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."
Martens's experience with Muslim converts goes back to when he began catechism classes for Persian immigrants five years ago. The classes quickly expanded, and on Easter Sunday 2011, Martens baptized ten converts. Ten more converts are expected next Easter, and another ten the following year, plus more in between.
As news of the Easter baptisms at St. Mary's spread, churches across Germany reported similar experiences: Across Berlin in Neukölln, a district with a nearly 20 percent Middle Eastern immigrant population, deaconess Rosemarie Götz baptized 16 Persians on Easter Day in her modest house of prayer, Haus Gotteshilfe ("God's Help"). The baptisms doubled her tiny congregation, which belongs to the Landeskirchliche Gemeinschaft, a pietistic group within the otherwise liberal Protestant church of the Berlin-Brandenburg region.
"The new members brought along 50 others whom we are now instructing in the faith, and 8 to 10 of them will be baptized in August," says Götz, whose involvement with the Iranians started 19 years ago, when a social worker introduced her to Nadereh Majdpour. Majdpour had fled Iran after suffering torture for declaring that she loved Jesus more than Muhammad. "She lost all her hair from being beaten savagely on her head in jail," recounts the deaconess. Majdpour brought the other Persians to Götz and now acts as their interpreter.
Two weeks after Easter, four more Iranians were baptized in the Baptist Friedenskirche (Church of Peace) in the fashionable Charlottenburg district. Meanwhile, not far from Götz's chapel, Sadegh Sepehri, an Iranian-born minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA), was preparing substantial groups of former Muslims for baptism in the Bethlehemkirche, a German Reformed Church hosting a congregation of 150 native Iranians. "I have already baptized more than 500 Persians in my 20 years here in Berlin," Sepehri reported before pointing to an American pastor who has done four times as well numerically in the southern city of Nuremberg.
Mark A. Bachman, founder of Nuremberg's independent Word of God Baptist church, returned to the United States two years ago. Speaking by telephone from Hyles-Anderson College in Indiana, where he is training missionaries for work in Islamic countries, Bachman estimates that he baptized some 2,000 former Muslims during his 23-year ministry in Nuremberg; most were Persians.
In yet another part of Germany, Baptist pastor Helmut Venske baptized 13 Iranians on Easter Sunday. Venske serves a congregation in Mülheim in the industrial Ruhr District in northwest Germany. "This is happening in many parts of the country, wherever there are Persian communities," he says.
In a rural Lutheran church in Bavaria, for example, several dark-skinned strangers surprised the Communion assistant during Lent when they showed up at the altar. "Who were they?" he later asked his pastor. "Oh, they are just another family of Persian converts," the minister answered.
"Something significant is taking place here," says Max Klingberg, an official with the International Society of Human Rights (ISHR) in Frankfurt. But when questioned about a radio report that in Germany alone, at least 500 Persians become Christians every year, he cautions, "As a trained scientist, I prefer to be very careful with numbers." However, Schirrmacher suggests, "The real figure could well be a thousand, perhaps thousands."
Actual numbers are hard to determine because of the theologically liberal leadership of the regional Protestant bodies linked to the state. Their leaders tend to steer clear of mission, says Schirrmacher: "They worry that it might interfere with their interfaith dialogues." Götz agrees: "I suspect that this is why the parish pastor around here, a woman, has never visited our congregation."
Therefore, says Schirrmacher, only "free churches," such as the Baptists and independent Lutherans, and semi-autonomous congregations like Götz's, joyfully report conversions. "We know that faithful ministers of the state-related churches also baptize ex-Muslims, but we are left in the dark about the numbers." Albrecht Hauser, a former missionary and retired dean of the Lutheran Church of Württemberg, adds, "We are aware of faithful Catholic priests doing likewise." But, observes Schirrmacher, "The Catholics are just as hesitant to release statistics. They don't want to jeopardize interfaith dialogues."
However, the number of baptisms of Persians and, to a lesser degree, other Muslims in Germany outweighs the conversion of Christians to Islam. "According to a report by the central archive of Germany's Islamic organizations in Soest, approximately 500 Germans became Muslims in 2010," says Schirrmacher. "Yet those were either German girls marrying Muslim immigrants or nominal ex-Christians hoping for good business opportunities in other Islamic countries. The conversion of Persians is of a totally different quality, usually following long instruction in the Christian faith."
In Gottfried Martens's congregation, for instance, the catechumens from the Middle East spend four or more months studying the Bible, the church creeds, Martin Luther's Small Catechism, the significance of the liturgy, and the hymns. "They are very attracted by the liturgy, which was absent in their previous faith," Martens explains. Wilfried Kahla, an ex-missionary from Germany's state-related Lutheran church and a veteran in evangelizing Muslims, told the Protestant news magazine ideaSpektrum that he made his candidates study a 62-page brochure on Christian doctrine and administered a written exam to them. Then, at the baptismal font, he made them abjure Islam.
