June 16, 2009
ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) – Since Iranian native Nasser Ghorbani fled to Turkey seven years ago, he has been unable to keep a job for more than a year – eventually his co-workers would ask why he didn’t come to the mosque on Fridays, and one way or another they’d learn that he was a convert to Christianity.
Soon thereafter he would be gone.
Never had anyone gotten violent with him, however, until three weeks ago, when someone at his workplace in Istanbul hit him on the temple so hard he knocked him out. When he came back to his senses, Ghorbani was covered in dirt, and his left eye was swollen shut. It hurt to breathe.
His whole body was in pain. He had no idea what had happened.
“I’ve always had problems at work in Turkey because I’m a Christian, but never anything like this,” Ghorbani told Compass.
A carpenter by trade, Ghorbani started working at an Istanbul furniture maker in November 2008. From the beginning, he said, the Turks he worked with noticed that he didn’t go to the mosque on Friday. Nor did he behave like everyone else.
“If someone swore, I would say, ‘Don’t swear,’ or if someone lied, I said, ‘That’s not honest,’” he said. “You know Turks are very curious, and they try to understand everything.”
Although he tried to conceal his faith from his co-workers, inevitably it became obvious.
Soon after he started his new job, Ghorbani and his family found a new apartment. On the planned move-in day, New Year’s Day, his boss sent the company truck along with a truck driver to help; members of the Christian group that often meets in his home also came.
“When the [truck driver] saw all these people at our house, he was surprised,” said Ghorbani’s wife, Leila, explaining that he seemed especially surprised to find foreigners among the group. “It was big news back at the factory.”
Ghorbani said that in the following months the questions persisted, as well as pressure to attend the mosque. He avoided these as best as he could, but he admitted that two mistakes confirmed their suspicions. Someone from work learned that he had a broken personal computer for sale and bought it, only to find Christian documents and photos on the hard drive. Secondly, a mutual friend later admitted to a co-worker that he went to the same church as Ghorbani.
“The attitude in the entire factory changed toward me,” said Ghorbani, chuckling. “It was like they had agreed to marginalize me. Even our cook started only serving me potatoes, even though she had cooked meat as well. I didn’t say anything.”
In May the truck driver who had helped the Ghorbanis move finally confronted him.
“Your country is a Muslim country,” he told him, “and you may have become a Christian, but you are coming to Friday prayers today.”
On May 22 during lunch, his co-workers told him they were taking him to the mosque that day. “You are going to do your prayers,” one said.
Ghorbani brushed it off and, to appease them, said he would come after lunch. But as they were about to leave for the mosque, he asked them why they only pray once a week – and told them that as a Christian he couldn’t accept it and wouldn’t join them.
After the day’s last delivery and pick-up, the truck driver returned to work. As everyone was getting ready to leave, from the corner of his eye Ghorbani saw the truck driver walking up to him, and felt the blow of his fist on his temple. When he regained consciousness, some co-workers were washing his face in the bathroom.
They told him a little about how he was beaten, put him in a cab with one of their colleagues and sent him home. That evening, his fellowship group was meeting at his home. They had just sat down for dinner when Ghorbani arrived later than usual.
“He walked in, and he was limping because his right side hurt,” said an Iranian friend who was at the meeting. “There was dirt all over his clothes, and there was blood in his left eye. When I saw him I got scared. I thought that maybe a car had hit him.”
Wanting to avoid a hospital visit and questions from police, Ghorbani went to a private doctor a few days later. The doctor instructed him to stay home for three weeks to recover from the injuries: badly bruised ribs, shoulder, shins and eye, and internal stomach bleeding.
When he took the medical report to his workplace the following day, co-workers told him that his boss had fired the truck driver, and that even though management was very happy with his work, it would be safer for him to look for employment elsewhere. They said the truck driver blamed Ghorbani for losing his job and had threatened to kill him if he ever saw him.
“I have a family and home and nothing to lose,” the truck driver said, according to co-workers. “If I kill him, the worst thing that could happen to me is that I do some jail time.”
Ghorbani’s friend said that even if other Iranian converts to Christianity don’t suffer violence as Nasser has, life for them is full of pressure and uncertainty at work.
“Maybe for Christians by birth there are no pressures or problems, but people like us who want to [leave Islam to] follow Jesus are fired,” said the friend.
He explained that following their faith means living righteously and not stealing or cheating their bosses out of time and wages.
“That’s when the marginalization starts, when you resist doing wrong,” he said. “But if you live the way they do, lying and stealing, they don’t notice you’re a Christian.”
The Iranian friend said that even before he converted to Christianity in Turkey, his colleagues would pressure him to come to the mosque for Friday prayers because he was a foreigner.
“After becoming a Christian, the pressure gets worse,” he said. “The way they look at you changes … and, honestly, they try to convince you, [saying] that you haven’t researched your decision well enough.”
Now running his business out of his own home, the friend said no one can disrupt his work because of his faith, but he is a rarity among Iranian refugees in Turkey.
Ghorbani’s wife said the New Testament is clear on how to respond to attacks.
“The Bible says don’t be surprised when things happen against you, but love more, because you suffer for Christ,” she said.
Hope for a Future
The Ghorbanis said they are thankful for their time in Turkey, though their future is unclear.
The family first fled to Turkey in 2002 after realizing that their families were becoming aware of Nasser’s newfound faith. Ghorbani had worked in the Iranian Armed Forces for 10 years before he was fired in 1995 because, as a secular Muslim, he refused to attend Quran classes, which were necessary for keeping his job or being promoted.
For the following eight years, the government kept close tabs on the couple, questioning them every six months. Ghorbani could not travel outside of Iran during this period.
In 2001 he became a Christian under the influence of a customer who ordered furniture from his shop. As soon as Ghorbani’s passport was issued, he fled to Turkey; his family followed a few months later. Soon his family also espoused Christianity after his wife had a dream of Jesus saving her from sinking sand.
“We have learned the truth, and it has set us free,” Leila Ghorbani said.
The family is in the process of applying to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to re-open their case; their first application was denied three years ago.
According to the UNHCR’s most recent Global Report, in Turkey there were 2,100 Iranian refugees and 2,300 asylum-seekers from Iran in 2008. Although there is no data on how many Christian Iranians are living in Turkey, it is estimated that there is an Iranian house church in each of 30 “satellite cities” where the government appoints refugees and asylum seekers to live.
The Ghorbanis have three daughters, ages 20, 17 and 2. Ghorbani said he and his family would be in danger if they were returned to Iran.
“As a Christian I can’t return to Iran, or I risk losing my life,” Ghorbani said. “If they catch me, because I was a lieutenant they will directly hang me.”