ in the original Greek, because he would rather testify to his belief in Christ than live. We also use this term because his death says something about the character of God. Those who follow Christ take on his virtues. Stephen’s death showed how he possessed God’s virtues of courage and love more than the average believer.  

More stories of martyrdom emerged from the first three centuries after the death of Christ. A number of sources have told of the harrowing death of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Each presented it differently. Basil of Caesarea recounted how the Roman emperor enacted a law, making it illegal to confess faith in Christ. As an imperial official was posting up the law in a public place and demanding obedience, forty soldiers stood up and declared, ‘I am a Christian.’ The official promised them riches and high office to deny their belief in Christ. But they did not relent. He threatened violence and they remained steadfast. They said that because of their love for God they would readily accept torture on the wheel, by screws, and being burned alive. In response the official exposed them to the cold, where they stood until they froze to death. In this story, these same two perspectives emerge. One reveals violent death at the hands of a state scared of the consequences of people refusing to sacrifice to the pagan gods. The other speaks of people full of love for God, and the courage and integrity to refuse to turn their backs on Him.  

The martyrs show us that the virtues we need so often grow out of suffering and struggle.

Stories about martyrdom punctuated the worshipping life of the Early Church. Each year as the anniversary of a martyr’s death rolled around, crowds would gather at their tombs. Singing hymns, they held a candlelit vigil all night. In the morning the crowds processed into the tomb, where the bishop celebrated the eucharist and gave a speech commemorating their violent deaths. By the fourth century, each region celebrated dozens of different martyr festivals. These were joyful and ecstatic occasions. Early Christians treasured the opportunity to honour the martyr’s memory through commemoration. 

They also invested these stories with great spiritual potential. The martyrs were seen to be guides in the path of holiness. The deaths of St Stephen and the Forty Matyrs of Sebaste revealed how to express one’s love for God: to treasure Him so much in one’s heart, that nothing is worth denying one’s belief and trust in Him. Additionally, early Christian writers began to articulate that these stories also inspire and embolden their audiences to imitate the martyrs. Until the early fourth century, when Christianity became legally tolerated, some Christians faced the choice of denying Christ or death. For these Christians, the stories of the martyrs showed them that the Christian life involved proclaiming their faith and facing death, and crucially it gave them the inner strength to follow it through. After Christianity was made legal, Christians still saw the martyrs as spiritual guides. They revealed how to express courage and love for God in the face of hardship. These stories ignited a fire of zeal to imitate the martyrs in some way.   

They are, I propose, also of great inspiration to those who do not think of themselves as Christians.  The martyrs reveal to us how a love for God generates virtues we prize so greatly in society, namely courage, integrity, and faithfulness. If it were not for love for God, Stephen and the other martyrs would not have chosen to suffer, and they wouldn’t have expressed these precious qualities. In short, they give insight into how Christians understand love for God to be the wellspring for those precious virtues. The martyrs show us that the virtues we need so often grow out of suffering and struggle. In a sense, they reveal the value of suffering for virtue. However, they do not encourage us to suffer for its own sake. Rather, they reveal that the full expression of love for God can so often involve suffering and struggle. When Christians faithfully say yes to this hardship out of love for God, it transforms them into the embodiments of these precious virtues, which perhaps we need more than ever today, in an age where comfort and ease seems the goal of life.