Christian Refugee from Iran Faces Possible Expulsion from Turkey

Convert from Islam was persecuted for his faith in his country.

Canakkale Province, Turkey, where detention center outside Ayvacık is located. (TUBS, Creative Commons)

Canakkale Province, Turkey, where detention center outside Ayvacık is located. (TUBS, Creative Commons)

(Morning Star News) – An Iranian Christian convert faces possible expulsion from Turkey and a three-year prison sentence on a charge of spreading “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” according to religious freedom advocates.

The government of Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan continued its crackdown on expatriate Christians with the Jan. 29 arrest of Mojtaba Keshavarz Ahmadi, 56, on questionable immigration charges, according to a statement by advocacy group Article 18.

“Despite being in Turkey for over a decade and applying for refugee status, Mojtaba has never been interviewed about his case and has therefore never been granted official protection,” the group reported.

Turkish immigration authorities accused Ahmadi of leaving Düzce, his assigned city of residence, without prior government authorization. Ahmadi has denied the accusation, and Turkish authorities have yet to provide any evidence to support their claim, according to Article 18.

The Turkish government assigns applicants for U.N. refugee status a city where they are required to live during the application processing. The aim is to spread the burden that close to 4 million refugees in Turkey could bring to any one area of the country.

Authorities seized Ahmadi’s card identifying him as a candidate for refugee status and took him to an immigration detention center located just outside Ayvacık, in western Turkey near the Aegean Sea, where he remains. The status of any formal charges against him are unknown, and he has very few legal rights.

“Facing a three-year prison sentence in Iran on account of his Christian faith and activities, there can be little doubt that Mojtaba is worthy of asylum,” Article 18 stated.

The group highlighted the plight of Iranian Christian refugees in a joint report last year, including the threat of deportation. Several other Iranian Christians have been transferred to deportation camps in recent years, the group stated.

“There is a concerning trend, where individuals with valid asylum claims are being put in these camps, seemingly arbitrarily,” a source who wished to remain anonymous told Article 18. “There have been other instances in which…an immigration officer from the Turkish authorities has unexpectedly knocked on their door. If they don’t open the door, they are accused of not being in their designated location, whereas they may only have gone to the shops.”

Ahmadi, the son of an Islamic cleric, fled to Turkey due to persecution in Iran. After putting his faith in Christ on Christmas Day, 2002, by March 2004 he’d begun participating in house-church meetings and “talked to many people about Christianity in the cities of Tehran, Qom, Kashan, and Arak,” Ahmadi said in a witness statement to Article 18.

In September 2010, four plainclothes security officials raided a small meeting of three Christians that Ahmadi was leading. The officers seized their Christian materials, including numerous Bibles and films about Christ. Authorities handcuffed and threw them into a van and blindfolded them.

Iranian officials held Ahmadi in a detention center and then Arak prison for 170 days, he told Article 18. During the first week of his detention, Ahmadi was held in solitary confinement and interrogated several times a day, blindfolded and subjected to brutal beatings.

“They beat me with their fists, with kicks, and with all their might,” he told Article 18. “They slapped, punched and kicked my whole body, especially my head and face. I don’t know how long it took; I only know that eventually I surrendered myself to the punches and kicks of the interrogators.”

Ahmadi credited his survival to a voice he heard after he was taken back to his cell following a beating.

“I heard a clear and noble voice in my heart, saying: ‘Be still, and cling to me tightly!’ This voice in my heart gave me an unnatural strength,” Ahmadi told Article 18. “In those moments, it was only Jesus Christ who could give me the strength so that I could endure the physical and mental torture and be able to hold steadfastly and courageously to all my beliefs, and not deny them.”

Eventually Ahmadi was found guilty of two crimes, “carrying out propaganda activities against the holy regime of the Islamic Republic,” and “insulting the sacred.” He was sentenced to three years in prison for each charge, but appealed.

The second charge was eventually thrown out after a witness shouted in court that he had been forced into making a false confession against Ahmadi. The first charge stuck, however, and Ahmadi was sentenced to three years in prison.

In November 2012, Ahmadi, who had appealed the court’s rulings in absentia, was informed that a judge had issued a warrant ordering he be arrested and taken to prison to begin his three-year sentence. Fearful of facing three years of beatings and other torture, Ahmadi fled the country and entered Turkey in March 2013.

Ahmadi is hardly the first Iranian to face deportation from Turkey. Last year Article 18 documented numerous cases of Turkish officials harassing Iranian Christian refugees. In one wave of arrests that lasted six months in 2023, officials rounded up five Iranian Christian refugee families and took them to detention centers, threatening them with deportation.

Other Christians have been targeted in Turkey by a weaponized immigration and refugee system. Since a coup attempt in 2016, the Erdogan government has singled out expatriate Christians from the West for expulsion. Numerous long-term foreign residents, especially those in teaching or leadership roles in churches, have had their residency permits revoked without cause.

Other expatriate Christians who had lived in Turkey without incident for decades have received an N-82 security code identifying them as a “threat to public order and security.” The immigration code acts as a ban for reentry into the country for those who leave.

At least 75 foreign Christian workers and their families were kicked out of Turkey between 2020 and 2023, according to Open Doors. This figure does not begin to address the untold number of expatriate Christians who fled Turkey of their own accord out of fear.

Turkey ranks 50th on Open Doors’ 2024 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian. Iran ranks ninth.

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