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Washington, D.C. April 10 (ICC) – Amidst intense and ongoing persecution, arrest and potential execution, an increasing number of Iranians in the country and those who are refugees abroad are turning to Christianity. Since the presidential election of 2009, there has been a surge of Muslims leaving Islam. Thousands have turned to Christ, but not without great cost.

Last October, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, denounced the network of house churches in a speech, calling Christians “enemies of Iran and the people.” This was the first time the new church movement was publicly branded by the ayatollah. Khamenei’s rhetoric encouraged a massive crackdown against Christians at the year’s end.

On December 26, government authorities arrested 25 Christians in Tehran and across the country and announced plans to detain others if they could be located. They were branded “evangelical missionaries” who were proselytizing Muslims, yet none were formally charged. In late December and early January, at least 70 Christians were arrested. Most were released from prison quickly, but church leaders said that 14 were imprisoned for more than a month.

Today, the crackdown continues. On March 17, a house church in the city of Kermanshah was raided and ten Christians were arrested. On April 5, five Iranian Christians who were recently sentenced to one year’s imprisonment for crimes against the Islamic Order in Shiraz will stand trial for blasphemy charges. Their trial follows the execution of an Armenian man and his Jewish wife in mid-March. The reason for their execution is unknown, but many worry it may be a sign that the government is heightening its efforts to stomp out Christianity.

Most disconcerting of all, however, is the plight of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani who currently awaits the death sentence for apostasy. A church leader in Rasht, Iran, Nadarkhani was arrested on October 12, 2009 for protesting against the Islamic education practice that requires Christian students – including his own children – to read the Quran in school. An appeal to the Supreme Court was filed in December, and a hearing is due within two months.

Iranian Christians in Exile

Within Iran, some say that there are as many as a million Christians who worship in underground house churches. Outside of Iran there are thousands more. During a recent visit to Cyprus, ICC heard the testimonies of a few of these believers who now live as refugees and are unable to return to their homeland without being arrested. To protect their identities, we have not used their real names.

Ebrahim fled Iran to Turkey and eventually to Cyprus after his outspoken criticism of Islam put him in danger. “I received a court order that they were going to try me for apostasy,” he said. “I had already been put in prison for months and tortured. They broke my bones. Day after day my hate of Islam built. That’s why I escaped from Iran.”

It was in Cyprus that Ebrahim found the God he had always been longing for. “I hated Christianity and I hated Islam. I hated religion. But, I liked how Christians prayed so I started reading about Jesus. Step by step, I became more and more interested. I was comparing Jesus with Muhammad and asking myself if I believed in Him. God eventually broke me as he broke Paul. I was an atheist. It was so difficult for me to believe in God, but he changed me.” Soon after, Ebrahim was baptized in Cyprus’ capital city Nicosia.

Another Christian, Ramin, also came to Cyprus after fleeing Iran for speaking openly for political reform and against the regime. Unlike Ebrahim, Ramin was a devout Muslim while in Iran. However, he too found faith in Christ while in Cyprus and believes that many more Iranians would also become Christians if they were free to hear the Gospel. “I think that ninety percent of Iranians would be open to the Gospel,” he said. “People are tired of Islamic dictatorship, tired of lies and corruption. I was tired of Islam, tired of the pressure, tired of religion, tired of actions without fruit. Iranians need hope and assurance. There is no hope in Iran.”

Fearing it too dangerous to return to their country, many Iranian Christian refugees in Cyprus have sought asylum, but most wait years before receiving an answer from the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). Iranian Christian refugees in Cyprus are not authorized to leave the country, cannot be legally employed, and are in constant danger of being deported back to Iran. Ebrahim and Ramin are among thousands of Iranians who struggle each day to survive, trusting that God will provide a way. Please remember these and all Iranian believers in prayer.