When ambassadors of Western nations in Iran recommended early last month that all “nonessential” personnel and their dependents leave the country, the international airport in the capital city of Teheran was jammed. Anxious foreigners needed little prodding to leave the strife-torn Middle Eastern nation of 34 million.

Violent demonstrations against Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi had threatened the safety of all Iranians, but particularly persons from the West whose governments supported the Shah and his program of modernization that is opposed by conservative Muslims. Christian mission agencies from Western nations also were affected, and in some cases their personnel were evacuated or advised not to return to the country. Campus Crusade for Christ International, which has its Middle East headquarters in Teheran, temporarily removed some of its staff members to the safety of Cyprus, and consideration was being given to the future of the Crusade’s Iranian ministry.

Certain Iranian missions groups with headquarters in the United States were holding on last month, though the continuing violence threatened to curtail their programs. Syngman Rhee, missions official in the U.S. office of the United Presbyterian Church, said his denomination had no plans to evacuate its dozen U.S. personnel from Iran. Henry Turlington, a Southern Baptist who pastors an English-speaking church in Teheran, had sent word to his home office that he and his wife would stay. Other Southern Baptist couples, who were outside Iran during the worst of the violence early last month, were advised not to return.

No Western missionaries had been physically harmed. (An American oil executive was killed in Ahwaz in late December, however.) For the most part, anti-American reaction surfaced in “Yankee Go Home” graffiti on city walls, telephone threats, and letters of warning. But it was enough to send packing 20,000 of 41,000 Americans living in Iran, with more waiting to depart.

Anti-American, rather than anti-Christian sentiments, were behind most problems facing U.S.-based missions agencies and U.S. missionaries. “Although there has been a feeling of anti-Americanism expressed in various ways,” said Rhee in a news release, “there have not been any specific feelings expressed against the church or the presence of missionaries.”

Many missionaries in Iran were distressed by these developments, according to Matthew and Alice Baldwin, Wheaton Graduate School students who recently surveyed the leaders of eleven mission agencies in Iran. Some missionaries said they were encountering hostilities in areas of Iran where previously they had received trust and understanding.

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In Iran, where thousands of teachers, businessmen, and technicians from the West were welcomed under the Shah’s program of modernization, the opportunity for Christian witness reportedly was greater than in other Middle Eastern nations. Some missionaries said there has been renewed interest in Christianity in a land where 98 per cent of the population is Muslim.

James Neeley, of the Assemblies of God, said, “There is a sense of expectancy among our national believers.”

Allyn Huntzinger, based in Iran with International Missions, said he is receiving up to 300 applications per month for the Bible correspondence program he directs. Huntzinger estimates there are 5,000 Protestant Christians in Iran—half of them evangelical. He said that since 1963, 23,000 Iranians have completed his Bible courses and those of Operation Mobilization.

If the violence against Americans continues, Iranian Christians will be forced into positions of leadership. Several organizations have prepared for this possibility, the Baldwins discovered, since anti-Western feelings have been building for some time.

At least forty-seven Iranians have been trained so far by eight U.S.-based missions to continue their present ministries, including church-planting and discipling, village evangelism, radio and literature work, and theological education. A Campus Crusade for Christ official in Teheran reported, “God has providentially brought to us three nationals with differing backgrounds; one Muslim, one Assyrian, and one Armenian.”

Nationals are leading other ministries: The United Presbyterian Church, which entered Iran in the nineteenth century as one of the first Protestant groups in Iran, oversees the Evangelical Church of Iran, which numbers about 3,000 nationals. The Iran Bible Society has been under national leadership for fifty years, and the Anglican Church of Iran, founded in 1869 by missionary Robert Bruce, now has an Iranian Bishop, Hassan Dehquae-Tafti.

Henry Martyn is often called the father of Protestant missions in Iran. A close friend of India missionary William Carey, Martyn arrived in Iran in 1811 and compiled the first New Testament translation in Persian.

According to Huntzinger of International Missions, there are about 150,000 “nominal Christians” in Iran. Most of these are Assyrian and Armenian Christians that live in northwestern Iran. Among foreign congregations, the Korean Presbyterian Church in Teheran is “on fire, and one of the most evangelical,” say the Baldwins.

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There are about fourteen English-speaking congregations in Iran; these are composed mostly of employees and their families of the 500 U.S. corporations with Iranian offices.

Observers weren’t sure what to expect if the opposition, which has rallied behind exiled Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini, toppled the Shah, who ascended the throne thirty-eight years ago. Khomeini was exiled in 1963 for his anti-Shah stance, but last month he exhorted the nation’s 32 million Shiite Muslims from his home in Paris. He has pledged himself to establishing an Islamic republic.

Backing him was a loose, but powerful, contingent that included Marxists, a once-loyal middle class upset by spiraling inflation, and fanatical Muslims who oppose the modernism of the West—its alcohol, movies, and women’s rights.

Shiite Muslims reportedly have promised to extend religious freedoms to officially recognized religious minorities, if they succeed in establishing their Islamic republic. (Khomeini claimed in a newspaper interview that his Islamic government would consist of public elections and a constitution based on Islamic laws; he denied that Iran would return to a feudalists, primitive Muslim society.)

If that is true, Iranian Christians and the 25,000 Zoroastrians would be left alone, according to some observers. The Zoroastrians, who believe in the ultimate triumph of good over evil and follow the teachings of the ancient prophet Zoroaster, are accepted because they are native to Iran; their faith was the official religion of Iran until Arab Muslim conquerors arrived in the seventh century.

However, the 100,000 Jews and 250,000 followers of the Bahai faith aren’t expected to fare as well. Many Jews began emigrating to Israel and other nations after being targeted by anti-Shah protestors. Opposition to the Bahai faith likewise is strong among the conservative Muslims, who regard the sect as illegal.

In any event, missionaries say that the political and religious upheavals threaten Western missions. Only months before, some missiologists and veteran missionaries had said that Iran was a key to the evangelization of the Middle East. At the recent Lausanne Conference on Muslim Evangelism, the Ali-Haqq tribe was isolated as one of the most potentially receptive peoples in the Middle East.

By necessity, however, future Christian revival in Iran may come through Iranian Christians only, some conclude. The director of a Teheran-based mission agency said, “God is thinning the troops.”

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