Oppression of Iranian Churches Leads to Arrests—and Forgiveness
By Claire Evans
02/07/2018 Iran (International Christian Concern) – This year marks the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the beginning of 39 years of a harsh Islamic regime that would profoundly change the country and every stratum of its society. Tat Stewart, founder of Talim Ministries, is an American who spent a portion of his childhood living in Iran with his missionary parents. He would eventually pursue an education in the US, returning to Iran just as the Revolution was ending. Tat remembers arriving in the country to pastor a church, only to find “that Christians were fleeing the country as fast as they could, if they had the means to do it. We found fear, uncertainty.”
But he also found something else, something he had never seen before the Revolution. Suddenly, “many more Muslims (were) coming to church seeking. This was very unfamiliar to the church, because they had never had Muslims coming to church before. The young people were far more open to God because their futures were uncertain.”
Within months, the revolution had completely transformed Iran. The impact on the church was immediate. “The church (had) used to be a sleepy church, because there was so much prosperity and so many foreigners living in Iran. They (Christians) went from sleepy, once a month members, to a church on its knees.”
Regime-driven persecution was driving Christians to prayer and forcing the Church to go underground. Doing so, however, had an unintended consequence that the regime did not expect. Tat explained, “By closing churches and forcing them underground, the regime could no longer monitor the Church. And all that an underground church needs are people who are hungry for it.” According to recent reports, there were only 500 known Christians in Iran before the revolution. Today, there are an estimated 360,000.
Iranians are never given the choice of religion. Unless they can prove their ancestors belonged to a different religion before the Revolution, Iranians are simply born Muslim. Depriving its citizenry from religious choice gives the theocratic regime strength, but it also creates a spiritually oppressed citizenry.
The regime has flooded society with, as one underground pastor phrases it, “Islamic thoughts of condemnation.” For Iranians, this culture of condemnation has led many to secretly live among the hidden world of drug addiction, depression, and suicide. Such was the case with this pastor. “I wanted to experience every world pleasure, and I did for years, but none of them satisfied me. I became a heavy drug user. I was a youth that was angry.” Yet, it is through these kinds of painful experiences that many Iranians have eventually sought out the Gospel. In fact, the Church in Iran has grown out of these kinds of testimonies.
But this leaves the Church in a difficult position. Should the downtrodden be embraced at the risk of exposure? Infiltration of an underground church by intelligence officials feigning interest is a very real threat. One woman, Sarina, experienced this threat personally. “It was not safe and we had to turn off our cellphones and be really careful about fellowship. Unfortunately, the intelligence police found out about our meetings and arrested many of our members, including myself. I was in interrogation, a hard interrogation, for a couple of hours.
Sarina continued, “While I was being interrogated, I was so concerned because they were very strict about everything. I thought that they were going to keep me in jail. One of the interrogators told me that they were going to keep me in jail for two years, and maybe even kill me. I thought about my family, my daughter, and Jesus was in my heart.”
At some point, the interrogator shared frightening information. She recalled, “I don’t know how the authorities found out about my church, they just said that they have somebody among us… Fortunately, they released me and told me to go home, they told me that I don’t have a permission to do any other fellowship. They told me that they are going to watch over me and my other family members, and if they found out that we were coming together, we will go to jail.”
Sadly, Sarina’s story is not unusual in Iran as the regime constantly attempts to infiltrate churches. “The regime specializes in fear,” said Tat. “First they arrest you. Then they threaten you that they would take away your privileges to leave the country. They make other threats. They don’t threaten you physically, at least not in the beginning. But they make you look over your shoulder.”
After Sarina was released from prison, her security would increasingly become more compromised. However, this never discouraged her. “People who are imprisoned should just keep praying,” she advised. “Maybe God wants some of us to go to prison and spread the Gospel. Everybody’s salvation and situation is a different story.”
The story of Yousef is a powerful example of Sarina’s advice. Yousef is an underground pastor who once used to work within the regime’s security apparatus, and was himself a persecutor of the Church before he encountered Christ. In a conversion story similar in many ways to Paul, he has gone on to shepherd many Iranian Christians. “In my opinion,” he said, “Christians need to know their position, where they are. We need to walk through the right path by awareness and not to be surprised by anything.”
“I have accepted this fact that (although) I’m walking through a path that… (is the) truth and the light, and although it’s for their own good and I’m working for their good, they still view me as an enemy, an infidel, and someone against God.” He added, “So I enter into this dark world with this perspective. I can use all these things and count them as opportunities to reach those who have hearts of stone.”
For 39 years, Iran’s harsh Islamic regime has spread darkness throughout the country, leaving Christians battered and war weary. But as the stories of Yousef and Sarina show, the Church in Iran is bravely carrying on despite the risks. The risks are dangerous, yet they have opened up an unexpected path of grace and forgiveness allowing the Church to continue growing.
For interviews with Claire Evans, ICC’s Regional Manager, please contact Olivia Miller, Communications Coordinator: firstname.lastname@example.org.