VAN, Turkey – Some 500 Christian converts from Iran have sought asylum in Turkey following what they say is persecution by the authorities. A man and his family who converted to Christianity from Islam say they used to practice their faith in secret.
Of those Rudaw talked to in Turkey’s Van, close to the Iranian border — all Kurds — none revealed their name and some chose not to appear on camera for fear of reprisals.
One young man who converted only after he arrived in Van said that he did not think he could be the person he wanted to be if he remained Muslim. He did not want to give his name or appear on camera.
He said he is now feeling “comfortable” as a Christian.
Another young man felt safe enough to show his face. He said Iran is punishing many Kurds with the death penalty though many of them share the same religion.
He said that hundreds of Kurdish youth in Iran have abandoned Islam and embraced Christianity.
“I changed my religion because I did not see anything in Islam. Whatever I saw was wrong,” he explained.
“It is a fact that the government of Iran is an Islamic one, yet our youth, are getting executed. In Iraq [it’s] the same,” he continued. “There is ISIS and [they] are killing people in the name of Islam, and there are vulnerable people who are being beheaded there. They have fled to Turkey, and we came to Turkey. That is why I did not see any good from Islam."
The majority of people in Iran are Shiite Muslims, while the majority of Iranian Kurds follow Sunni Islam.
The rights organization Open Doors USA that focuses on serving persecuted Christians in 60 countries says Iran considers Christianity to be a “western influence.”
“Converts to Christianity from Islam make up the largest group of Christians and experience the most persecution,” the organization states on its website, adding that historical Christians in Iran are protected by law but are treated as “second-class citizens.”
The Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Tehran, Ramzi Garmou, told AFP in December they are grateful that they live in peace in the country as opposed to the rest of the Middle East, which is plagued by violence.
“Thanks to God, we really live in peace and security, but our neighbors live in anguish and violence," he said.
There are three seats reserved for Christians in the Iranian parliament.
A man, his wife, and his children converted to Christianity while in Iran. He said they used to practice their embraced religion underground.
He did not want his family to appear on camera. He also wore glasses in order not be recognized by his relatives.
“[In Iran] there is not an accurate figure to say how many people have become Christians because everything is secret,” he said. “When a Muslim converts to Christianity, they do so in secret. Rituals are secret since they are in danger ... ours was secret, too.”
There are about 1,500 Kurdish asylum seekers in Van, some of whom cite political, ethnic, or cultural reasons as their impetus to leave Iran. But nearly 500 of them have converted to Christianity.
The majority of the people Rudaw talked to want to go to the United States or Canada, while others are hoping to go to Europe.