Nuclear threat. Political and religious oppression. Human rights violations. Economic sanctions. Rogue state. What does the media’s fiendish portrayal of Iran’s power structures say, if anything, about its citizenry? David Yeghnazar, Executive Director of Elam Ministries, reminds us in the following interview to be careful not to conflate the two.
First Fruit: What is the Iranian story behind the headlines?
David: There are many headlines about Iran that are very disturbing. They create a lot of fear and anxiety. They cause us to worry about our own way of life and whether that will be threatened.
The easy thing to do is put all 70 million people in the same bucket. I’ve spoken in many churches in the West, and almost all the time people say, “Oh, I had no idea Iranians were like that.”
What they’re really saying is, “I thought all Iranians were terrorist, people of hate, people who are against us, who are bent on destruction.”
What we need to do as Christians is to remember that Iranians are people like you and me.
During the 1979 Revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini managed to get many different factions and groups to overthrow the Shah and establish the Islamic Republic.
Millions got in the streets because they were hoping for a better future. They embraced their religion because Iranians are a people who believe in god and want a better future with their god.
Their story is that the future has not been better and their god has been absent. Because of that they’ve become very disillusioned, both with their regime and with their god. The people who represent their god have been people who have lied to them, who’ve brought corruption and hypocrisy. Year after year Iranians hope things will get better, but every year it gets worse, and as a result, more people are open to the Gospel.
There have been courageous Christians who’ve been willing to lay down their lives so that they can share the hope in Jesus.
As Iranians have heard the hope in Christ, have seen evidence of His grace, the transformed lives of their family or friends they begin to see the kind of hope and kind of future they’ve been longing for and the kind of knowledge of God that they wanted.
I think that’s one of the reason we’re seeing the Church in Iran grow rapidly. They’re not talking about an ideology, they’re not talking about a philosophy, they are spreading the story of Jesus – what He has done, the hope that He brings, the transformation and joy that He brings. As people share that story, other people are interested.
In the West we’ve got to think of ways to explain and introduce themes that hopefully would lead to somebody asking you a question. In the Iranian context, they just naturally share the story of Jesus. “I’ve met Jesus Christ. He’s changed my life. You can meet Him too. You can read about Him.” We would think that it’d be so difficult in the Iranian context to evangelize, but actually its one of the easiest aspects of ministry.
First Fruit: What has been the aftermath of the Green Revolution?
David: A lot of the disillusionment, the confusion, the disappointment with the regime and religion came to a head in 2009 when there was a presidential election. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was running for a second term and a man called Mir-Hossein Mousavi was leading in the polls and everybody expected Mousavi to win. Then there was a sudden announcement that Ahmadinejad won in a landslide. Millions went into the street to demonstrate because they knew that something wrong had happened.
There was a real sense of hope at that time that something would change. The hardliners really stepped up the pressure. There were shooting, crowds were dispersed, and Mousavi and the other candidate were put under house arrest. They’ve not been seen publicly ever since. This basically ended what was a Green Revolution. From within Iran there was disappointment the world didn’t seize on that opportunity.
There was fire under the ashes for a long time but the Iranian government imprisoned many people. They spent billions of their oil revenue on handouts as a way of basically buying the favor of the poor.
The economy has worsened and millions have left the country in order to find a better life other places. Hassan Rouhani won the presidential election in 2013 as a moderate, and a lot of promises were made in terms of freedoms, leniency to the media, people being released from prison, all sorts of things. But very little has changed. In fact, in many circumstances, it got worse.
Now Iranians live in constant fear. Go to a volleyball match and you could end up in prison for a year if you’re a woman. Hangings are commonplace. Iran has the second highest rate of executions. There are arbitrary arrests for all sorts of things. Nobody feels safe.
First Fruit: How would you characterize the current spiritual landscape? Is Christianity growing?
David: The reality is that very few Iranians go to the mosques, and it has been declining. Very few are devout in their performance of Islamic duties of prayer and fasting. There are many testimonies of people who’ve gone to Islamic seminaries or schools to learn more and become closer to God, but they leave very disillusioned. They’ve been to Qom, the center of Islamic theology in Iran, and studied there under some leading teachers. After 2-3 years they leave because they really don’t find their answers.
Recently the son of an Ayatollah came to know Jesus after reading the New Testament. Increasingly there are stories of hardliners coming to Christ. Engaging in conversation with people who are very devout, sometimes they come very quickly to Christ. One of the interesting things we’ve learned, don’t discount those who look very devout in their faith.
In 1979 there were about 500 Christians from a Muslim background. Today the most conservative estimate would be about three or four hundred thousand.