Martens, Venske, and Götz follow similar curricula; like Kahla, they carefully explain to converts the difference between the Allah of Islam and the God of Christianity. "Islam is like a rope ladder on which people try to reach God," Kahla likes to say. "They manage to climb a few rungs, but with each sin, fall off the ladder and must start all over again. Christians, by contrast, need no ladder because Jesus comes down to earth for them. Christians have salvation. Muslims don't."
An Educated People Group
Why is it that, of the 4 million Muslims living in Germany, Iranians are the most likely to turn to Christianity? The ministers interviewed attribute this fact in part to their high level of education. They say that most of the Iranian refugees are businesspeople, physicians, scientists, engineers, lawyers, economists, teachers, and other professionals or students. In coming to Germany, they followed a centuries-old pattern of cultured Persians in a country where German-Persian professional organizations have existed since the 19th century.
"Iran is suffering from a big brain drain as a result of its fanatical religious policies," observes Schirrmacher. Hans-Jürgen Kutzner, who ministers to 1,000 Persians on behalf of the state-related United Evangelical-Lutheran Churches in Germany, agrees: "As far as the university-educated elite in Iran is concerned, Islam has lost all moral integrity, especially among the young."
Citing a report by the nationwide Deutschlandradio network, Martens wrote to his parish that perhaps half of all young, educated Persian urbanites sympathize with Christianity these days, while Klingberg of the ISHR cautions that such estimates might be exaggerated.
Still, Bachman ascribes the rise of underground Christianity in Iran partly to the fact that every day 17 million of its 79 million people listen to programs via Christian satellite radio and television from abroad. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a U.S. Lutheran pastor involved in clandestine missionary work in the theocratic nation speaks with awe of the intensity of exchanges between the expanding Christian communities in exile and in Persia itself.
Why Do They Do It?
Clergy interviewed for this story reject the suspicion held by some German government officials that many refugees from Iran convert solely for refugee status. They point out that many converts had to exchange material comfort for poverty. "You don't do this simply for material reasons," says Götz. "Neither would you study so hard for your baptism and attend services so faithfully."
Martens admits he gets angry when testifying before immigration tribunals on behalf of Persian congregants. "Can you imagine?" he growls. "Here we have judges whose knowledge of Christianity is at best on the superficial level of cultural Protestantism, and they presume to judge the sincerity of someone else's Christian faith." Like his German colleagues, Bachman says, "I have always made it clear to ex-Muslims asking me to instruct them in the Christian faith that baptism would not automatically save them from being returned to Iran by German authorities."
Perhaps the most convincing argument supporting Bishop Schöne's image of a laughing God at work is found in the genesis of the Persian awakening at St. Mary's. It began in Saxony, the birthplace of the Reformation, where Christians have become an endangered species. Twelve years ago, Trinity Parish in Leipzig, a tiny congregation of the Independent Lutheran Church, began teaching German as a second language to asylum seekers awaiting government approval of their refugee status.
Trinity used Luther's Bible translation as a textbook. Linguists credit that translation with having created the modern German language. Intrigued by what they read, several exiles asked to be baptized. They brought along friends who also wished to learn the basics of the Christian faith. "Today, one third of our 150 members are Persians," says Markus Fischer, Trinity's pastor.
Those members include 28-year-old "Amin" (not his real name) and his young family. Amin says he is a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad. He was a successful corporate executive in Tehran until an Armenian friend introduced him to the Christian faith. Amin and his pregnant wife then fled to Europe. Their story is much like that of "Hamid," former owner of a Tehran shopping center. He was arrested and tortured after a raid by Iran's religious police on the house church he attended.
"In this congregation, I heard for the first time that God is a loving Father who desires a personal relationship with every human being. This was news to me, because Islam had taught me the image of God as a distant, punishing deity," says Hamid. He was one of the ex-Muslims baptized this Easter in Berlin, where he had moved after the German authorities granted him refugee status.
Other Persian converts from Leipzig also moved to Berlin. Others still moved on to Hamburg, Dresden, and Düsseldorf, where they joined the local congregations of the Independent Lutheran Church, according to Hugo Gevers, the denomination's special representative to migrants. Wherever they went, they started evangelizing fellow refugees, which helps to account for the surge in conversions.
Meanwhile, in Leipzig, Trinity's success among immigrants has caught the attention of German-born seekers. The congregation is outgrowing its minute makeshift building in a cemetery and negotiating a permanent lease of a large but little-used sanctuary of the state-related Lutheran Church, a shrinking denomination.
Schirrmacher finds stories like this engrossing. He says, "Isn't it odd that the Ayatollah Khomeini has turned out to be one of modern Christianity's greatest missionaries?"
Matthias Pankau is a Lutheran pastor and an editor of Idea, a Protestant wire service and magazine in Germany. Uwe Siemon-Netto, a journalist, directs the Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Capistrano Beach, California.