This will be Pastor Farshid Fathi's fourth Christmas in an Iranian prison, yet his fortitude, faith and indomitable spirit continues to impress and encourage, reports Mohabat News.
For Christians across the West, this week is a time to celebrate. Multitudes will throng to church for Christmas services—some dragged along by family members, others seeking peaceful sanctuary from the worries of daily life. They will gather there to mark the birth of their savior, of the God who entered the world in the most humble of circumstances.
Elsewhere in the world, millions of their co-religionists are threatened and prevented from exercising their fundamental right to worship openly, even in this holy season. Christian communities in North Korea, Pakistan and across much of the Middle East and Africa, among other places, face various forms of persecution, whether meted by tyrannical governments or by Islamist fanatics. According to an estimate by the International Society for Human Rights, some 80% of all acts of religious violence target Christians.
One of those persecuted Christians is Farshid Fathi, a pastor who this year will mark his fourth Christmas in an Iranian prison cell. Born in 1979, the year Ayatollah Khomeini toppled the shah and founded the Islamic Republic, Pastor Fathi converted to Christianity at the age of 17. As the pastor would soon learn, Iran is a very dangerous place to worship Christ.
The Tehran regime likes to tout its treatment of Iran's historic Christian communities, the Armenians and Assyrians, as a testament to its tolerance. It's true that Armenians and Assyrians are officially recognized as "People of the Book" under Iranian law, and that status affords them a measure of legal protection. But it also relegates them to second-class status. Their churches and schools are intensely surveilled, their inheritance rights are subsidiary to their Muslim relatives', and they are barred from many public offices.
The mullahs reserve the most vicious treatment for Iranian Muslims, like Pastor Fathi, who have dared to convert to Christianity. Persian-language Bibles are banned in the country, and apostasy is punishable by death under Shariah law, which lies at the heart of the Iranian penal code. Yet to mask its naked persecution of Christian converts, the Tehran regime usually jails them on national-security charges or on the pretext that they spy for foreign powers.
That's what happened to Pastor Fathi. In December 2010, the father of two was arrested and arbitrarily detained in Tehran's nightmarish Evin Prison. His "crime" was serving as the leader of a network of underground evangelical house churches. After a yearlong interval, during which he spent months in solitary confinement and was subjected to psychological abuse, he was convicted by a revolutionary court of "acting against national security" and sentenced to six years.
In April, Pastor Fathi was one of several prisoners beaten during an attack by security forces on Ward 350 of Evin, which houses many of the country's most prominent dissidents. More recently, he was transferred to a different prison, Rajai Shahr, outside Tehran, where he shares a cell with hardened criminals. His right to family visits, guaranteed under Iran's own laws, is routinely violated. He isn't permitted to sing Christians hymns, and prison authorities have confiscated his Bible.
For the past few years, I have been advocating on behalf of Pastor Fathi and other Iranian Christians in Westminster and before the regime's representatives. Though his case angers me and calls me to action, I am more often impressed and encouraged by the pastor's fortitude, faith and indomitable spirit as they are reflected in his letters to supporters from prison.
His latest contains a powerful Christmas message: "Although the beauty of Christmas or the signs of Christmas cannot be found in this prison," the pastor writes, "with the ears of faith I can hear the everlasting and beautiful truth that: 'The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.'"
It is signed “your captive brother who is free in Christ.”