It’s a conversion story that defies belief, and becomes more remarkable when the convert, Daniel Shayesteh, has a history that includes helping foment a fundamentalist Islamic revolution in Iran and co-founding Hezbollah in Iran.
Shayesteh will make several public appearances this week in Bowling Green to tell his story.
He is being hosted by Hope in Messiah, Bowling Green’s Messianic Jewish congregation.
“I wanted him to come to Bowling Green because I thought his story was so unique that there are a lot of people who never come to a congregation normally who want to know what’s happening in Iran and the Middle East and how someone could be transformed into the total opposite mindset,” said Jonathan Sacks, congregation leader of Hope in Messiah.
Shayesteh was born into a Muslim family in Iran and could recite the entire Quran in Arabic by age 9.
During his college years, Shayesteh became more militant and active in the Free Islamic Revolutionary Movement, which participated in the revolution that toppled the monarchy led by the Shah of Iran in 1979.
As a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a branch of that nation’s military, Shayesteh trained others in terrorist tactics. Members of that military unit were deployed to Lebanon in 1982 to assist the Lebanese in its war with Israel.
That war had the effect of establishing Hezbollah, a militant Shiite Islamic group and political party now classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Hezbollah is known for its opposition to Israel and has engaged in combat with Israel and been accused of masterminding bombings and kidnappings on several targets.
In place of the monarchy, the Ayatollah Khomeini emerged as Iran’s supreme leader in an Islamic republic, but Shayesteh soon found himself on the outs with the new leader when he did not implement reforms that Shayesteh had wanted in the new government.
“Absolutely everything changed about his attitude,” Shayesteh said. “We came here to prosper, but we became poorer and poorer, that’s what was scary for us. Someone had promised us a few months ago our freedom, and no one now was able to speak up. We started to oppose what he was doing, but unfortunately opposition to Islam means death if you have no power.”
Shayesteh was imprisoned in torturous conditions and sentenced to death. His cellmates were executed, but Shayesteh was able to escape to Turkey, where he continued his studies.
While in Turkey, Shayesteh began reading the Bible and came to know a group of Christians through his business partner, attending their church and eventually converting. His wife, who also took part in militant training, converted as well, as did their children.
“I was amazed and shocked by Christian values,” Shayesteh said. “I just remembered for years I was afraid and not taught the right way about Christianity.”
Shayesteh has renounced his earlier radicalism, but he cannot put it out of his mind.
“You cannot forget your past and I have a very dark past, unfortunately,” Shayesteh said. “In my family and my relationship with other people, even with non-Muslims, I was a person who hated Jews and Christians, investing my life to destroy them. You cannot forget your past, but those values are not leading my life anymore – I follow Jesus Christ, and I’m proud to be a follower of Jesus Christ.”
Shayesteh eventually obtained political asylum in Australia and now travels the world to share his story.
Sacks describes Shayesteh as having a “brave, sweet spirit” with a powerful message.
As radical as he was while growing up Muslim, Shayesteh speaks just as passionately against Islam today.
“Really, America cannot be protected without the values of Christ,” Shayesteh said. “The reason we have freedom in Western countries and America is because of the values of Christianity. The revolutionary mindset is not a peaceful philosophy, and the goal of my travels is to help people to understand that opening the door for Islam just equals death of our own culture. Islam is the only political religion in the world that wants to destroy other beliefs.”
Shayesteh will speak before an invitation-only gathering Tuesday at Mariah’s. He will make public speaking appearances at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Hillvue Heights Church, 3219 Nashville Road; at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at New Life Church, 1423 Scottsville Road; and at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Hope in Messiah, 2107 Old Louisville Road.