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(CharismaNOW) – Despite tragedy and persecution, a vibrant underground church is growing in Iran . After an earthquake on Dec. 26 devastated Bam and buried thousands of people under the rubble of their homes, Western churches sent relief to the ancient Iranian city. With the situation in Bam opening doors previously shut, missions leaders believe the compassionate response of the worldwide church to the disaster could be a catalyst for the nation’s explosive church growth. Iran is located in the biblical region of ancient Persia — the home of such Bible heroes as Nehemiah, Esther and Daniel. Acts 2 lists Elamites, Parthians and Medes (all Iranians) among those present at the feast of Pentecost celebration in the first century when the Holy Spirit came in power. Today, the church in Iran is growing — spurred by a fresh, sweeping move of the Holy Spirit and strengthened through the fellowship of suffering believers. Missions experts estimate 20,000-30,000 indigenous evangelical and Pentecostal believers today, most of them from Muslim backgrounds. Some experts — citing an unknown number of “secret” believers — claim the true figure could be much higher. “In the last 20 years, more Iranians have come to Christ compared to the last 14 centuries,” Lazarus Yeghnazar, 55, an Iranian-born evangelist now based in Great Britain, told “Charisma” magazine in the June issue, out now. The full report on Iran ‘s underground church can be found in the magazine. “We’ve never seen such a phenomenal thirst,” he added. Missiologist Patrick Johnstone, co-author of “Operation World,” estimated that Iran has 17,000 evangelicals, 7,000 charismatics and 4,000 Pentecostals. With annual church growth of 7.5 percent, Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing religious movement in Iran . Everywhere, the charismatic influence is strong. Many indigenous churches practice prophecy and healing. Services, which are marked by vibrant worship and fervent prayer, can last for hours. “They are hungry to learn, eager to discuss the Bible and, in particular, Jesus. They’re searching for the truth.” explained Tom White, director of The Voice of the Martyrs, an Oklahoma-based ministry to persecuted Christians worldwide. He noted that the courage and spiritual passion of Iranian believers is a key factor in the “spontaneous growth” of Iran ‘s house-church movement. Driven underground by persecution, thousands of Iranian Christians — as many as 30,000, according to White — meet in homes. They switch locations to avoid detection. “In the past eight years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of converts from Islam,” White said. “Much of the evangelism goes on inside people’s homes.” Most Iranian believers shun the few official, state-sanctioned churches because the secret police scrutinize church membership rolls to root out what they call Muslim “apostates.” Although violent persecution has subsided, conversion to Christianity during the last decade has resulted in beating, imprisonment, torture and even execution. Despite the risks, some congregations continue to worship publicly — even placing crosses on the front of their buildings. Constitutionally, the rights of other religions are guaranteed but closely monitored. Christian proselytism is forbidden.