03/09/2023 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Simply the mention of Iran in the international media evokes a certain level of controversy and alarm. But how did the Middle East’s second-largest nation go from an Islamic revolution to an unprecedented protest movement? And how did its Christians go from a small, persecuted minority to one of the world’s fastest-growing churches today?
PERSECUTION IN IRAN
When the Iranian revolutionaries led by Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in 1979, they immediately pushed to rid the country of any foreign Christian elements, ending all formal foreign missionary efforts. Ethnic Christian groups inside Iran, such as Armenian and Assyrian churches, were offered some protection and recognition predicated on their support for the new government.
However, starting in the 1990s, another group of Christians in Iran have emerged consisting of Iranian converts from Islam through a rapidly growing “house-church” movement.
An independent survey in 2020 revealed an estimation of close to a million Christians in Iran today with most of them being converts.
This incredible growth is occurring despite the intense persecution Christians continue to live under. The regime attempts to publicly silence Christians’ faith. All Farsi Bibles and Christian literature are banned; sharing one’s faith with others is outlawed; Christian groups are constantly monitored by authorities, and pastors have consistently been arrested, interrogated, and imprisoned.
Dabira Bet Tabriz, a leading voice around the world for religious freedom in Iran since her own Assyrian-Iranian family suffered immense persecution for their leadership in Faris-speaking church activities, shared in an interview with ICC what it is like to live as a Christian in Iran.
“If you are an Evangelical, a Protestant, you are considered a Zionist, a terrorist; you have no right to practice your belief, to assemble within a church. You have no right to worship, and this is [speaking of] mainly of Assyrians and Armenians. However, converts are the largest Christian group in the country, but they are not a recognized religious minority and have no right to freedom [in Iran].”
She further shared that most converts are women which exposes them to additional discrimination and abuses, with reports of the government employing humiliating and inhumane interrogation and psychological torture techniques against Christian prisoners.
“WOMEN, LIFE, LIBERTY”
In September 2022, a 22-year-old Kurdish- Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini visited family members in Tehran, the capital city of Iran. The notorious morality police arrested her under charges of not properly wearing the hijab, the Muslim headscarf. While detained, the morality police reportedly brutally tortured Mahsa who fell into a coma and died 3 days later. This tragic incident sparked a nationwide protest movement with Iranians from all ethnic and religious backgrounds taking to the streets in dozens of Iranian cities.
While most street-level protests are not new in Iran, previous protests would only last a few weeks before being ended by authorities. However, these recent protests have continued for months with estimations of 500 protestors killed, including several “fast-track” trials leading to executions of protestors charged with “waging a war on God” for their activities during the protests.
Women, especially young women and even children, have courageously been central leaders of the protests with a strong sense that they have nothing to lose and eventually their freedom to gain.
In solidarity with Mahsa Amini, the foundational slogan from the beginning of the protests has been “Women, Life, Liberty,” illustrating the nationwide, united frustration with the authoritarian regime’s oppressive system of dictating the everyday lives of women, brutally killing dissidents, and depriving its citizens of the freedom to determine their own life decisions.
Dabrina further shared with ICC, that considering the decades of persecution and oppression as well as all the events of the past few months, “We are hopeful that this regime will change. We are hopeful that they are breathing their last breath. We don’t know when. But this is our hope, our prayer, our fight. But as believers, we have a different hope, a bigger point of view, a different strength to carry on.”
Christians suffering persecution for so long are raising their voices in union with their fellow Iranians for freedom, peace, and justice in their nation. The Iranian regime’s long history of efforts to brutally silence the spread of the hope of the gospel has failed, and in such tumultuous times as this, that hope desperately needs to shine more brightly than ever for the people of Iran.
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