Esther’s dark hair falls well below her shoulders. She’s petite, wearing a dark blue dress with brown leather shoes. She is reticent and shy and carries herself across the room like a whisper. We just finished a meal of ghormeh sabzi, a traditional Iranian stew of lamb, pinto and kidney beans with vegetables and lime. Sahar, another Iranian woman whose with us, says, “If you don’t like ghormeh sabzi then you can’t be Iranian.” We all laugh. It’s a delicious meal.
It’s clear that both Esther and Suri love their home country and they would still be in Iran if they had the freedom to worship Jesus. But in the Persian speaking world, being a Christian is a dangerous act.
The Iranian regime declares the country to be a Shia Islamic State and is constantly expanding its influence. Hardliners within the regime are vehemently opposed to Christianity, and create severe problems for Christians, particularly converts from Islam. There are spies waiting to turn believers in and the police often engage in surveillance with anyone suspected of Christian activity—phone tapping, setting up security cameras, following them on the streets.
Esther grew up in a Muslim family, but her brother heard the gospel from another shopkeeper and became a Christian. When her brother shared the good news with Esther, she decided to give her life to Jesus as well. But in Iran, it’s illegal to convert from Islam to Christianity and the moment she said yes to Jesus, she also said yes to a very difficult life.
Soon after Esther started following Jesus she also joined a small community of underground believers who started a church. Eventually, Esther helped disciple other Iranian women and worked with young children.
“All the time we have to be secret and we must be careful about our faith,” she says. “We can’t go to a church building so we just met in homes. We did praise and worship in low sounds so neighbors wouldn’t listen to our worship or hear the sounds of our house church.”
The Iranian government controls all facets of public life—and all marriages must be done under Islamic authority. Esther and her soon-to-be husband kept their faith hidden from the government so they could get married. “It’s so difficult. Therefore we must keep our faith hidden and secret or more troubles will maybe come,” Esther says. Later they had a little boy.
But in Iran, it’s difficult to keep your faith hidden from the government for long. The secret police often infiltrate underground Christian communities by pretending to be new converts, assimilating into house churches and then arresting entire congregations.
One night, while their house church was meeting, the police raided their secret worship gather. “That night the government caught us,” Esther says, “me and another sister didn’t go to jail, but all of the people with us did.” The police let Esther and another women go to tend to their children but ordered them in for questioning the next day.
When Esther and her husband went for the interrogation the following day, the secret police told them they had documentation about their Christian activities. “Everything has changed in your life,” the police told Esther and her husband. “We know you are Christians and you have activities in the church.”
The interrogations went off and on for over a month. The secret police searched their home and often threatened the couple with the fact that if they didn’t reject Christianity they would soon go to jail and they wouldn’t see their young son. The harassment was non-stop. When you become a Christian in Iran, the consequences spill over to your entire family.
The secret police eventually gave Esther and her husband an opportunity to make it all go away.
During the final interrogation, they slid a document across the desk and asked Esther and her husband to fill out a paper in which they deny their Christian faith and return to Islam. All they had to do was sign the document and things would go back to the way they were, the police said.
It was a choice that would change their lives forever. They didn’t sign the papers that day. “It was a new experience for me,” Esther says, “because I have to choose… But I choose Jesus.”
As often is the case in Iran, there’s a window the government gives some people in situations like this. A window where they turn a blind eye to people who want to leave the country. “We escaped,” Esther says. Instead of staying in Iran and going to prison, Esther purchased a roundtrip ticket and left with her son. Her husband remained in Iran and left to join them one week later. They never went back.
In some ways, Esther’s family left one persecution in exchange for another. They settled into another country in the Middle East, but for Iranian refugees it's a difficult path. It’s tough to find work, there’s a new language to learn, refugees have to check in to nearby police stations regularly, and they’re often treated as second-class citizens.
“From Iran, we have persecution, and here we have another persecution,” she says. “I came here and fought God. I can’t bear all of these things! All of these things happen in a short time for us, and I saw my son and…”
When we start talking about the impact on her son, Esther’s emotions overwhelm her and we have to stop the interview for a time. Leaving Iran has been extremely difficult for their young son.
Esther’s decision to follow Jesus in Iran has launched her into the most challenging time of her life. At a time when many young couples are enjoying their lives and their families, Esther and her husband are struggling to survive. But when we ask her if it was all worth it to follow Jesus, she is quick to respond, “Yes.”
“I am a Christian and we know there is persecution for us,” Esther shares.
When we parted ways with Esther, she gave a big smile and waved goodbye. Her story represents so many within the persecuted church today. They are ordinary, everyday people just like you and me. They seek to follow Jesus through pain, difficulty and life’s trials.
They are people who are faced with great suffering and loss for their faith—but when they are given a way out, they still choose Jesus.
As Esther walks away, I remember the words she shared at the end of our time together. “You heard me,” she said. She repeated, “You heard me.”
Sometimes, the most powerful thing we can do is be present with those who are hurting. To have a meal. To pray. To smile. To listen. And to remember we are all one body in Christ. That’s really what the ministry of Open Doors is about—being present with the persecuted.
Please remember Esther and her family as they follow Christ in this new country—and remember the many believers in Iran who, at this very moment, are forced to choose between Jesus and their country.
*For security reasons we’ve hidden Esther’s identity and real name.