Freedom of Belief
Middle East
S&U interviews
5 min read

Searching for purpose landed me in an Iranian court

Hassan tells how changing his belief is perceived as a threat to Iran’s national security.
A man walks through a dark alley, looking to one side, illuminated only by roof lights.
An alley in Zanjan, Iran.
Bahram Bayat on Unsplash.

Hassan is Iranian and a Christian; now living in the United Kingdom, he tells Belle Tindall his story. His name has been changed to protect his identity.  

Can you tell me your story, tell me how you became a Christian and what life in Iran was like as a result of that decision? 

Yeah, actually, I was born in Iran and in Muslim family. I grew up as a Muslim, and then at the age of sixteen, I became a Christian. I was questioning whether God exists or not, asking what the purpose of my life was, the purpose of the whole world, in fact. And, if there is a God, why are there so many injustices in this world, and around me?  

I went to Islamic theology first, because that’s what I knew. But, it left me feeling empty.  

And I remember, one day, I cried out to God, I said – ‘I don't know if you exist or not, I don’t know if you can hear my voice or not. But if you exist, and if you're hearing my voice, please talk to me directly.’ 

I was really desperate.  

A few months after that prayer, I was alone at home and suddenly a crucifixion appeared in my front of my eyes. I had no knowledge about Jesus’ death on the cross or anything like that. But that was it.  

I didn’t know that the Christian church was being persecuted at this point. And I remember, in the early years, learning that I couldn’t attend any church service because they weren’t able to accept Muslim converts. But I just couldn’t ignore this very strong voice in my mind and heart, telling me that only Jesus could save me. So, I had very deep peace in my heart. 

And am I right in thinking that you were arrested for your Christian faith?  

Yes, intelligence police came to my home one morning, showing me a paper that permitted them to search my flat. They didn’t actually tell me that it was because of Christianity, they just searched everything, took photos, and seized anything that was related to Christianity.  

Then they told me – ‘this is happening because you’re a Christian’, and they sent me to court. But, during my trial, they presented me with different charges: undermining the government and posing a threat to national security.  

So, how long were you in prison for? 

I as in solitary confinement for a month. But they couldn’t keep me in prison because years before I had gone through the process of becoming legally recognised as a Christian convert – when it wasn’t illegal. So, they had to release me. I also had human rights organisations putting pressure on the government to release me, they were working on my case. So, after a month I was released on bail.  

And is that when you came to the UK?  

Yes, because even when I was released, I wasn’t safe. They would call me all the time, they would call me in for interrogation constantly – they wanted to show me that they were still in control, that they knew everything. I was being monitored always. And so, mentally and emotionally, it was very difficult for me to stay there. I spoke with some leaders in my church who told me that it would be wise for me to leave Iran. It wasn’t safe for me; I didn’t have a choice.  

And how has your experience been, here in the UK?  

To be honest, to begin with, it was really difficult. Because of the torture that I had endured, I had a lot of trauma – and when I came here, I had nothing. I was learning a new culture, a new language. And I carried this trauma here with me. Spiritually, mentally, emotionally, it’s been very hard for me to be here.  

It was very dark.  

Can I ask you, in light of everything that you’ve experienced, what you think of the recent comments about the church ‘aiding bogus asylum claims’? 

I was a refugee. And when I arrived, my interviewer was a very kind lady. To get my immigration status only took two or three weeks, but that could have been because my story was already quite well-known, so there was evidence that I had been persecuted because of my Christian faith. My case had been on the internet.  

And I understand that some people aren’t honest about being Christians – and that would make it difficult for people like me. It’s tricky. I don’t want to judge anybody, because I understand, I’ve seen the other side.  

And it is a challenge.  

But I feel positive that even if somebody hasn’t been to church in Iran, it’s a good opportunity to share the gospel with them here in the UK. It’s good news that they’re here – even if they’ve come for a different reason.  

But I really do think that people are coming because they’re persecuted. They’ve been through so much. It’s hard for the Home Office, but the church have an important role to play – to support the people who have been persecuted, who have never before had a place to learn about or worship God. Those who have never had the freedom to express their faith, or live in their faith. I think the church has a really, really important job - to support them and stand behind them and speak for them.  

6 min read

The case for taking a holiday

The reasons we need to rest and re-boot.

Natalie produces and narrates The Seen & Unseen Aloud podcast. She's an Anglican minister and a trained actor.

On a beach lounger someone holds a book aloft to read.

Well, here we are, either literally or metaphorically breaking up for the summer. School’s out and the long evenings demand al-fresco dining – even in the UK where it’s far more likely than not to rain. And of course, it is time to Live Our Best Life as we chase the fantasy and book an eye-wateringly expensive holiday – to “get away from it all”.  