Many would say there are more than a million who’ve trusted Christ. What we know is that it’s growing. We’ve received reports daily of stories of people coming to Jesus, sometimes entire families. Momentum has been building up over the last four or five years. We’ve seen record numbers of people being baptized.
There is a real desire for the Scripture. People say, “We’ve heard about the Scripture. My cousin has one. Please show it to me. I want one.” Very few reject receiving a copy of the New Testament (we’ve distributed a million copies).
First Fruit: Why was it so significant to release a new Farsi translation of the Bible?
David: The old standard translation was over a hundred years old. It was like reading the King James Version. Although it was loved, it was very hard to understand. Entire passages were almost impossible to understand. There was a Living Bible translation that was useful, but for a growing Church, there’s a real need for a standard version.
Back in 1994 we began a project to translate the Bible into modern Persian. Tateos Michaelian, who had been Iran’s foremost translator, was invited to be a part of this translation project. Michaelian wrote back to my father [Elam founder, Sam Yeghnezar], and excitedly agreed. Days later Michaelian disappeared. Three days later, his family was asked to go and identify his body. He was the third Christian leader to be martyred that year and it was another blow to the Church in Iran.
While there was much grieving, there was determination to go ahead with the translation, now called the Michaelian Project in his honor.
The New Testament was published for the first time in 2003 and has been very popular. We’ve printed 1.3 million copies, and it has really been one of the key ways that we’ve been able to get the Gospel out to hundreds of thousands.
Iranians have been waiting very eagerly for the whole Bible, and finally this year we were able to publish it. At the dedication we were able to present the first copy of the Bible to Mrs. Michaelian. There was hardly a dry eye in the room. The second copy was presented to his granddaughter, who was born the day after the family discovered that he’d been killed. There was a certain divine poetry about it in the midst of the suffering.
First Fruit: What does religious persecution look like in Iran and what has been its impact on the Church?
David: The Rouhani government has made statements that contradict the UN charter on human rights and basically admitted that Iranians don’t have the right to convert and Iranians of other religions do not have the right to evangelize and that they will be dealt with if they do. That’s what has been the policy, now just articulated.
Anytime they discover a house Church or a house Church movement, they will come down very hard, arrest many, disperse the church, keep the leaders for a longer period of time, torture, interrogate, try and find their connections.
Bibles are banned. Evangelism is banned. Anybody who’s caught with Scriptures can be questioned or arrested.
Hundreds have been imprisoned in the last few years like Farshid Fathi, serving a six-year sentence that began in 2010 for activities against the government. The fact is that he’s totally apolitical. He’s a man who loves Jesus and wants to serve Him and share his faith and that’s why he’s imprisoned.
Despite all the persecution, the Church is continuing to grow. Some say the growth is because of persecution.
It’s been amazing to see the number of Christians who still want to be trained, even after seeing their pastors arrested. It’s very humbling to see that kind of courage, that kind of determination. Of course there’s fear. It’s not like these people come to training feeling they can conquer the world. But the conviction that they have trumps the trepidation and the Holy Spirit empowers them to overcome that and go back and share the Gospel.
They have to be wise in how they do their ministry but they do it nevertheless and sometimes doing things that are rather crazy. Even in prison the Gospel is continuing to spread. We know prisoners and prison guards who’ve come to faith.
First Fruit: How can the Global Church participate in the priorities of the Iranian church?
David: For us the priority is standing alongside and investing in the leaders who are willing to lay down their lives. We do whatever we can to equip them with what they need to do the ministry – training them, helping them develop, walking with them as they grow in their ministry. We have a three-month course, we provide them with ongoing opportunities for advanced courses, distance learning, conferences, and we give them books and materials.
Second, we want to provide the Church with the resources and the tools they need for ministry, primarily the Scriptures. Our goal is to distribute 300,000 Bibles in the next 3 years and reach 2 million New Testaments. At the same time, we are translating, producing, distributing all sorts of books and resources that will help the Church grow. And finally, we are involved with media ministries – TV and internet.
We want to encourage the Global Church by testifying that God is at work in Iran.
Often we look at the news and we get disheartened. Every time you see a headline about Iran, there’s a second headline behind it and that today that someone else has come to Christ in Iran. If we begin to think in that way, we begin to be really effective and faithful in our prayers for those new believers and the pastors and leaders serving them. The Iran 30-day prayer guide is a great way to learn about Iran and pray effectively for the nation.
A First Fruit grantee, Elam was founded in 1990 by senior Iranian church leaders with a vision to serve the growing church in the Iran region. For more information, please visit www.elam.com.