An Anglican minister who fled Iran six years ago because of constant harassment by intelligence agents and multiple arrests has now been told he is to be deported back to Iran from his city of temporary residence in Turkey.
Pastor Hekmat Salimi, who is 72 years old and severely disabled, his wife Shirini, 66, and their daughter Sama, 35, have been living as asylum-seekers in Zonguldak, five hours’ drive east of Istanbul, since 2016 but were told last week they must leave the country within seven days or face forcible deportation.
Pastor Salimi, who converted to Christianity in his home city of Shiraz in the year of the Islamic revolution of 1979, is the former minister of St Paul’s Anglican Church in Isfahan, one of just four remaining Persian-language churches in Iran, but now used only for special occasions such as weddings or Christmas.
And Pastor Salimi explained in a recent interview with Article18 that it was his reopening and refurbishment of this church back in 2009, after it had been closed for 30 years, that led to renewed pressure against him, as well as his work with the house-churches that had opened after the Iranian authorities began banning churches from holding services in the national language of Persian.
In late 2011, after two years as the minister of the church, Pastor Salimi explained that he had travelled to the international airport in Tehran on his way to Dubai, where he was to be officially ordained, when his boarding pass and passport were suddenly confiscated, and he was taken in for questioning.
Then, on 22 February 2012, intelligence agents came to the minister’s home at 7.30am, and after confiscating all Christian items, detained him for more than two months, during which time he was beaten, interrogated for hours on end, accused of apostasy, and forced to sign a statement promising to have no further contact with any Christians, nor involvement in any Christian activities.
Clearly, as a minister, this was difficult to accept, and yet Pastor Salimi says he abided by these restrictions to his life and faith.
Nevertheless, the pressure continued, as intelligence agents came back to raid the minister’s home again in the summer of 2015, accusing him of continuing to meet with Christians.
Eventually, the pressure and restrictions on his life and faith became too much, and in March 2016 Pastor Salimi travelled to Turkey, where he filed his claim for asylum.
His wife and daughter followed him later that year.
But in the years since, as with so many other Iranian Christian refugees, Pastor Salimi and his family have not even been acknowledged as refugees, let alone offered resettlement to a safe country.
After years of waiting, in December 2020 the family’s application was finally rejected.
And while their appeal was initially successful, a further appeal by the Turkish immigration authorities backed up the court’s initial decision.
Two reasons were given: firstly, that the pastor and his family were not considered to be at real risk of persecution if they returned to Iran, and secondly that the pastor had failed to correctly remember the precise date of his arrest at the Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran.
Finally, last week, Pastor Salimi and his wife and daughter were served their deportation notice, giving them seven days to leave the country or be forcibly deported.
Article18’s Mansour Borji gave this reaction: “We urge the UNHCR and international monitoring bodies to ensure proper processes are put in place so that genuine asylum-seekers are not so unfairly treated and unjustly deported to countries where they may face severe harm, and possibly even risk to life.”