Forever Amen: Iranian Christians React to COVID-19
By Claire Evans
04/17/2020 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Iran is gripped within the most challenging crisis since its inception 41 years ago. The consequences of COVID-19 are profound. Iran is the epicenter of the virus in the Middle East. Within the country, the authorities and civilians alike are equal before the virus. It has created a crisis of government. Fissures between the authorities have deeply widened over their pandemic response, and citizens are plunged into deeper despair through the government’s mismanagement.
Caught in the middle of this environment are Iran’s Christians. Though the country is quarantined, Christians are no strangers to stay-at-home orders. The regime bars the public practice of their faith, forcing Iranian Christians to worship secretly in their homes. They already understand what it means to experience social isolation and have church denied to them. Because of Iran’s insistence at jailing Christians, they already know what confinement means.
But COVID-19 is also something different, a new experience. The pandemic means that Iran’s government lacks the resources to continue persecution in the same way as before. Indeed, the Judiciary issued an order stating that “any unnecessary summoning or arresting of persons shall be avoided.” Some Christians have been furloughed from jail. Others told there is no need to complete their sentence, all because of the virus. In some ways, it is a pause from persecution. But does it foreshadow a changing heart of the regime?
“History tells us that Iran’s government has always been harsh on human rights violations,” explains Dr. Mike Ansari, from Heart4Iran. “Iran has repeatedly ignored its own people, like November of last year with the massacre. Hundreds of thousands on the streets, and families deprived of having funerals for their loved ones. Iran doesn’t care for their population.”
“The Islamic government has killed over 1,500 young people on streets the last six months,” adds Dr. Hormoz Shariat from Iran Alive Ministries. “They were protesting the horrible economic situation. With the corona challenge, the Islamic government has proved to its people that they do not care and do not have a heart for the suffering of people.”
This pause in persecution, coupled with the region’s worst COVID-19 outbreak, has presented a unique opportunity for the Iranian church. Dr. Ansari shared how many pastors find themselves conflicted over the situation. “God is telling them to start ministry to afflicted people. That varies from passing by people on the street, to going and buying groceries for families rejected by the hospital and fighting the virus. They are involved in a ministry of compassion to those who used to persecute them.”
“It is an amazing time of ministry, a time to stand in the gap and bring a message of hope,” he adds.
It is a sentiment that is reflected through many ministries. The extra layer of darkness COVID-19 brought upon Iran has led many to turn spiritually inward. Iranians are curious about Christianity, and staying at home provides both time and opportunity to explore further. For those who are already Christian, their experiences of persecution serve as a type of testimony.
“For believers in Iran, we’ve had political restrictions for years now: not being allowed to gather in large numbers, not being able to gather in a church, etc. It’s something persecuted Christians have faced for many years, and they’ve adapted themselves in creative ways. (Now) its different kinds of limitations, but it’s not the first time,” says Dabrina Bet Tamraz.
Dabrina’s brother was one of those furloughed from prison because of COVID-19. For years, the whole family has suffered greatly because of Iran’s restrictions on Christianity. But despite these challenges, they have remained strong in faith.
“For us as Christians, there is a spiritual awakening. It shows again how restrictions and limitations can close buildings, it can restrict gatherings— but it cannot kill Christianity, for our faith and our unity and our relationship is through the spirit of God,” she says. “That bible verse where Paul says ‘I am not with you in the flesh but in the spirit’ is so palpable. It is being felt, and Christians are reaching each other even more. And I think that is a good message of Christianity: that even with the restrictions we can be closer together because it is the spirit of God at work.”
For many, now is the time to boldly share the Gospel and grow deeper in the knowledge of the Scriptures.
“More people are staying home, so our daytime viewership has increased,” explains Dr. Shariat. “Due to the suffering and how they feel about the Islamic government and Islam itself, the good news is that we are seeing a surge in the number of salvations. It looks like a veil has lifted from the eyes of Iranians, and now they see the light of the Gospel and are attracted to it.”
Dr. Ansari’s ministry has also found similar opportunities. “The online group is growing very fast. Just because we are home does not mean that we are ineffective. I believe the first and foremost thing is that we realize the power of prayer. We don’t have anything else to do but get on our knees and pray. The church in Iran has survived all of this persecution because of prayer. They are prayer warriors, and they pray for the situation at hand, and they pray for their enemies and for God’s will to be done. The power of prayer in isolation is multiplied, and we can fill that.”
Dabrina further shares that, “persecuted Christians learn, or are forced to go deep, into God’s truth and God’s words and to hold onto God’s promises. The power of prayer, and the power of worship, and the power of God’s love are the foundation of our faith.”
“(The Bible) gives us hope, and it gives us a new perspective and understanding. Whenever everything around is stumbling and falling apart, the word of God was firm. When we lost the church and permission together, this was the first thing: going into the Bible and reading the word of God. It gave us hope and a new perspective. It made us creative, and positive, and optimistic. That would be my message to the church: we need to start learning the word of God by heart. We need to be rooted deep in the Bible because then we are not shaken. It is a yes and amen forever, and it will last.”