30 June 2023

Iranian church leader forced into exile

Pastor Saheb has been told to report to a distant province of Iran ‘in the next few days’ for a two-year exile that he knew nothing about – all for being part of a house church.

Pastor Saheb was ‘pardoned’ – but still faced flogging and exile (image is illustrative)

When Iranian Christian Saheb went to Tehran earlier this week, it was meant to be a quick trip – to secure the release of a property deed that he’d submitted long ago for his bail. He’d spent years in prison for his faith, but had been pardoned and freed. Saheb’s journey was only supposed to be a simple errand. Instead, Saheb was told that – despite his recent pardoning – two punishments remained on his case file that had yet to be enforced.

Flogging and exile

Instead of being given the deeds for his property, Saheb was flogged with 50 lashes on the spot. It’s not even the first time he’s been flogged – years earlier, he’d received this punishment for the ‘crime’ of drinking Communion wine. This time, the flogging was purportedly for not returning to prison following a furlough.

But that wasn’t the only outstanding punishment, according to the Iranian authorities. He has also been sentenced to a two-year exile in the city of Nehbandan (south east of Tehran, near the Afghan border) as part of a separate conviction for ‘spreading propaganda against the regime’.

Saheb’s wife, Marjan, was waiting outside while Saheb was brutally flogged. He then had to tell her the news about his upcoming exile. Marjan told Saheb that she was willing to travel with him into exile, but Saheb does not want his family to have to endure the punishment alongside him, nor take them away from their home and friends. He’s been told that he must submit himself to the authorities in Nehbandan ‘within the next few days’.

Mixed-messages from courts

Saheb’s story had previously been one of partial good news – his sentence had been reduced from 10 to six years at an appeal in 2020. He was arrested along with two other pastors in Rasht, Iran, in 2016 for running house churches. In Iran, Christians who have converted from Islam can only meet in secret house churches – they are a great risk of being monitored, harassed and arrested. The country is number eight on the Open Doors World Watch List.

Yousef Nadarkhani, one of the other men who was imprisoned alongside Saheb and later had his sentence reduced at the appeal, has also been flogged since his supposed pardoning. Again, it was for not returning to prison on time from a furlough. Yousef also faces a two-year exile – in Nikshahr, 450 miles south of Nehbandan. Both places are in provinces known to be among the poorest in Iran, and work opportunities will be very scarce for these exiled Christians.

Recent cases of Iran have given mixed messages about the freedom of Christians. An appeal judge recently released a couple called Homayoun and Sara from their prison sentences, saying there was ‘no evidence’ that they had acted against national security and that it was ‘natural’ to gather with people of one’s faith. He added that having books related to Christianity was ‘an extension of their beliefs’. On the other hand, convictions like Saheb’s remain in place, and other Christians continue to be targeted for committing crimes against national security, simply for worshipping together.

Pray for Saheb and his family

Saheb and his family must now prepare themselves for another separation, after years of Saheb’s imprisonment, and Marjan will have to take sole charge of the new grocery store which the couple have opened together after Saheb’s release. Iranian women have few rights and often little respect, so this will bring great challenges.

Please pray for the family, particularly the couple’s daughter, Marta. The 16-year-old has to be separated again from her father. May God give them patience and peace during this difficult time. May they be reunited again soon, whether miraculously or through a change of heart from the legal authorities.

  • For Saheb and his family to remain strong and faithful, and for God to comfort and reunite them
  • For all Christians in exile in Iran to know God’s tender mercy and sustaining power
  • For Iranian authorities to stop criminalising Christians and to release those currently in prison for belonging to house churches.
Please give

You can order your free World Watch List Top 50 booklet to get detailed information about Iran and all the 50 countries, inspiring testimonies and stories from the persecuted church, and prayers to help you stand with your risk-taking church family.

Get involved

Your support helps persecuted Christians continue to courageously follow Jesus. Together, we can reach those where persecution hits hardest.