The Other Iranian Revolution
The Other Iranian Revolution
God must have been laughing up his sleeve," muses Jobst Schöne. The retired bishop of the Independent Lutheran Church in Germany is applying a German paraphrase of Psalm 2:4 to the baptism of seven former Muslims from Iran. Early Easter morning, the seven were baptized in the Berlin parish where Schöne serves as associate pastor. The baptisms were an emblem of something bigger—a nationwide surge of such conversions in several denominations and a spate of reports of Muslims seeing Jesus in their dreams. But Martin Luther's Bible translation, now nearly 500 years old, also played an important role in their story.
The group baptism happened at an unsettling time for European Christians. During Lent, radical Muslims handed out large numbers of Qur'ans on street corners and announced plans to distribute 25 million German-language copies of their holy book in order to win Germans to their faith. But on the night before Easter, some 150 worshipers filed silently into St. Mary's Church in the Zehlendorf district of Berlin to witness conversions in the opposite direction.
Until midnight, the sanctuary was dark. Then Gottfried Martens, senior pastor, chanted from the altar: "Glory to God in the highest." All at once the lights went on, the organ roared, and the faithful broke jubilantly into song: "We praise you, we bless you, we worship you." Like Christians everywhere, they celebrated the Resurrection of their Lord.
For the six young men and one woman in the front pew, the moment had additional significance: They were placing their lives in danger in exchange for salvation. Under Islamic law, apostasy is a capital crime, a fact brought home to the German public by press reports about Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, an ex-Muslim, who was sentenced to death in Tehran. Some of the converts at St. Mary's were themselves persecuted before fleeing to Germany, now home to the largest Iranian community in Western Europe, numbering 150,000.
"These refugees are taking unimaginable risks to live their Christian faith," says Martens, who ministers to one of Germany's most dynamic parishes, which has grown from 200 to over 900 members in 20 years. He views the conversion of a growing number of Iranians in Germany as evidence of God's sense of irony. "Imagine! Of all places, God chooses eastern Germany, one of the world's most godless regions, as the stage for a spiritual awakening among Persians," Martens exclaims. According to a recent University of Chicago study, only 13 percent of all residents of the formerly Communist part of Germany attest belief in God.
The Vision Thing
The Berlin baptism is a small piece in a mosaic of faith covering all of Germany, crossing denominational barriers and extending into Iran itself. Some German clerics speak of a divinely scripted drama that includes countless reports of Muslims having visions of Jesus. According to Martens and others interviewed for this article, most of these appearances follow a pattern reported by converts throughout the Islamic world: Muslims see a figure of light, sometimes bearing the features of Christ, sometimes not. But they instantly know who he is. He always makes it clear that he is Jesus of the Bible, not Isa of the Qur'an, and he directs them to specific pastors, priests, congregations, or house churches, where they later hear the gospel.
Thomas Schirrmacher, chair of the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance, comments on this pattern: "God sticks to the Reformation doctrine that faith comes by receiving the Word through Scripture and preaching. In these dreams, Jesus never engages in hocus-pocus, but sends these people to where the Word is faithfully proclaimed." This is why Martens says he cannot dismiss such narratives: "As a confessional Lutheran, I am not given to Schwärmerei," he says, using Luther's derogatory term for religious enthusiasm. "But these reports of visions sound very convincing."