Iran (MNN-Compass) — As Iran continues to face international pressure about its nuclear program, there's good news and bad news coming out about their religious rights record.
Al Janssen with Open Doors USA says, "There's been some openness to discussions by high level government officials in Iran with Christian leaders. In fact, there was a significant dialogue between evangelical and orthodox leaders and Ayatollahs on the Iranian side."
However, Janssen says there's bad news, too. "But on the other hand, you have the situation of individual Christians who are suffering severe persecution."
One of those individuals is 44-year-old Mohsen Namvar. Days after his release from a month of interrogations and severe torture under secret police custody, Namvar has fled across the border into Turkey with his family.
Traveling by train, the badly beaten Christian arrived this month in eastern Turkey with his wife and son.
He had been held incommunicado by a branch of Sepah (the Iranian Revolutionary Guards) from May 31 until June 26, when authorities told his family they were releasing him "temporarily."
Although the secret police demanded $43,000 in bail, officers refused to issue a court receipt for the family's cash payment.
At the time of his release, Namvar was experiencing fever, severe back pain, extremely high blood pressure, uncontrollable shaking of his limbs, and recurring short-term memory loss.
"I have no doubt they wanted to kill me," Namvar told Compass.
According to Namvar, who converted from Islam to Christianity as a teenager, his severe physical mistreatment stemmed from his refusal to give the police any names or information about other converts and house church groups in Iran.
In the spring of 2007, he had been arrested and severely tortured with electrical shocks, allegedly for baptizing Muslims who had become Christians. Three months after back surgery for those injuries, he regained the ability to walk, but still suffered pain and discomfort.
Janssen says, "He's been experiencing persecution for several years. Once he identified himself as a convert from Islam, he never could really escape from persecution in the area where he lived."
He says Namvar's treatment isn't a generalization. "You can't say all Muslim converts are suffering like this, because they aren't. There are many who are quietly living out their faith, but certainly the threat is always there as this situation shows."
Namvar presented himself last week to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ankara to apply for status as an asylum-seeker.
He and his family were assigned by the UNHCR to relocate in one of 30 designated satellite cities in Turkey, where he is required to sign in daily at the local police station. They must wait 11 months, until June 8, 2009, for a UNHCR interview in which they will detail their reasons for requesting asylum.
"We are tired in our minds, and very sad," Namvar's wife said after learning they must wait nearly a year in Turkey before even presenting her husband's case. "We were under so much pressure in Iran, and again we are facing it here."
Nearly 15,000 applications for refugee or asylum status are now in process at the Ankara office, which is the largest UNHCR center in Europe apart from the Geneva headquarters. So their request could take years.
Namvar's conversion was nothing short of a miracle. "I never knew God until Jesus showed Himself to me in a dream," Namvar said, recalling his conversion to Christianity 29 years ago. "But ever since then, I have followed Jesus and told others about Him."
Janssen says this type of conversion isn't unique. "It's happening all over the Muslim world, and we should be encourage by that, that God is at work. And we should be praying that that harvest will grow and increase and that more Muslims will have these visions and will get a hold of the Scriptures and will meet Christians who will lead them into the presence of our Lord Jesus."
He adds that many Iranians don't support the hard-line government. Janssen says that's pushing people to look for answers: "Particularly university students and young adults are asking tough questions, looking for alternatives, and they are chafing under the repression under Sharia law,and want the freedom that Christ offers."