By Barnabas Fund
Iran’s Christian converts face persecution, prison and potential execution. The country’s hard-line Islamic leadership has tried to repress the convert Church. But since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Christianity has grown remarkably among Farsi-speaking Muslims who form the majority of the Iranian population. Hundreds of thousands have turned to Christ through the brave witness of ordinary Iranian Christians and God’s sovereign work.
Now, there is a looming threat of humanitarian catastrophe, as US-imposed economic sanctions come into force. Iranian Christians, viewed by their government as probable agents of the supposedly “Christian” West, are likely to come under even greater pressure.
The convert Church numbers an estimated 350,000. Iran also has historic Assyrian and Armenian-speaking Christian communities, established in Persia since the first century. They are permitted to meet openly and have representatives in parliament, while Farsi-speaking converts from Islam potentially face the death penalty as apostates, under the Iranian sharia (Islamic) law. The only execution of a Christian for apostasy in modern times was in 1990, when 43-year-old pastor Hossein Soodmand was hanged. He refused an offer from police to escape death by recanting his faith.
Converts cannot meet openly and police often raid house churches, confiscating Christian literature. In October 2016, three converts were sentenced to 80 lashes for taking communion. Still considered Muslims under Iranian law, their partaking of communion wine breached laws forbidding Muslims to consume alcohol. Christians are frequently detained on political charges and can face torture while in jail.
Christ stated His Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). But the long-held perception of the historically Christian West as the enemy of Iran causes significant problems for Iranian Christians. In 1979, mass protests led to the overthrow of the Western-backed government in Iran. The revolution put in power a clique of Islamic leaders who vowed to fight Western “imperialism” and efforts to control the country’s natural resources. Iran officially became an Islamic theocracy under sharia law. Animosity to the West extends to Christianity, which is viewed by authorities as a malign, foreign influence. In June 2018, 12 converts from Bushehr city were each sentenced to one year in prison. The sentencing judge stated they were guilty of “propaganda against the state” and “inclination to the land of Christianity”.
Iran’s support of Shia governments and groups across the Middle East, including in Iraq and Syria, and concern over a possible future Iranian nuclear program, has brought condemnation from President Trump’s administration. In August 2018, the US announced increased economic sanctions against Iran, which have already driven up food prices. This likely to mean severe hardship for the population and also lead to greater harassment of Christians. In Iraq in the 1990s, under similar circumstances, Muslims blamed their Christian neighbours for Western governments’ imposition of UN sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Christianity has a 2000-year history in Iran, which has the fastest growing church in the Muslim world today. But now there is a potential humanitarian crisis, as tightened US sanctions put a stranglehold on the country’s already shattered economy. Iran’s Christians need our prayers and support. In these times of deepening internal hostility and economic uncertainty, Christians may be first in the firing line if Iran’s Islamic leaders decide to strike back against the West.
You can support Barnabas Fund’s work with Iranian Christians by giving to the Iran General Fund, ref. 19-940. With the deteriorating situation in Iran, we plan to increase our aid considerably, although for security reasons we are unable to publicise details of such projects.
The Barnabas Fund is a charity advocating for persecuted Christians. www.barnabasfund.org.au