Aghi Clovis was a teenager in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution.
Only nominally religious, she was invited by an enthusiastic teacher to join religion classes after school. She became a devout Muslim. She could not have imagined herself as a Catholic. Now, she and her husband, Greg, run an apostolate selling Catholic books and tapes.
Aghi, who lives in London, spoke with Register correspondent Joanna Bogle about her conversion.
The Islamic Revolution banished the Shah and the Royal Family and instituted a new fundamentalist regime under the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in the 1970s — and you were living through that?
Yes — suddenly everything changed. All young people believed it was a great new beginning: I still have my passport, marked with its special stamp stating that I voted for the Islamic Revolution. There was fervor everywhere. Teams of young men, calling themselves Guardians of the Revolution, patrolled the streets, arresting women they said were improperly dressed or others deemed to be infringing Islamic law.
It seemed as though the answers to life’s questions had arrived. The world belonged to Islam. It’s impossible to explain adequately just how total is its message. Islam rules how you think and how life should be, for individuals and for the community. I felt the whole world must fall to Islam, and then everyone would be happy and at peace. It didn’t seem possible that there was any other way of looking at things.
So what took you away to another country?
After I left school I had the chance of continuing my studies in America, and my uncle invited me to travel there with his family. First we went to England, and my uncle arranged for me to stay at a Catholic students’ hostel in London. I was wearing my Islamic headscarf when I arrived and met the priest in charge, Father Hugh Thwaites. Looking back, I laugh now — I was convinced I’d convert him to Islam. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind — I knew that the rest of the world must fall to it and submit.
And what happened then?
Well, Father Thwaites — he would later be spiritual director to my family and a big part of our lives — lent me a New Testament in my own Farsi language, the Persian language.
I was 18; I thought I knew everything. I had my ritual prayers and assumed that God was part of that and there was nothing more I could know. But I had never encountered Christ. No one had told me about him, about the things he taught, about what he had done. I was amazed. I was shattered. How did this extraordinary person exist, and how had I been kept in ignorance about him?
For people who have been brought up Catholic, and been introduced to Jesus Christ from early childhood, it is difficult to understand how extraordinary, how magnificent, he is. I had simply been taught to regard Christians as people who were beneath contempt, people who were not part of Islam. But I had never met Christ, and when I did, it completely shattered my worldview.
The totality of Islam had blocked this out until then. Now I had to re-think everything. It was like being turned inside-out.
What did you do next?
Things happened gradually. Because of difficulties obtaining my visa to America, I remained in London and began my studies — and through the Catholic students I started attending meetings of the Legion of Mary. They had talks on different aspects of the Catholic Faith, and these were very interesting. I just sat and listened. I also told myself I must read the Koran properly. I had never actually done this before.
I was amazed at how dull it seemed after the New Testament, which had been such a compelling read. The Koran seemed very prescriptive, and when compared to the Bible quite lightweight. I didn’t find the answers I was seeking. I found it lifeless.
Things that Catholics take for granted, like the Sacred Heart — Christ’s heart, loving us, open to us — were a revelation. There is this warmth in the relationship with God, this immediacy.
But then you went back home to Iran.
I had met Greg — he was a fellow student at the hostel, a devout and believing Catholic. A chaste, kind, intelligent person. We talked a great deal about religion. Our friendship was growing.
But before we made any decision about the future — marriage, a whole new chapter — I wanted to talk to my family.
They were not happy about my marrying and living so far away. I returned to London still uncertain about what to do. But I did know that I wanted to become a Christian. So I was received into the Church early in 1980.
Then suddenly the borders were closed and I discovered that, for the foreseeable future, I could not go home again. It was a difficult time. The decision to marry Greg had to be taken alone. He is West Indian, his family comes from the island of St. Lucia, and has a strong Catholic tradition — his brother Linus is a priest. We decided to marry, and this would be a Catholic marriage and we would raise a Catholic family together.
How is conversion to Christianity from Islam viewed?
Under Islam, to be a Christian is to be the lowest of the low — it is described as worse than being a dog, which is a terrible expression in Islam. Converting to Christianity is virtually unthinkable.
The whole understanding of God is different. In Islam, the idea that God is your father, that we are his children, that we can love him, and that he loves us, in a truly personal way, is considered somehow disgusting, dreadful. The devout Muslim would say, “How dare you say that?” The very idea is shocking.
I loved my family and I missed them, especially my mother, very much in the first years of my marriage. It was sad that she was not there when my first child was born.
As the years went by, and the political situation eased a bit, I was able to go back and see my family, and since then there have been several visits back and forth. I’m on good terms with my mother and my sister.
You have a big family — 10 children — and a busy life. And just recently you’ve started to give some talks about Islam and about your conversion.
It wasn’t a special decision to do that. I’m quite a shy person, and I have plenty to do at home. But the children are growing up; our second eldest is married and has a child of his own, and our youngest is now at school. I have a bit more time. I have started a course in business studies, partly to help with our work in selling pro-life and Catholic tapes and other materials. And I’ve agreed to give some talks to Catholic groups. It began with just one, a Catholic women’s group meeting, and then gradually there were more.
And what about your future plans?
I want to tell people about the Catholic Faith. I want to show what it means to be a Catholic — to know Christ and to be part of his Church, to have this joy. And raising a big family means we have learned something about parenthood, about how crucial it is to pass on the faith and values to your children. So we’d like to help and encourage young Catholic families in doing that.
writes from London.