By Lela Gilbert —
What first comes into your mind when you see the word “Iran” in the headlines?
Some of us immediately reflect on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s relentless efforts to develop a nuclear weapon, while their government-sponsored mobs chant, “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” For others, it’s Iran’s relentless military aggression in the Middle East and assassination squads elsewhere. Meanwhile, those of us who focus on international religious freedom recall that year after year, Iran is listed as one of the 10 worst persecutors of Christians in the world.
But there is another story that isn’t widely reported in our American media. Amazingly, there’s an explosive number of conversions to Christianity taking place in Iran.
I first became aware of this surprisingly good news when I lived in Israel — it was talked about among groups who were focused on Middle East evangelism. Then after I returned to the U.S., I read an unexpected report by Daniel Pipes, a Jewish researcher and author and friend of mine who wrote about it for Newsweek:
“SOMETHING RELIGIOUSLY ASTONISHING IS TAKING PLACE IN IRAN, WHERE AN ISLAMIST GOVERNMENT HAS RULED SINCE 1979: CHRISTIANITY IS FLOURISHING. THE IMPLICATIONS ARE POTENTIALLY PROFOUND.
“CONSIDER SOME TESTIMONIALS: DAVID YEGHNAZAR OF ELAM MINISTRIES STATED IN 2018 THAT ‘IRANIANS HAVE BECOME THE MOST OPEN PEOPLE TO THE GOSPEL.’ THE CHRISTIAN BROADCASTING NETWORK FOUND, ALSO IN 2018, THAT ‘CHRISTIANITY IS GROWING FASTER IN THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN THAN IN ANY OTHER COUNTRY.’
“THIS TREND RESULTS FROM THE EXTREME FORM OF SHI’ITE ISLAM IMPOSED BY THE THEOCRATIC REGIME. AN IRANIAN CHURCH LEADER EXPLAINED IN 2019: ‘WHAT IF I TOLD YOU THE MOSQUES ARE EMPTY INSIDE IRAN? WHAT IF I TOLD YOU NO ONE FOLLOWS ISLAM INSIDE OF IRAN? …WHAT IF I TOLD YOU THE BEST EVANGELIST FOR JESUS WAS THE AYATOLLAH KHOMEINI [FOUNDER OF THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC]?”’
Confirming these statements, a significant survey taken in 2020 by Gamaan, a secular Netherlands-based research group, reported that there are far greater numbers of Christian believers in Iran than ever before — more than a million. In fact, those involved with the “house church” movement in Iran are convinced that there are likely several million Christian believers there.
In my research and interviews, it has become clear that new Christians’ witness to others is mostly shared in quiet conversations, encouraged by low-profile online Bible studies, and affirmed by visions, dreams, and miraculously answered prayers. Due to their risky circumstances, recent Christian converts are enthusiastically communicating about their changed lives with friends and loved ones — but quietly and carefully. However, their discreet but persistent witness accounts for the extraordinary number of new Iranian believers, who meet in small house churches.
These house churches are usually comprised of no more than 10 to 15 believers. On a given day, they arrive, one by one, at a small apartment or some other nondescript location. After the last one enters, the door closes and locks, and they all take a deep breath and relax, greeting each other warmly.
A few minutes later, the little gathering begins to sing — very softly, accompanied by a quietly strummed guitar. They are cautious, not wanting their voices to be heard beyond the apartment’s thin walls. But soon, with closed eyes and hands lifted heavenward, they are lost in praise and worship music. Later a teaching from a biblical passage is offered and a communion service takes place. And finally, after more conversation they leave, one by one.
Some house churches have continued for years without intrusion by government authorities. Others have experienced devastating interferences.
Sudden invasions by state authorities can happen at any time; only rarely are they preceded by a threatening text message or phone call. Everyone knows about Christian gatherings in which, without warning, a dozen or more officials have burst into a small meeting and roughly arrested everyone there. Typically, these authorities also literally tear apart the residence, searching for laptops, phones, evangelistic publications including Bibles and other books, DVDs, and videos. They’re looking for anything they can confiscate and label as “evidence” against the Christians. Arrests are made based on accusations such as “insulting Islam,” or conducting “deviant activity” that “contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam.”
The house church participants, including recent converts, know very well that the aftermath of such raids can also be perilous: continuing threats of violence, lost employment, expulsion from school or university, confiscated cash, and the endangerment of other family members. And everyone knows that sexual violence against a mother, wife, girlfriend, or daughter is likely to follow. Still, with all this in mind, Iranian house church Christians are extraordinarily courageous. And sometimes the price they pay for their boldness is exceptionally painful.
Prominent organizations who report on Iran’s abuse of Christian believers, including the Vatican and several Protestant groups, declare that the regime has recently increased its abuses, including surveillance, arrests, and imprisonment of house church leaders and those who worship in their homes.
And true justice seldom follows. Open Doors acknowledged that their watchdog organization is “appalled by the testimonies of violations of due process that took place in the court rooms, including humiliating remarks from the judge, the court’s unconcealed favor for the prosecutor’s side, the defendants’ occasional lack of access to a lawyer, and verdicts issued in less than 10 days — clearly — without sufficient consideration of evidence.”
As I’ve learned about the many abuses suffered by our sisters and brothers in Iran, I have also been awestruck by their courage and boldness — and by the remarkable results. More than a million new converts — called Muslim Background Believers (MBB) — are reading the Bible for the first time, praying, gathering in small groups, and sharing their new faith with friends and family, despite the risks. Their faith is amazing, encouraging, and inspiring.
Today, when we see “Iran” in the headlines, we are wise to be concerned. Let’s pray for God’s intervention into the regime’s deadly intentions. But let’s also remember our little-known but rapidly growing Christian family inside Iran’s borders. Their bold example of courage in the face of persecution shines brightly amid the ever-increasing darkness in the Middle East.
Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council and Fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.