In my early adulthood, holidays were unquestionably lying on a sun-drenched beach with a very large pile of novels. It was escapism pure and simple. And sun worshipping. Then I went on a skiing holiday for the first time in my 30s and was amazed how refreshing it was. When you’re concentrating on not dying, hurtling at high speed down a slippery mountain, the regular patterns of thought are left behind; there is simply no headspace to worry about the things that normally occupy the mind. I came back from a week on the snow with my body feeling completely trashed but my mind fresher than ever before.  

But whatever our holiday preference, be it active, sedentary or a cocktail of both, it is short-lived. A fortnight is the average length of a holiday, maybe it’s just a cheeky long weekend. If you’re really pushing the boat out (literally if going on a cruise as many people do these days a) – a luxurious three or even four weeks. But however long it is, it is – by definition – not lifelong. We build up to it – “can’t wait to get away” and there can be huge expectation for all the things we’ve been struggling with to be magically less stressful “when I get back”. We think all the exhaustion we carry, all the frustration or disappointment, the overworking we live with on a daily basis, will disappear. We binge on relaxation and put huge pressure on ourselves to HAVE FUN and – that which has become the sly new marketing strategy – “making great memories”. Which can all turn out to be even harder work than what we’re trying to get away from. 

Last summer, we went to the Lake District. And it rained. A lot. I mean coming in under the doors/through the windows sort of a lot. So we played Monopoly. And watched the Mission Impossible films. We went for walks in the rain and ate picnics quickly between showers. It was rather like we were living through a low budget British 1980s adaptation of an Enid Blyton novel, instead of the big budget Caribbean fantasia of one’s dreams. By any official descriptor, it was a holiday – but I’m not sure it felt like one.  

There is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest.

So, as I’m keenly interested in the etymology of words, I looked up holiday* to find out whether I had achieved the objective. Holiday = a period of time when you are not at work or school – check; holiday = a period of time spent travelling or resting away from home – hmm, not sure about the resting but we were away; holiday = holy day – hang on, what? 

Most world religions or philosophies have some sort of rhythm or pattern for life which includes times of rest. These often (though not always) coincide with some sort of worship or festival. These are times set apart from the day-to-day occupation of “normal life”. Interestingly, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, rest is baked in right from the beginning. After a six “day” working week, so the beginning of the Creation story tells us, God rested. And just to underline the point, sometime later, that same God gave his people the 10 Commandments, one of which is – take a day off.  

The word “holy” means set apart, sacred and right at the heart of the Jewish and Christian lifestyle there is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest. When we can get some objectivity on our productivity; when we can see (as God did all those years ago) that what we have done is good and we can enjoy it. 

In our 24/7, I-achieve-therefore-I-am culture, we almost certainly don’t do nothing for a day a week. We are always doing something. Even on our day(s) off, we’re reading or scrolling or running or “making memories”. Where is the rest? Where is the holy?  

We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made. 

There is an ironically busy industry that has flourished in recent years around mindfulness and retreats; an industry which highlights the ultimately human need for rest. There are apps which help us breathe, there are gurus who massage us in body and mind. Cynically, some say capitalism has caught on to the ancient necessity of acknowledging and attending to our humanity, our need to stop doing and simply be. I think God would say, hooray! Or as Jesus put it, “Come with me to a quiet place and find some rest.” 

How can we put rest back on the agenda of our own lives? It’s different for each of us. One person’s rest is another person’s nightmare. Whatever it looks like, we need to learn how to have “a period of time not working” (whatever work may occupy us, paid or unpaid, seen or unseen). It’s a well-recognised fact that if your electronic device stops functioning properly, if you turn it off for a bit, it’ll restart happily and we are encouraged to restart our devices regularly. We all know that we’re a bit like that and yet... We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made.  

We need those moments when we put a spiritual umbrella in the glass of our life, kick back and look at what has been. We can give space for gratitude; for reconnection with ourselves, with our life and even with the omnipotent God who role models rest. 

So, this summer, we’re going to the South of France. I’m absolutely exhausted already. I’ve been organising a rota of (very kind) people to look after our dog; preparing work so I’m ready for the day after we get back; buying gallons of sun cream (just in case France runs out); booking trips and Googling where the nearest boulangerie is so we can have idyllic, spontaneous visits for life-changingly delicious croissants… Going on holiday is really hard work and I haven’t even gone yet. But this year, as I put on my sunglasses and factor 30, I am determined to make time to put the holy in my holiday. And holy days in my life. 

* (of course, if you’re not British, you might be interested in the etymology of the word vacation = "formal suspension of activity, time in which there is an intermission of usual employment"/state of being unoccupied. Which to my mind is summed up by the old adage, a change is as good as a rest, with which I have always taken issue….)