By Joni B. Hanigan, Special to the Message
*Name changed for security purposes.
TEHRAN, Iran (LBM)—A mix of protestors in Iran’s streets the last few weeks, some demonstrating against America and others condemning Iran’s leaders, has obscured what could be an even greater newsworthy event in recent history than political unrest or military action – the explosive growth of Christianity in the country during the past several years.
A YOUTH MOVEMENT
The Christian population in Iran is “flourishing” according to *Pastor Sam who has traveled in the country extensively and now works with Iranian immigrants to America.
He did not offer a numerical description of the spiritual movement, but various nongovernmental organizations and ministry groups have pegged the size of Christianity as between 500,000 and 1 million adherents, with one estimate as high as 3 million converts, and another as low as 300,000.
These competing figures compare to the presence of a mere 500 Christians in the country in 1979 when religious hardliners overthrew the 2,500-year-old monarchy form of government in order to establish an Islamic republic in its place.
According to ministry experts, the growth of Christianity among Iranians appears to be a sign of openness, especially among young people, to outside groups and ideas. This is an important dynamic given the United Nations’ projection that “[m]ore than half of the population is under the age of 24, one quarter being 15 years of age or younger.”
A SPIRITUAL REVOLUTION
Despite televised reports in recent weeks of violent Iranians yelling “death to America,” Pastor Sam said in the decade he has ministered among Iranians, he’s been treated with grace and hospitality.
In fact, he said it appears more and more Iranians are parting from the faith of the country’s hard line religious leaders.
At least a dozen mosques he visited during a recent trip were deserted during the Islamic Call to Prayer on Friday – a Holy Day for Muslims. “It was completely empty,” he said of one prominent mosque. “The whole time I was in country, I saw two people worship.”
Pastor Sam said the increase in persecution for women and those who are not devout Muslims have helped fuel the interest in Christianity – combined with the fact that Iranians relate to a Persian heritage, not an Arabic lineage.
The “imported religion,” of Islam, Sam said, has created hardship and pain for the Iranian people since the 1979 revolution.
“This has caused them to become the fastest growing evangelical population in the world,” he said.
“Operation World,” a reference book and prayer guide distributed by InterVarsity Press, confirms Sam’s statement, placing the growth of Christianity in the country at nearly 20 percent per year. This means that if trends continue there will be a doubling of the number of Christian converts among the 82 million Iranians during the next decade.
A MATTER OF PRAYER
As it is, civilians in Iran live in constant fear of the government as well as the possibility of Israel or the United States taking military action against hardliner leaders — and being caught in the middle of the conflict, he said.
Recent world events also have made it difficult for Iranians living in the U.S. and in other countries, Sam said. Frequently, Internet connections are disrupted and people have very little news about what is going on regarding their families.
But the pastor remains optimistic about continued spiritual growth in Iran, pointing out that after 9/11 there was explosive expansion of Christianity – contrary to predictions that the numbers of churches in the country would decline.
Prayer for Iranian leaders and officials tops the list, according to the pastor, who said the Iranian church would not ask for prayers of protection for themselves but perhaps for their families.
“They would ask for prayer that the Lord would use them, would give them continued boldness, opportunity and wisdom.”
For more information about ministries reaching the Iranian people, go to Iran Alive Ministries, Heart4Iran, and Elam Ministries.