As persecution against Christians intensifies in Iran, the church is standing strong. In fact, it’s growing! In this Middle Eastern country where both conversion from Islam and sharing your faith are illegal, Muslims are rapidly coming to Christ—so rapidly that Iran’s government leaders are acknowledging the exponential growth of the church.
Addressing a gathering of Shia Muslim leaders, Iran’s Intelligence Minister, Mahmoud Alavi, openly admitted to summoning Christian converts for questioning, saying that mass conversions “are happening right under our eyes.”
Alavi admitted his agency is collaborating with Muslim religious seminaries to combat the perceived threat of mass conversions to Christianity across the country.
In his speech, Alavi also admitted that “these converts are ordinary people, whose jobs are selling sandwiches or similar things.” According to Article 18’s Advocacy Director Mansour Borji, this admission represents a “huge shift” away from Iran’s usual rhetoric that converts are agents of the West who have undergone significant training to undermine national security.
“It is also interesting to see the intelligence minister admit to ‘whole families’ converting,” Borji said, noting that this is “an admission that such conversions are far from a rare event; rather they are happening en masse, and across the country.”
Witnesses to a move of God
Alavi’s recent observations (May 2019) echo those of church leaders in Iran—as well as other Iranian government officials.
Reportedly, Islamic clerics are expressing serious concern about many young people converting to Christianity. One Islamic seminary leader, Ayatollah Alavi Boroujerdi, remarked that “accurate reports indicate the youth are becoming Christians in Qom and attending house churches.” The seventh-largest city in Iran, Qom is the country’s epicenter for Islamic studies.
And reports from our ministry partners inside the closed country reveal that God is working through the faithfulness of courageous believers to expand His Kingdom. Our partners in these areas have heard and shared repeated accounts of God’s hand moving and Muslims coming to Christ.
Compared to roughly 500 known Christians in 1979, there are now approximately 500,000 (some sources say up to 1 million secret believers). According to Elam Ministries, an organization founded in 1990 by Iranian church leaders, more Iranians have become Christians in the last 20 years than in the previous 13 centuries put together since Islam came to Iran.
In 2016, the mission research organization Operation World named Iran as having the fastest-growing evangelical church in the world.
What’s driving the exponential growth?
Ministries and experts say the explosive growth of Christianity in Iran has been driven by the almost palpable spiritual hunger and disillusionment with the Islamic regime and the faithfulness of believers who risk it all to share their Good News in the face of inevitable persecution.
Violence in the name of Islam has caused widespread disillusionment with the regime and has led many Iranians to question their beliefs. Multiple reports indicate that even children of political and spiritual leaders are leaving Islam for Christianity.
Because Farsi-speaking services are not allowed, most converts gather in informal house-church meetings or receive information on Christianity via media, such as satellite TV and websites. The illegal house-church movement—including thousands of Christians—continues to grow in size and impact as God works through transformed lives.
Church leaders in Iran believe that millions can be added to the church in the next few years.
“If we remain faithful to our calling, our conviction is that it is possible to see the nation transformed within our lifetime,” one house church leader shared. “Because Iran is a strategic gateway nation, the growing church in Iran will impact Muslim nations across the Islamic world.”
And like the church of Acts shows us, the persecution that believers suffered as a group of committed disciples—inspired and ignited by the Holy Spirit—became a catalyst for the multiplication of believers and churches. When persecution came, they didn’t scatter but remained in the city where it was most strategic and most dangerous. They were arrested, shamed and beaten for their message. Still, they stayed to lay the foundations for an earth-shaking movement.
So it is in Iran. When the Iranian revolution of 1979 established a hardline Islamic regime, the next two decades ushered in a wave of persecution that continues today. All missionaries were kicked out, evangelism was outlawed, Bibles in the Persian or Farsi language were banned, and several pastors were killed. Many feared the small, fledgling Iranian church wouldn’t survive. Instead, the church, fueled by the devotion and passion of disciples, has multiplied exponentially. Iranians have become the Muslim people most open to the gospel in the Middle East.
As the church in Iran multiplies, persecution follows suit. Over the last few months, Open Doors has learned about arrests of numerous Christians in Iran. The crackdown on house churches continues to intensify, as officials search for and arrest anyone involved in these typically tiny fellowships. Prison sentences of varying lengths are inevitable outcomes for anyone who defies Iran’s “no house church” law. Open Doors has reported numerous atrocities against Christians in Iranian prisons, infamous for their treatment of political prisoners.
In 2019, at least 37 Christians have been arrested: eight in Bushehr, nine in Rasht, 12 in Amol, two in Ahvaz, and one each in Hamedan, Shiraz and Isfahan.
On July 1, in the southwestern city of Bushehr, eight Christian converts, mostly in their 30s, were arrested, including five members of one family. Seven are still in prison, most likely in solitary confinement. Their homes were raided and Bibles confiscated, as well as Christian literature, wooden crosses and pictures with Christian symbols. Authorities also took laptops, phones, identity cards and bank cards. The officers are reported to have treated the Christians harshly, even though small children were present during the arrests.
Also in Bushehr, in April, 16 other converts from Bushehr reportedly lost their appeals against prison sentences for “propaganda activities against the regime through the formation of house churches.”
Another five converts submitted themselves to the central detention center in Karaj in July 2019 to begin their jail sentences for “propaganda against the state.” Manoto News broadcast footage of the Christians, four of whom have young children, waving goodbye to their loved ones.
After their arrests, the five were released in early 2018 after each posted a bail of 30 million tomans(around $7,000).
In March 2019, Milad, Yaghoob, Shahebedin and Alireza were sentenced to four months in prison. Amin, who has already spent a year in prison for his religious activities, was given 14 months. Their appeals were rejected last month.
Pray with us by name for all of these believers, recognizing that they represent only a handful of thousands of our brothers and sisters in Iran who have been threatened, arrested or imprisoned for turning to Jesus and following Him.
Your part in this expanding story
Writing in a time of great persecution for Christ followers who had lost property, been thrown into prison, were ostracized from their Jewish community, etc., the author of Hebrews offers a clear call to prayer for those who are suffering for the gospel:
“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Heb. 13:3).
And in Matthew 25:34-36, Jesus is clear that when we enter into the suffering of others, we are answering His call:
“Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.”
Jesus is strategically building His church and exhorts us to stand with and encourage our brothers and sisters as they live out the gospel.