When I arrived in Turkey, I was met at the airport by a driver who picked me up and drove me to the hotel of the conference, which was over an hour outside of Istanbul. I was the first to arrive of the group into Istanbul, as I had booked tickets to arrive early so I could sight-see before the conference. Those plans got changed up when my friend who was supposed to meet me there couldn't come due to the volcano. The last-minute decision was made to go to the venue hotel rather than stay in Istanbul. I was grateful that I had someone to meet me there, even if I was disappointed not to be in the city.
When my driver dropped me off at the hotel, the gentleman at the front counter and I had a comical exchange. He was not expecting anyone from our conference to arrive for two more days. I am sure this was compounded by the fact that I knew zero Turkish, and his English, while good, was clearly not his first language.
Somehow I manged to communicate that I was there for a conference. He said something about it starting "last Sunday," to which I replied, "No, next Sunday." He called someone on the phone and about thirty seconds later, a very lovely woman came into the lobby and greeted me. Somehow we figured out that yes, starting *last* Sunday, a women's conference started in the same venue. We quickly figured out that I was *not* supposed to be there for that conference, but for the one starting *next* Sunday. It was quite funny.
At this point I had been awake for over 24 hours, and I needed desperately to take a short nap. So, after settling into my room, I set my alarm for two hours later, and fell asleep.
I woke up, took a shower, and headed down for dinner. I saw the 50 or so women from the conference in the dining hall, but not knowing Turkish from Gibberish, I assumed that these women were from Turkey based on their dress, hair and makeup.
After dinner I went upstairs, got some work for the conference done, and then went to bed, waking up the next morning at 6AM. Throughout the next day, I stuck mainly to my room, working on the conference, and watched some movies online; only heading out for meals. I saw the women again throughout the day eating in the dining hall, but still assumed these were Turkish women.
The next day, late in the afternoon/early evening, the rest of the leadership team arrived to begin final prep for the conference. While we were touring the facilities' breakout rooms, we ran into some women from the conference and began to tentatively speak to them.
It turned out that these women were not Turkish at all. Though, by looking at them, you would never know it. These women were dressed to the nines: full hair, makeup, jewelry, nails nicely done, and in full "western" clothing. However, these women were not Turkish. They were Iranian women. They were Iranian women in Turkey for a Christian women's conference.
Think for a moment about those two words. Christian. Women. I don't think you can find two more persecuted descriptors in Iran than those two things. Even in our own country where there is still discrimination that occurs, there is no fear of death (at least at the hands of our own government). These women risk death for what they believe on a daily basis. This is so true that these women have to leave their country to have a conference. I teared up as we were talking to them....looking at what they were wearing, the joy on their faces, the freedom they felt by being in Turkey. I knew that when they returned home, they returned home to full burqas, fear and truly being the least of the least. In many Muslim countries dogs have more respect and are treated better than women. No where is this perhaps more true than Iran.
Their conference ended the day ours started. However, we invited them to be a part of any of our first day they wanted to. Some of them could not come to the conference as they were returning home that day, but about 20 of them agreed to come as long as no photographs were taken (which there weren't any taken the whole conference, nor was anything recorded).
Now, keep in mind, that our conference was specifically for Christian leaders from the Middle East. However, we did not, up until this point have a single person from Iran there. There were many reasons for this, one being that Iranians speak Farsi, not Arabic....but the real truth is that Iran is so closed and hostile, that there is really no way to know who believes what in that country.
On Sunday the conference was just getting started when these 20 women arrived. Some spoke a little English, some spoke a little Arabic, and so they sat in the back as things got under way. The leader of the conference was going down a list of countries represented there, and having everyone from that particular country stand up when their country's name was called.
Even without the addition of the Iranian women, these men and women have something that as a Westerner, I do not....they too face persecution, imprisonment, hatred, and threats. Even without the addition of these Iranian women, the sheer courage, strength and fearlessness in the men and women in that room was enough to blow me away.
But, as "Mohinder" began to explain that there were some "special guests" in the room, the atmosphere changed. He asked these Iranian women to stand, and as they stood, the whole room rose simultaneously in a thundering standing ovation for these women. All two-hundred plus Middle Eastern men and women rose, acknowledging these women, honoring these women, blessing these women.
I stood in the back of the room and wept. I stood in the back and prayed for each of those women, knowing that even that very day, they would board a plane, and somewhere along the route home, they would don their burqas, remove their makeup, jewelry and nail polish and step off the plane as once again the lowest of the low.
Yet at the same time I know that these women are blessed. These women are blessed to know persecution in a way I have yet to experience. I know this because in Matthew 5 it says that
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
It also says: "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven."
And in Luke 21, "All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life."
And finally in 2 Tim 3, "In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived."
They have the kingdom of heaven in a way I don't. They have a reward that I don't. They know something about Jesus and life that I don't.
I was humbled by the amazing Chinese believers at the conference last year in Hong Kong, and I am humbled by these believers too.