After more than 10 years under Islamic rule, the Christian community in Iran is flourishing as never before, according to observers. And though government pressure on the believing community continues, some feel it may be declining since the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death last June.
“We have strong evidence that the [Iranian] church has increased five [fold] in the last 11 years,” said Abe Ghaffari, director of Iranian Christians International of Ann Arbor, Michigan. He said a census taken by Iranian Christian leaders in 1977 revealed about 2,700 born-again Iranians, almost all living within the country, free of persecution.
Following the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979 and a nine-year war with Iraq, however, an estimated four million Iranians fled the country. Ghaffari now estimates the number of Iranian Christians worldwide at more than 15,000. About half of that number, Ghaffari said, reside in Iran.
The revolution was a major turning point for the church, as well for Islam, according to Sharokh Afshar, director of the Fellowship of Iranian Christians in Long Beach, California. “Khomeini exposed Islam to many Muslims who had no idea what they believed,” Afshar said. “As one [Muslim] said, ‘If this is what our forefathers believed, there must be a better way out.’ They started to check into different religions—mainly Christianity—something that 10 years ago was not heard of.”
Another factor, according to Ghaffari, was the failure of materialism. “Before the Islamic Revolution, there was a lot of material prosperity,” he said. But because of Iran’s current economic troubles, Ghaffari added, Iranians have become much more open to the gospel. “They have seen how easily material things can be stripped away,” he said.
One evidence of the religious thirst among many Iranians was the way they snapped up Bibles when Khomeini allowed them to be sold, according to J. Christy Wilson, professor of missions and evangelism at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. “More Bibles were purchased in the time Khomeini was in power than in the history of that whole country,” said Wilson.
Iranian churches have grown not only through the addition of Muslim converts, but also through the conversion of many nominal Christians in the indigenous Armenian Orthodox (210,000 members) and Assyrian (15,000 members) churches. These older, established churches “have not been very much changed by the revolution,” according to Norman Homer, former consultant in the Middle East for the Presbyterian Church (USA).
At the same time, however, the Evangelical Church of Iran (Presbyterian) and the Episcopal Diocese of Iran, with their perceived Western ties and first-generation Muslim converts, have seen many in their ranks emigrate due to persecution. Those who remain face pressure from families, close scrutiny from the government, and a shortage of leaders and Bible teachers, said Farshid Hakim, a coordinator with an Iranian Christian group in the United States.
Since the selection of Hashemi Rafsanjani as Iran’s new political leader, observers say the most intense forms of persecution found under Khomeini’s rule have been curtailed.
Still, the church is strictly controlled. William McElwee Miller, who spent 43 years in Iran as a missionary, said times under Rafsanjani are actually “more difficult” for evangelical churches. “They are being watched carefully by the secret police,” Miller said.
Though there is “some freedom” for Iranian Christians to worship within the confines of the church property, Ghaffari said, believers still must exercise caution. Some individuals who inquire about Christianity may be informers. And those who are genuine seekers, “people who show their interest in Christ and his love,” he said, “are taking a risk.”
Still, Ghaffari said, “this is a time of opportunity.
“A lot has happened. Iranians are open, and many people do come to church and learn about God’s love for them and come to see Jesus as their Lord and Savior.”
By Stan Guthrie.
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