In a small church in Melbourne’s far south-eastern suburbs, Reverend John Smith stands with his arms outstretched, palms facing the sky, delivering prayers in a powerful Persian monologue.
The 41-year-old is encircled by worshipers, all Iranian-born Christian converts, just a small selection of the more than 500 he’s baptised himself.
This scene is the realisation of a calling that, more than a decade ago, he almost gave his life to heed.
Born in Iran to a Muslim family, he attended mosque until he was 18, when, as an adult, he learned of crimes committed by his imam and began to question his religion.
Seeking to learn about Christianity, he secretly attended underground meetings of Christian converts but was discovered by members of the disciplinary force of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“When they arrested me for the first time, I was held in isolation in a two-metre-wide cell for 57 days," he tells SBS News in Persian.
"I wasn’t allowed to see or speak to anyone except the investigator."
“In those 57 days, I had the luxury of two showers, each one for a maximum of three minutes, during which I was blindfolded.”
His charge was collaboration with a Zionist regime, seen as a precursor to apostasy, or abandoning his religion.
In those 57 days, I had the luxury of two showers, during which I was blindfolded.
The Iranian constitution recognises Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism as official religions, but there is no provision under the legal system permitting conversions away from Islam.
A recent United Nations report on human rights in Iran states although apostasy is not codified as an Islamic Penal Code offence, conversion is punishable by death in courts governed by Sharia law.
Reverend Smith lost over 15 kilograms during his two months in prison, but he says the voice of God was unrelenting despite his despair.
He sought counsel from Christian sources outside of Iran, and with the help of a group of allies he established a so-called house church, joining an underground network of Christian converts.
“To do this, it is very dangerous in Iran; you have to be ready to die, not just for me but everyone attending the church. They must accept that they could be arrested and they could die.”
They must accept that they could be arrested and they could die.
In 2009, six years after his initial arrest, he was detained again. But this time, he says the stakes were much higher.
“The first time they arrested me, my father could negotiate my release. But my father said under the current laws if I was arrested again they could kill me and he would never even find my body.”
He says the deaths of Iranian Christian religious leaders such as pastor Hossein Soodmand, executed for apostasy in 1990, and the disappearance of minister Haik Hovsepian Mehr in 1994, are well known but there are many others that go unrecorded.
“Thousands of Christians who aren’t well known public figures have been killed, just because they converted to Christianity.”
Fleeing to Australia
Before his arrest was officially documented before the courts, Reverend Smith says his father sold a large piece of land to bribe officials to release him. In the months following, he fled Iran with his wife Sara, eventually applying for asylum in Australia, where he changed his name.
In 2012, he was granted a refugee visa to come to Melbourne.
“It was surprising. When we arrived there were lots of churches here so we thought lots of people must be Christians.”
In 2013 he began studying Christian theology. He and Sara moved out to Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs where they had two children, Sarina, now six, and Soren, five.
Source: SBS/Abby Dinham
While studying, Reverend Smith began working with a Chinese community church who later supported him in establishing the first and only independent Persian methodist church in the world, the Iranian Church for Christ.
Its emblem is a lion and a sun, symbols from the Iranian flag from before the 1979 revolution that overthrew the last shah of Iran and replaced his government with an Islamic republic.
Each week, more than 100 people from the Iranian community attend an evening service that begins with prayers and ends with the sharing of a traditional Iranian home-cooked meal.
Iranian born Hiva Afravi has been a member of Reverend Smith's church for three years and says "it’s more than a church; it’s a community".
"All the Iranian families gather together to pray and worship together."
It is a community with the shared experience of oppression in Iran.
Source: SBS/Abby Dinham
Parisa Ramak began attending services in 2017 and says: “When you are in Iran your mind is closed, you don’t have many possibilities to learn and explore other things, but when you arrive in a country like Australia you start to learn so many new things. That is the case for so many from Iran.”
It’s more than a church; it’s a community.
Others such as Hassan Sokhanran transferred from an English-speaking Christian church.
“I actually converted to Christianity in 2014. I went to an English-speaking church then but I became familiar with Reverend Smith and coming to a church where they speak Persian is a big benefit to me.”
And it's a benefit not just to Australian Persian speakers, but those from the language community overseas.
Source: SBS/Abby Dinham
In the centre of Reverend Smith’s church sits a camera, live streaming his sermons to trusted disciples in Persian-speaking countries.
“I am trying to facilitate all the Persian speakers from all around the world to connect with our services with these tools.”
But it’s a risky business.
Reverend Smith says many Iranian Christian evangelists in Australia fear repercussions for family still living in Iran, and those accessing his sermons from overseas often have to use virtual private networks to access the internet to ensure they aren’t being monitored.
His services also extend beyond the Christian community.
In 2015, Reverend Smith began Food Aid Ministry, a service delivering food parcels to refugee and asylum seeker communities. The outreach expanded to include the provision of rental assistance and other types of monetary support during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns in Melbourne.
Those who receive help are from a variety of backgrounds and religions.
Samuel Delavari, a founding member of the Iranian Church for Christ congregation, describes Reverend Smith as a great man.
“He is one of those brave people who had dedicated his whole to the community.”
Reverend Smith says he is just a humble servant of God, gifted with the chance to fulfil his dreams in Australia.
“We love this country so much. I say it from the bottom of my heart, we love the Australian people so much. We have never seen anything but humanity and love from the Australian people.”
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This story is part of the My Australia series, exploring identity and difference through the lives of extraordinary Australians. .
Peyman Jamali is a journalist with .