Iran more open to the Gospel than many believe
Iranians are more open to Christianity than people of any other Muslim nation, ministries to the country say. Disenchantment with radical Islam and declining prosperity have made the country's 60 million people hunger for true spirituality.
..."They are so open to the Gospel -- you wouldn't believe," a United Kingdom-based minister to countries in central Asia told Religion Today. "Of the entire area I work in, they are the most responsive."
...Many Iranians are disillusioned with Islam, Abe Ghaffari of Iranian Christians International (see link #1 below) said. "They are seeing its harshness and that it does not deliver true happiness, or joy, or love, or peace. They are also seeing that it is very hypocritical -- those who claim to be the most righteous are the worst sinners."
...Half the population would abandon Islam if they were free to do so, Ghaffari said. Close to 50% of the population is under 35 years old, "turned off" by Islam, and "ripe for something more," Tom White of Voice of the Martyrs (see link #2 below) said. White visited the country for 10 days this summer.
...The Western notion of hateful Iranians willing to kill for Islam is largely false, Christian leaders say. "The ones shouting death to America' make up only about two or three percent of the population," White said. Most are curious but hospitable when they meet Westerners, he said. "They always ask, What do you think of us?' When we said that we pray for them and wish them well, they opened up to us like a flower."
..."They are not terrorists, tyrants, or fundamentalists," the U.K minister said. Until the mid-1990s many Western Christians didn't believe that a true Iranian church existed. Reports of persecution and of a growing evangelical movement went largely unheeded until the publication of Patrick Johnstone's Operation World in 1993, Colorado Springs-based ICI said.
...The church in Iran is harshly persecuted. Nominal churches serving Iran's traditionally Christian Armenian population are tolerated, but Farsi-speaking churches that reach out to Muslims are usually closed, their members threatened, and leaders imprisoned, White said. Anyone caught with a Farsi-language Bible "is in a lot more trouble than someone with an Armenian one," he said. Most Farsi-speaking congregations meet secretly in private homes.
...At least 10 Christian pastors and lay leaders have been martyred since 1979. The Islamic government uses radical Muslim groups to terrorize and threaten Christians, Ghaffari said. Three were killed in 1994 and another in 1996, he said. At least 20 Muslim converts baptized in local churches were reported missing last year and most are presumed dead, he said.
...Nevertheless, the church is growing. "We praise God for the Islamic government in Iran because God has used it to strengthen the church," the U.K. minister said. Before the fundamentalist Islamic revolution, most people were satisfied with economic prosperity and nominal Islam. "At the time of the Shah there was religious freedom but churches were empty, or full of nominal Christians. The persecution has purified the church and now those who come are genuine."
...Christians can't openly preach but they evangelize when opportunities arise, the U.K. minister said. "In central Asia you don't stand on a corner and hand out leaflets. They are a people of relationship and what you teach they must first see as your lifestyle. Sharing the Gospel is not by communicating your words but by communicating your life. It is much more person-to-person."
...There are about 50,000 Iranian Christians worldwide, up from 16,000 in 1990, ICI said. About half that number live in Iran and the rest in other nations. There are 35 Iranian churches in the United States and others forming in Western Europe, Cyprus, Turkey, Japan, and other countries. Many Iranian Christian expatriates fled because of persecution or became Christians while living abroad and are afraid to return for fear of persecution, Ghaffari said. His ministry has helped about 800 Iranian Christian families find asylum in other countries.
...Iranians abroad need to evangelize their countrymen, he said. "The Iranian church is growing but it is falling way short of its potential. We need to encourage and mobilize Iranian Christians to evangelize more effectively." ICI is hosting the Eleventh Inter-Church Conference of Iranian Christians in the Central U.S. to encourage Iranian Christians to reach others in the expatriate community. The conference will meet in Cedar Hill, Texas, Nov. 11-14.
...Western Christians can help the Iranian church by rejecting stereotypes, the U.K. minister said. "Maybe the best thing the church can do is go against the picture that the media has shown of Iran and show the true face of Iranians. We must overcome the false hatred that the media creates against certain groups. If you are going to pray for a country to come to Christ you have to love them first."
(Religion Today, October 7, 1999)
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