Like 99% of Iranians, Shahla grew up in a Muslim household. In her teenage years, this headstrong and intelligent young woman from Tehran embraced atheism and even managed to convince some of her friends to leave Islam behind. But on the last day of a two-week holiday in London, Shahla was given the Gospel of John by a family friend. The course of her life would be changed forever.
Speaking of the Gospel she was handed, Shahla admits, ‘I didn’t want to read it. I would have rather gone shopping.’
But from the first words of ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ Shahla was strangely hooked. ‘I couldn’t put it down,’ she says. Later that day, the family friend drove her to Heathrow for her flight home.
They were running late, and Shahla was concerned that she would miss her flight. Her friend offered to pray for her. ‘I said, “Ok, very, very quickly.”’ The way this person referred to God as their father was shocking for Shahla. She’d never heard a prayer like it.
‘I was crying. I heard another voice that said, “I am God, I am Lord. Come to me and give your heart to me.” When he said “Amen” and opened his eyes he said, “Why are you crying?” I said, “I want to give my heart to Jesus.” I didn’t care about missing my flight. I gave my heart to Jesus in Heathrow car park.’
CRACKDOWN ON CHRISTIANS
Upon returning home to Tehran, her family noticed a difference in Shahla. ‘My mother said, “You’ve become a good girl. What happened to you on this vacation?” I said, “It’s because I’ve become a Christian.” She was so upset and angry with me. She said, “You are not my girl, do not talk to me anymore. I don’t want to talk to you.”’
But after a week, Shahla’s mother accepted her daughter’s decision. Shahla was now free to attend church, read the Bible and even to share her faith with her friends. ‘I told them I am a Christian and I’m never going back to being a Muslim. They accepted me as a Christian.’
But in the following years, the persecution of Christians in Iran worsened. Shahla explains, ‘The government was scared of people coming to Jesus. One person told me they’d prefer their young people to be involved in drugs than be Christians.’
One evening, Shahla’s openness in her evangelism landed her in trouble with the authorities. They demanded to know who else had been spreading the Christian message, but Shahla refused to turn in her fellow believers. ‘They interrogated me. They wanted me to tell them names of other people evangelising. I didn’t want to talk to them, so they put me in prison.’
Shahla was thrown into a tiny, dirty and smelly cell in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison.
Solitary confinement implies she was completely alone. But that’s not how Shahla would describe the experience.
‘I was so afraid and crying, sitting on the floor of the cell, saying, “Why am I here? Why have you brought me here? I was working for you.” A few hours after I came to prison, Jesus came to my cell. I saw his face. He said, “Shahla, don’t be afraid. I am with you.” His voice was so peaceful.’
JESUS WENT TO EVIN PRISON AND I FOLLOWED HIM THERE
Shahla breaks down as she recalls the overwhelming experience. ‘His face was full of love and peace. I couldn’t believe my eyes and I said, “Oh Lord, however many years you want me to stay here, I’m ready.” I stopped crying and I was so happy. I was so sure that…he was with me. And he was with me all the time, he never left me alone. This message wasn’t just for me. It’s for each one of us: when we are in need, we can hear his voice saying, “I am with you.”’
After four months of solitary confinement, Shahla was moved to be with 40 other prisoners. She shared the gospel with everyone she came into contact with. Today she can report that ten people came to Christ, and one person was even baptised in the shower.
‘Jesus told me to follow him. And I followed him. He went to Evin and I followed him there. Many people were going to Evin. Some have to be in there for their whole life sentence. So maybe there would not be an opportunity to hear this message unless I was there. Some have heard the message and not accepted but I’m still praying for them. I believe one day they will give their heart to Jesus.’
Shahla describes the process by which she came out of Evin as ‘miraculous’. It began when she became ill and was taken to hospital. Close to going into a coma, she weighed just 36kg.
‘Many people were praying for me all over the world to be released. And the sickness was the answer to prayer,’ she explains.
Having been let out of the prison to recover, Shahla grabbed the opportunity to leave for good. In March 2013, she fled to Europe. Today, Shahla works with Elam Ministries - a Christian charity which aims to ‘strengthen and expand’ the Church in Iran. She edits their magazine which is written in Persian and distributed throughout Iran. It’s a country that is still home for her; she longs to return.
‘I’d really like to go back to Iran because my family, friends, memories, everything is there. I’m praying something happens so I’m free to go back to Iran and continue my evangelism [there]. I know many people are thirsty to hear this message. If I’m going back to Iran I want to go city by city, find people and tell them about Jesus and about his joyful message. This is my dream and I pray for it to come.’
For more information about the growing but persecuted church in Iran, visit elam.com