Iran’s Shadow Church
By Linda Burkle PhD
Iran is a country ruled and dominated by Islam which regulates and permeates every aspect of political, social, and religious life. According to Iran’s constitution, the country is an Islamic Republic with Twelver Ja’afari Sia Islam as the official state religion. As such, all laws are based on the “Islamic criteria” and sharia law which is considered divinely inspired.
The constitution states that “citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights in conformity with Islamic criteria.” Within such criteria, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrian—excluding converts from Islam—are officially recognized and permitted to worship and assemble. However, they are prohibited from proselytizing as well as exhibiting moharebeh (enmity against God) and sabbalnabi (insulting the Prophet) as codified in Apostate Laws, a unique feature of Shari’a law which is distinct from the Iranian Penal Code. One article by 222 Ministries notes the following:
“Shari’a is a legal structure of codified and detailed rules that are pervasive throughout every Muslim’s life from family affairs to behavioural norms to politics and economics. Analogous to other political systems, breaking shari’a law has a prescribed set of punishments associated with the degree of the crime. Additionally, shari’a law identifies certain specific crimes deemed to be committed against Allah and his rights (Hudud, singular Hadd) and are therefore subject to a separate category of criminal law as they are divinely mandated and therefore obligatory. It is from this category that apostasy, defined as religious disaffiliation, in which a person renounces their religious beliefs, incurs a God-prescribed penalty of death.”
Paradoxically, despite such oppressive conditions and the threat of death, Christianity is reportedly the fastest growing religion in Iran with an average annual rate of 5.2%.  A 2015 study estimates that there are between 100,000 and 500,000 Protestant Christian believers from a Muslim background living in Iran, most of them evangelical Christians. Moreover, Christianity is increasing at a faster rate in Iran than in any other country. Yet, this growth is occurring despite the risk of death for conversion, beckoning exploration into the conditions serving as an incubator for such growth.
One ministry operating within Iran, Iran Alive, suggests that the growth is a byproduct of the despair and hopelessness experienced under the harsh Islamic system. The ministry has claimed that Islam is destroying families, and Iranian officials have stated that the divorce rate is increasing rapidly. Furthermore, it claims that “drug use is the highest it has ever been. Iran is #1 in the world per capita drug use. Suicide rates are skyrocketing, especially among women. Iran is the only country in the world where the suicide rates among women is higher than men. The Qar’an gives men permission to abuse and oppress women. This is a culture of corruption on all levels: political, religious, domestic, etc. Persians living in Iran are saying they are living in a prison—that Iran is a living coffin!”
Despite threat of death, imprisonment, torture and loss of social support and livelihood, growing numbers of Iranians risk everything to find the peace and hope that Christ alone provides. Unlike other Islamic nations, it is common that if one family member converts to Christianity, the rest of the family follow.
According to Dalton Thomas, co-founder of Maranatha Fellowship and director of the documentary film series, Sheep Among Wolves, almost no Iranian woman reaches adulthood without being silenced and severely traumatized by extreme emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. These women find solace and hope in Christ and the community of believers. “The Iranian awakening is a rapidly reproducing a discipleship movement that has grown into the largest church in the world. It owns no property, no buildings, no central leadership, and is predominantly led by women.” In the film, several testimonies are given by woman escaping addiction, abuse, repeated rape and poverty. Each of them made a decision: their lives were meaningless without Christ and they are not afraid to die if needed for their faith.
The Disciple Making Movement sweeping across Iran and other countries is first and foremost a move of the Holy Spirit. It is fast growing, indigenous and multiplying through home groups, also called study groups. These groups split and multiply exponentially, largely contributing to the faith explosion occurring today in Iran.
In the face of such movements, the Iranian government has responded by increasing oppression and persecution of religious minorities. In 2020, The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom once again designated Iran as a “country of particular concern” based on the rise of its ongoing, systemic, egregious human rights violations of religious minorities. Churches have been closed and pastors and other church leaders have been summarily arrested and tried without legal representation, often being imprisoned as well. Some have died in custody.
Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International highlight examples of torture, forced confessions, and denials of access to legal counsel. As reported by the Iran Prison Atlas, compiled by the US-based NGO United for Iran, at least 272 individuals of religious minorities remained in prison for their faith. “According to media and NGO reports in early December, the government arrested 142 Christians across multiple cities in one month, including 114 in one week.”
The human rights organization Open Doors ranks Iran as the ninth worst country for religious persecution. The conditions are especially dire for those converting to Christianity from Islam, who face long prison sentences, torture and sometimes death for “crimes against the national security.” Courts set extremely high bail amounts for detained Christians and those that do raise the bail money forfeit the money if they attempt to flee the country. Leaders of house churches of converts are particularly targeted and such groups are shut down. All worship services and meetings conducted in Farsi are outlawed.
Yet, the shadow church continues to grow, thriving amidst such persecution. As Dalton Thomas states “The persecuted church of Iran is a persevering church.”
Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019 where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Dr. Burkle has worked with persecuted peoples in a number of countries, and her dissertation focused on religious persecution; specifically regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.
 The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Article 12
 W. Durham and Brett Scharffs, Law and Religion: National, International, and Comparative Perspectives, (NY, Wolters Klewer, 2019)
 Johnstone, Patrick; Miller, Duane Alexander (2015). “Believers in Christ from a Muslim Background: A Global Census”. Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. 11: 8. Retrieved 30 October 2015.
 https://www.prnewswire.com/il/news-releases/faistudios-announces-new-film-sheep-among-wolves-vol-ii-30088 9205.html
 US Report on Religious Freedom in Iran/The Iran Primer