A spiritual revolution in Iran? New report finds 1 million+ Christian converts in Islamic country

September 16, 2020 by Lindy Lowry in Middle East

In the past two decades, Open Doors has received almost weekly reports of Christians in Iran imprisoned for leading house churches or being part of a house church. When the Iranian revolution of 1979 established a hardline Islamic regime, the next 20 years 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 killed.

Just recently, appeals for two convicted Christians, Victor bet-Tamaraz and his wife Shamiram Isavi, were rejected with both receiving summons to report to Evin Prison. Victor was sentenced to 10 years and Shamiram, five years. Victor will celebrate his 66th birthday next month, and Shamiram tuns 65 in December. .

Hours before Shamiram was supposed to report to Evin Prison, the two fled their home country—representing the level of persecution Christians endure from the state in Iran that sees Christianity as a Western religion and a threat to the hardline regime. Since the Iranian revolution of 1979 established the Islamic Republic, Christians have been watched and monitored, often leading to arrests and imprisonments. In Iran, it’s illegal to be part of a house church and preach the gospel.

Read why Iran is No. 9 on Open Doors’ World Watch List.

The story God’s writing

But there is another story being written in this “gateway to the East” that must be told. In the face of persecution, the church in Iran is growing exponentially.

A new report shows that the number of converts to Christianity may be as many as 1.2 million in Iran.

A recent survey of 50,000 Iranians aged 20+ by GAMAAN, a Netherlands-based research group, found that 1.5 percent of respondents identified as Christian. This is the first time a secular organization has studied converts in Iran.

If this figure is extrapolated across Iran’s population of 80+ million, then this would suggest an additional 1 million converts to Christianity. According to GAMAAN, the number of Christians in Iran is “without doubt in the order of magnitude of several hundreds of thousands and growing beyond a million.”

For years, we’ve heard about the growth of Christianity in Iran with international Christian organizations making the “1 million” claim.

Yet until now, we didn’t have the in-depth research to substantiate the claim. Given the high-stakes consequences of leaving Islam in Iran, estimates by Christian organizations in the past decade have been based only on extrapolations of the small known number of conversions—largely based on contact with Christian satellite television channels.

Mike Ansari of Mohabat TV, a ministry that broadcasts the gospel into Iran, believes the survey is significant because it affirms what mission groups have been saying for years.

“Iranians are turning their back [on] their faith, [on] their institutional faith, and receiving Christianity as their new faith,” Ansari said. “One-point-five percent becoming Christian may not seem a big number. But for a country that is closed and persecutes Christianity, that number is a huge indication of the gospel growth.”

The research asked 23 questions about an individual’s “attitude toward religion” and demographics. The survey found that:

  • 78 percent of Iranians believe in God;
  • 37 percent believe in life after death;
  • 30 percent believe in Heaven and hell;
  • 26 percent believe in the coming of a Savior.

Regarding religious laws, almost 70 percent said they didn’t believe religious rulings should be enforced, even if they were the belief of the majority. Some 41 percent said they believed members of all faiths ought to be able to propagate their views, while 42 percent said they were against public propagation of any religious views. Only five percent said this right ought to be afforded solely to Muslims.

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‘Total failure’ to indoctrinate

The findings don’t come as a surprise to leaders and scholars.

Rev. Dr. Sasan Tavassoli, a convert in Iran, told Article 18: “There’s no surprise here for me. For quite some time, I have felt that this is where we are in the growth of the church in Iran.”

Afshin Shahi, a UK-based lecturer on Middle East politics, told Article18: “I don’t think the result of the survey is surprising to any Iran observer. Over the last 40 years, the country has gone through a gigantic socio-cultural transition. The survey highlights the fact that a very large segment of the population no longer identifies with Shia Islam, which is used as the ideology of domination by the state.”

Reports from our ministry partners inside the closed country echo these comments—revealing a growing spiritual revolution in Iran. Our partners in these areas have heard and shared repeated accounts of God’s hand moving and Muslims coming to Christ.

“To say a spiritual revolution is happening in Iran is quite an understatement!” Dr. Tavassoli commented. “This is a total failure of the regime’s attempt at indoctrination of the generation since the Islamic Revolution.”

Even Islamic government officials in Iran admit to the growth. Iran’s Minister of Intelligence, Mahmoud Alavi, summoned converts last year to ask them why they were converting, admitting that “conversions are happening right under our eyes.”

Alavi said his agency was collaborating with Muslim religious seminaries to combat the perceived threat of “mass conversions to Christianity across the country.” In his speech, the official also admitted that these converts are “ordinary people, whose jobs are selling sandwiches or similar things.” Article18’s Advocacy Director Mansour Borji pointed out 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.

Reportedly, Islamic clerics have expressed serious concern about many young people converting to Christianity. One Islamic seminary leaderAyatollah 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.

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.”

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.

Scholar Afshin Shahi makes the connection between Iran’s government and the current disillusionment over Islam, saying that a “bitter experience of the Islamic Republic has undermined Shia Islam to an unbelievable level. A lot of people have either lost their faith in religion or have converted to other beliefs, though given the underground nature of these changes, we never can be 100 percent sure about the numbers.”

As this exodus from Islam continues, Iran’s house-church movement is growing at a rapid rate. 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—which includes thousands of Christians—continues to grow in size and impact as God works through transformed lives.

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.

Your part in God’s 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 throughout the word, in the face of persecution, and exhorts us to stand with and encourage our brothers and sisters as they live out and spread the gospel.

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