Facing Her Persecutors: The Story of the Raid on Saghar’s Church
Saghar found her seat on the plane: her headscarf loosely around her head, her hands fidgeting in her lap. Would she have known her name was called on the loudspeaker in the airport over and over again, she would have been even more nervous. Saghar tried to force herself to lift her head to look out the small window and take one last look at her home country of Iran. But fear paralyzed her. If the secret service caught her, she might end up in one of Iran’s infamous prisons.
Saghar grew up in a Muslim family. Her first encounter with Jesus was through a vivid dream. “Follow me,” Jesus said. It was that simple but powerful call that changed her life forever. In Iran, leaving Islam for Christianity is a dangerous choice. Did she know what she was getting herself into when she said “Yes” to Jesus? Probably not. But as her love for Christ grew, so did her courage.
Saghar gathered with other Christians, worshiped and prayed. It was always risky, but the fellowship was the base for their growth in faith. They shared their lives together—and became family. Eventually Saghar even decided to take the most dangerous job in church: the pastor.
And then the unavoidable happened: The secret service raided the church.
Aggressive, but silent. That is how the officers entered the apartment where the meeting of house church members was taking place. They forced the door open with a crowbar but didn’t raise their voice to avoid the attention of the neighbours.
Before any of the church members realized what was happening, women were pushed into one room, men into another. The church members looked at their leader, their eyes full of fear: ‘what will happen to us?’
Being a Christian in Iran isn’t for the faint of heart: Iranian house churches are regularly raided, and dozens of Christians end up in prison each year. During interrogations, the security officers tell lies, entice Christians to give up the names of other believers, and work hard to destroy the church from within. The raid in Saghar’s church was no different.
But Saghar came prepared.
More and more Iranian Christians hold meetings to share knowledge and learn about the practical and emotional ways to endure a raid with as little damage as possible. Just a few months before the raid on her church, Saghar had attended such meeting.
In the blink of an eye, the theory became reality. Saghar entered the living room where she was called for interrogation. The room was full of burly men, one of them was filming everything. Saghar was terrified. But she tried to calm herself down: this was happening, she couldn’t change it. She had a church to take care of.
Still shivering with fear, the memories of the persecution preparation gathering came back to the pastor’s mind. She had to let someone outside know about what was happening—for prayer, for advocacy. “Can I go to the restroom?” she asked the friendliest officer.
In the restroom Saghar grabbed her phone, snapped a selfie and sent it to the outside world: “please pray for us, our church is being raided!” When she subsequently starts deleting evidence from her phone, one of the female officers pushed on the toilet door trying to force it open. But she had learned that the officers have no right to enter. Saghar firmly told the officer about her rights, making the officer back of reluctantly.
And the knowledge of the preparation gathering with other believers continued to help Saghar: when the officers told Saghar she was going to be arrested, she asked for the warrant and prevented being taken away to prison immediately. When they told her they had intercepted her passport, that was in the mail for administrative reasons, she didn’t believe it. The next day she went to the post office and found her passport there.
With shaking legs Saghar arrived at the airport three days later. It would be a miracle if she would be able to leave: the warrant to arrest her must be ready by now. And then her heart skipped a beat when she saw who was in the queue she had to take: one of the secret agents who had raided her house a few days ago.
This was the toughest moment in her life.
And there she was alone, no parents, no fellow Christians to help her. In that moment she realized that only God could help her, and her only companions were the Bible verses she remembered. “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned” she said to herself.
Like Peter, stepping out of the boat and onto the water when Jesus called him, Saghar stepped forward to board the plane. And while the agent's eyes were piercing in her back, a miracle happened: Saghar was allowed to board the plane. Only later, Saghar discovered that the moment she boarded the plane, the security service in the airport had called her name. They had just received the warrant for her arrest.
But they were too late. Saghar’s plane took off safely.
Four years later
“I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you if it wasn’t for my preparation,” Saghar tells us. It’s 4 years after her escape from Iran and we meet her in a country of refuge. “At the gathering with the other believers I learned how to manage my emotions and what my rights are. That the officers sometimes lie to spread disunity.”
It wouldn’t be safe to disclose much about Saghar’s former house church. But what we can say is that the church went through their trials together. They didn’t believe the lies the officers told them: that they had no right to meet each other anymore, or that Saghar had betrayed them. “The first thing the security services want is to de-unify us,” the former pastor explains, “but staying together will really help us in these times. Fellowship is essential for growth.”
Saghar wants to emphasize that a miraculous escape story doesn’t mean that the event didn’t leave its marks: The first year in her new country she had the same nightmare each night: a nightmare about the raid. And that is just one of the scars the raid left.
After lots of walks, crying fits and songs sang to herself, Saghar is now doing relatively well again. But at times flashbacks still haunt her. But she knows it would have been much worse if she would have gone to prison.
How can we help? “Pray!” says Saghar, reminding us that prayer was important enough for her to send out a call for prayer in the middle of the raid. “No Christian should face persecution unprepared, and no Christian should go through it without prayer from the worldwide church.”