The members of Neda's* small house church in Iran cannot arrange their next meeting on the phone: it is too dangerous. Instead, they meet at a bus stop or a grocery store.
Neda spoke with Open Doors, knowing that if she were caught doing so, she would be called for interrogation. However, she wanted to share her story with the worldwide church - her son helped with translation.
Neda, a church leader and a mother of four adult children, first learnt about Christianity when she found a Bible hidden in a drawer of her husband-to-be. It surprised Neda because she knew him as a strict Muslim.
She started reading the Bible in secret and her heart was touched, she told Open Doors: "I became interested in Christianity and visited a church several times. That is where I became a Christian. When the persecution increased and we couldn't visit a church building anymore, my husband and I decided to start a house church, meeting in our home."
After the church was launched, they lived in constant fear. Her husband was taken for questioning regularly. It went on for years.
"People we knew were thrown into prison," said Neda. "A Christian friend of mine had her child taken from her after she left her husband, following years of pressure from him for her to renounce her faith. I can't lie - it was a very stressful situation, especially for my husband and me as church leaders."
Neda's son jumps into the conversation and says: "Sometimes there was so much pressure that it was only us as a family that could come together safely. We took it seriously: around 5.30pm we were all sitting down. One of us would lead devotions, the other one would play the guitar. My father was preaching, and we even took offerings. What would have happened if someone had caught us? We were really scared, but we did continue!"
Ever since Neda's husband died, she has been leading the church by herself. For 25 years of their church's history, the persecution has remained consistently strong, she said, but she has never considered giving up.
Sometimes God communicates with her through her dreams, she says. She vividly remembers one occasion, at a time she was very worried about her children's safety: "In my dream I saw a lion that was about to attack my kids. I was so scared! But to my amazement, the lion did nothing. I understood this dream when I read the story of Daniel in the lion's den: God protected us like he had protected Daniel."
Neda says she and the small group of her church members experience that protection on a daily basis and continue their ministry in spite of the risks.
"We know some of us are monitored, so we have to be careful," she said. "Even though our church consists of just a small group of people, we are very blessed. God shows his power everywhere, but I believe it becomes even more apparent in places where Christians are under pressure."
Iran is number 8 on Open Doors' World Watch List, a ranking of 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. Converts from Islam to Christianity bear the brunt of violations of religious freedom, carried out by the government, and to a lesser extent by society and the converts' families. The government sees Iranian Christians as tools used by Western countries to undermine Islam and the Islamic regime of Iran. Leaders of churches for Christian converts have been arrested, prosecuted and received long prison sentences for 'crimes against national security'.
*name changed for security reasons
Open Doors UK & Ireland is part of Open Doors International, a global NGO network which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians for over 60 years and works in over 60 countries. In 2020, it raised £42 million to provide practical support to persecuted Christians such as food, medicines, trauma care, legal assistance, safe houses and schools, as well as spiritual support through Christian literature, training and resources. Open Doors UK & Ireland raised about £16 million.