ICC Note: An eye-opening article highlights the growing number of Iranian believers, in Germany. Driven from their homeland by a repressive regime and hostility towards Christianity many Iranian Christians have fled the country and are swelling the refugee numbers in Germany. The impact is being felt both in Europe but it is extending back into Iran as well through the testimony of those who have left reaching family and friends still inside of Iran.
By Liana Aghajanian
05/12/2014 Iran (The Guardian) – On a breezy Sunday morning, 17 Christian converts are being baptized into a Berlin congregation just in time for Christmas. The yellow, stained-glass windows, situated high enough to catch the sun’s beams, are glowing. The old wooden pews creak as more people, Bibles in hand, shuffle in to take a seat. Pastor Gottfried Martens, in an emerald green-colored liturgical garment, addresses the converts as his congregation looks on.
“Do you recant the devil and his evil words?” Marten’s voice bellows through the church on a quiet residential street in the city’s Zehlendorf district. “Do you recant Islam? Do you believe in Jesus Christ and The Holy Spirit?” One by one, they answer “yes,” as heads are dunked in holy water. A member of the church slips a cross pendant around the neck of each fresh convert. One looks at once amazed and unsure of her new identity and faith. A sea of smartphone cameras capture the moment by those in the crowd waiting for their own confirmations in the weeks ahead.
Then, Bible verses are read – in Farsi.
East Berlin is considered one of the most “godless” places in the world. Over 50% of its population identify as atheist. But membership numbers at St Mary’s Lutheran church are booming, up by more than 300 thanks to the growth of a phenomena several congregations throughout Berlin and other cities in eastern Germany have been experiencing for the last few years.
Iranian, and occasionally Afghan, émigrés have become emerging faces in what is considered to be waning religious life in Germany.
After paying up to $30,000 to be smuggled into the country with fake passports, they’ve taken on western names, doubled congregation numbers in several independent Lutheran, Evangelical and Presbyterian churches, and eagerly await their baptism ceremonies while attempting to rebuild their lives as refugees.
Germany hasn’t seen since an Iranian migrant population this large since after the 1979 revolution. The association of Iranian refugees in Berlin says the number of Iranians coming to Germany has doubled every year for the last five years, from less than 1,000 in 2008 to 4,348 in 2012. Figures from the federal office for migration and refugees in Germany confirms this trend: with over 3,500 Iranians granted asylum last year, Iran was one of five countries from which Germany saw a rise in asylum applications.
Spread across multiple churches and asylum camps, Muslim- to-Christian converts from Iran make up a noticeable population of asylum seekers who say a growing crackdown on Muslim-born Christian converts back home, and disillusion from decades of living under Islamic law, have led them to Germany. Though Iranian converts can be found in The Netherlands, Sweden and Austria, Germany’s economic stability and reputation as a major refugee hosting country has made the European country the most desirable destination.
“The refugees themselves have already heard that Germany is a safe destination,” says Rosemarie Gotz, a deaconess who has baptized close to 100 Iranians. “Greece is broke, Italy is broke, France is broke and Germany isn’t,” she says chuckling.
Despite the risks of going through difficult mountainous terrain or getting caught, leaving home has remained the only viable option for a growing group of Iranians who say they will be jailed, tortured and at worst murdered for their religious beliefs. Though there is no specific punishment for apostasy, the rejection or abandonment of one’s former religion, the act is left open to lawmakers’ interpretation. This means the price Iran’s Muslim to Christian converts pay is unpredictable, and potentially life-threatening.