Love and Faith
Elizabeth and Emmanuel
In spite of overwhelming odds Emmanuel and Elizabeth are together again. When Elizabeth (last names are not being used to protect identities), an Armenian Christian, was allowed to leave Iran escaping years of religious persecution, her new husband, a convert could not accompany her. So, prior to her departure he set out. On foot.
Emmanuel came from a wealthy Muslim Iranian family. Elizabeth’s family who were unusual for their openness about their faith. Her brothers were preachers who worked to share the faith in their work and in their communities and the family were under government scrutiny for their open evangelizing.
They met and fell in love. Emmanuel converted to Christianity, a capital crime in Iran, and the couple were married in a secret ceremony in a house church.
Their secret could not stay hidden forever. Emmanuel’s family found out. His family disowned him and kicked him out then began threatening him and his wife. The danger to them and Elizabeth’s family became too great and they looked for ways to leave the country.
“I decided to leave because my life was in danger, and my wife’s life was at risk too,” he explained.
Elizabeth’s family were part of program a U.S. Government program to help religious minorities escape Iran. After waiting decades, they were approved to travel with three-month transit to reach the U.S. As they made plans to leave, Emmanuel, who was not part of the program decided he would go too.
After finding someone to smuggle him into Turkey, Emmanuel began the perilous trek out of his native country. He was the only Iranian with about 25 Afghans making the journey. Not long after setting out, the smuggler held Emmanuel at gunpoint and demanded additional payment.
On the mountainous border with Turkey, he was trapped for 12 hours in the mountains due to a blizzard. They were forced to stop when the snows became waist-high. One of the Afghan families left their young children behind and proceeded down the mountain. Emmanuel, could not abandon them and carried both down the mountain.
“The smugglers left some people behind in the mountains that they were crossing, in the middle of all that blizzard, so that they would just die there,” he recalled. “And when we got to the border of Iran and Turkey, the smuggler abandoned us due to his fear of the Iranian police.”
Although he had reached Europe, Emmanuel’s struggle continued. He passed through Serbia, Greece, Macedonia and Hungary, where he spent time in prison after being caught by authorities.
After more than two months, Emmanuel was able to reach Austria. He applied for refugee status and was admitted. Soon after Elizabeth and her family arrived in the country and the couple were reunited.
“When I got to the airport and I saw my wife, I was so happy I could fly,” Emmanuel recalled. “And I thanked God for returning this gift to me.”
Soon after, Elizabeth’s family found themselves facing a new obstacle; the program to bring them to the U.S. had been suspended. Without asylum they are without resources and face the possibility of deportation. Elizabeth’s mother has no means to obtain medical care and complications from diabetes may rob her of her sight.
“I was particularly sad, because my wife’s family came here in the hope of being able to go to the United States,” Emmanuel said. “They had sold everything they had. They had nothing left. To learn that they couldn’t do this was upsetting and they cried every night.”
They say they rely on their faith to cope with the uncertainty of the family’s fate.
The couple are part of the group of Iranians stranded in Austria known collectively as the “Lautenberg Christians” (named after the U.S.’s Lautenberg-Specter Amendment which supports migration of persecuted Iranian minorities seeking asylum in the west). These 108 refugees were not allowed to enter the U.S. and are stranded in Austria awaiting legal actions in the U.S. and asylum applications in the U.S. The Nazarene has supported this group with medical, housing and legal aid and has sought a permanent solution for these victims of the Iranian regime..
Despite the struggle, Elizabeth says she remains grateful for escaping Iran and being with her husband. Emmanuel, the first of the Lautenberg Christians, has been granted asylum in Austria and is now able to work and receive benefits. He and Elizabeth will start a new life there.
“It’s still so hard for me to believe, she said. “Some days when I wake up, I think to myself, “am I really here or am I in Iran and dreaming about all this?”’
Emmanuel sends his thanks to all of The Nazarene Fund donors who supported him during his ordeal.
“May God bless you all,” he said. “We had lost hope and were terrified of being sent back to Iran. The Nazarene Fund saved our lives and for that we are forever grateful.”