This is a true story of friendship and freedom of beliefs – both emerging from an Iranian prison.

The friendship in this story is between a young Christian preacher – Farshid Fathi Malayeri – and a Muslim man and the son of an influential ayatollah – Dr. Mehdi Khazali. This friendship took place early this year in the notorious Evin Prison, Ward 350, in Tehran, Iran.

The freedom of belief in this story is about freedom to choose one’s religion.

About Dr. Mehdi Khazali – Dr. Khazali is an Iranian publisher, physician, blogger, political dissident/regime critic, Iran-Iraq war veteran, and son of a leading right-wing cleric and former Counsel of Guardians member, Ayatollah Khazali. He is also an Islamic scholar and the director of the Hayyan Cultural Institute in Tehran.

Contrary to his father who is a strong supporter of Iranian President Ahmedinejad, Dr. Khazali opposes the excessive mixing of religion and government in Iran and believes it can be harmful in modern society. He is one of the strongest critics of the government there and has been arrested several times since 2009. His last arrest was on January 9, 2012 when he was sentenced to fourteen years in prison, tens years in exile, and ninety lashes. Shortly after his arrest, Dr. Khazali went on a hunger strike where he reportedly lost more than 30 kilos (66 lbs) in 70 days before his eventual release.

About Farshid Fathi Malayeri – Fathi is 33, married, and has two children. Some refer to him as a Christian pastor – a church leader. Tehran intelligence forces arrested Fathi – along with dozens of other Iranian Christians – nationwide on 26 December 2010. At the time, the forces told families of those detained that their charges were apostasy, propagating Christianity, and relations with Christian organizations. Fathi was given a six-year sentence which was upheld at his appeal last month. He has been imprisoned for 18 months so far – including solitary confinement for over 100 days – and he is now due to remain in Evin prison to serve out the rest of his sentence.

Farthi’s sentence has been denounced as cruel and unjust – not only by human rights agencies and Christian groups around the world – but also most interestingly by Dr. Khazali, the son of one of Iran’s most senior Muslim clerics! In a recent interview, Dr. Khazali praised Farshid’s character from their brief time of friendship in Evin Prison:

“Farshid was really a very polite young man, with good manners, and with a very sweet and warm smile always on his face. . .No one in ward 350 had ever seen an angry reaction from Farshid or any acts that can be described as unethical.”

And Dr. Khazali was very clear about the injustice of the sentence. He said the judge who upheld this sentence “has trampled upon humanity” and he hoped that he and the other prosecutors would “realize their wrong doing and amend their ways.” Here are direct quotes from the interview regarding Dr. Khazali’s support of freedom of religious beliefs:

*** “. . .punishing someone for his/her beliefs is illegal.”
*** “. . .humans should be free to choose their beliefs and this is the true Islam.”
*** “I . . .hope that. . .every book (including the Bible) be available to everyone. . .so that people can choose for themselves.”
*** “If we imprison someone for his Christian faith and possession of tbe Bible, then how can we propagate Islam in Europe and U.S.?”
*** “How come you (fellow Muslims) have the right to propagate (your faith) but if they (the Christians) had Bibles in the home. . .they should be sentenced to 6 years in prison?! Do you find this fair? Do you find this rational? Do you find this humane?”
*** “Islam allows for freedom of beliefs, and does not allow compulsion in religion. In Islamic culture, everyone should have the right to choose what they believe.”

In a video below of this insightful interview, you can read further comments by Dr. Khazali about his Christian cell-mate and friend and his strong conviction that all people should have the right to choose – or change – their religious beliefs.

I must say that the story of these two men in Iran touches me deeply. I am moved by the great courage of Pastor Fathi to live out the Christian faith he has chosen in spite of immense personal cost to himself and his young family: long imprisonment and possibly worse. I am also blessed to read of his exemplary character and conduct while in prison. And I am moved by the great courage of Dr. Khazali to do such an interview regarding freedom of religion. You can sense his honesty, kindness, and love. As he says:

“We should accept one another despite our differences in opinion. Not just to accept but to love one another. Not just to tolerate but to really love.”

Though it was very brief, I long to see Muslims and Christians have the kind of friendship this Christian preacher and this Muslim son of an ayatollah have experienced.

Like Dr. Khazali, I long to see people in every country have the right to choose – or change – their religious beliefs.

This is my prayer.

There should be “no compulsion in religion” (The Qur’an, Sura 2:256).

Not in Iran.

Not anywhere.