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Iranian Refugees Find Community in a Jakarta Church

The congregation gathers to worship in northern Jakarta. (K. Varagur/VOA)
The congregation gathers to worship in northern Jakarta. (K. Varagur/VOA)

In a nondescript reception room within a mall in Kelapa Gading, a North Jakarta neighborhood largely populated by Chinese Indonesians, a congregation gathers to worship. The sermon: "Love your God and love your neighbor." The preacher: an evangelical Protestant refugee who fled Iran six years ago to avoid state persecution.

Welcome to the Persian Refugee Service, an evangelical Christian church by and largely for Iranian refugees in Jakarta.

Mohamed Rasool Bagherian, the preacher, left Iran with his family because they were Christian, but a number of the congregation actually converted to Christianity during their years-long purgatory in Indonesia, where refugees and asylum seekers are not allowed to work or go to school. A few of the regular attendees aren't even Christians, just refugees who enjoy the company of fellow Iranians and a hot meal.

Why Iranians become Christians

Against all odds, Christianity has exploded in popularity in Iran in recent years, even though apostasy, or leaving the Islamic faith, is punishable by death in the theocratic state. Beyond Armenian and Assyrian ethnic Christians, who have lived in Iran for centuries, there are growing numbers of Shia Muslims who convert to evangelical Christianity.

Watchdog groups estimate that there are between 300,000 and 500,000 Christians in Iran, from a population of 75 million. Evangelical Christianity proliferates in private "house churches," since preachers can be arrested.

Bagherian and his wife converted to Christianity in 2005. It was discouraged, but not dangerous, to become Christian in Tehran, where they lived at the time, he said. He himself maintained a house church for several years.

"But then [former Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmedinajad started to ramp up the pressure against Christians, shortly after his election. I was arrested twice, in 2007 and 2010, and after that, we were basically forced to leave the country," he told VOA News. "We had a young child and feared for his life."

Their son, Ahura, is now eight years old and has only known life in Indonesia.

A community church

If Jakarta is an unnatural environment for this family, it doesn't show at their church. Bagherian is a charismatic preacher who slips between Farsi and English, punctuating his 90-minute sermon with droll PowerPoint slides. He speaks from a clear Lucite altar flanked by artificial purple flowers and electric candles.

The service starts with a long musical segment where everyone sings along to English and Farsi praise rock. Then, on a recent Sunday, Bagherian expounded on the parable of the alabaster jar, in which a poor woman anoints the feet of Jesus with her most expensive perfume.

"If you do something for God, it cannot have a price," Bagherian told the assembled crowd of about 30. I asked him later if he viewed his family's laborious transit for religious freedom through that lens. "Well," he said, "that's one way to look at it."

The Persian Refugee Service gets its meeting room from Abbalove Ministries, a 2,000-person Chinese Indonesian church that convenes in an adjacent hall, also on Sunday afternoons. Abbalove also provides boxed lunches and other services for the small congregation.

"Abbalove members are a great blessing," said Bagherian. "They even help my family rent a guesthouse in Kelapa Gading while we wait for updates on our refugee status."

The Bagherians used to worship in an Anglican church in Jakarta, but three years ago, their Australian pastor, Jeff Hammond, suggested they start a standalone Farsi service for the sizable refugee community.

"My daughter and I found this community when we came to Jakarta and we felt like we saw the light," said one middle-aged Iranian woman who was baptized last year in Jakarta. "You can't understand how terrible sharia was for us. Especially how it oppressed women. No, I haven't looked back after converting."

Tough cases for resettlement

Unlike Afghan refugees, who constitute about half of all refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia, Iranian refugees make up only three percent, and tend to be educated, white-collar professionals who bristled under their home country's theocracy.

That makes it difficult for them to even obtain refugee cards from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), let alone advance in its waitlists. Whereas Afghan Hazara refugees have a broadly recognized claim to deadly persecution, Iran has a stable, albeit authoritarian, government.

That moves Iranians lower in priority for resettlement. And in fact, every year a small number of Iranian refugees, frustrated by the rejection of their refugee or asylum claims, opt for something called "voluntary repatriation" in which they turn themselves over to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which books them a free flight back to Iran.

Nearly every refugee at the Sunday service expressed despair that President Donald Trump's recent travel ban, which includes Iran, and his suspension of refugee resettlement would eliminate the United States as a possible end destination for their journey.

Still, for each of the refugees who attended the service, it was no light decision to flee their home.

"I was arrested for playing music," said Reza, a young man who now plays the keyboard at the Sunday service. "Can you imagine? Music is haram in my country. I went to jail for that. I had to leave."

Abbalove is not the only social institution that serves Iranian refugees. The nondenominational Jakarta International Christian Fellowship also includes several refugees, and it has a dedicated Farsi service. Twelve Iranian children attend Roshan Learning Center, a school for refugees and asylum seekers in South Jakarta, and two young adults are teachers there.

Even if Indonesia is just a point of transit, many Iranians said they felt immensely relieved to be there.

"Here it's also an Islamic nation, but it's democratic," said Arash Ehteshamfar, who left Iran in 2011 to avoid religious persecution. "It's like night and day. And of course, we have this church… this is our home in this country."