Prison, Torture and Radical Persecution—Why This Country Is the Modern-Day Book of Acts
In today’s 21st-century Iran, the church is increasingly under intensifying persecution from both society and the state, as Christianity—and anyone involved in spreading it—is seen as a threat to the Republic’s Islamic identity. But like the early church of Acts that expanded exponentially in the face of persecution, the persecuted church of Iran is also multiplying and experiencing explosive growth. Below, we offer a spiritual barometer on the depth of persecution in today’s Iran (No. 10 on the World Watch List) and share stories of hope that reveal God is indeed working His plan through mounting adversity and the faithfulness of His people.
A Constant Threat
By the time she was 15, Iranian Raizal was ready to leave Islam and become a Christian. She soon learned firsthand what that meant.
“It was really a bad situation there,” she says, having fled to Turkey with her older brother, Reza, whom she led to Christ. “I couldn’t pray to God with all my heart because all trouble was there. Even if I say ‘Jesus Christ,’ they may kill me.”
Problems for Reza surfaced almost immediately when he became a Christian.
“It became a problem for my job and my health,” he says. “They tried to kill me.”
Raizal’s and Reza’s experiences offer an inside look at what life is like for the estimated 500,000 Christians in Iran. In this Middle Eastern country at the center of past and current news headlines, Christians are second-class citizens, forced to worship in secret. When their faith is discovered, they face persecution from both society and the state. Because, to Iranian Muslims (who constitute 98 percent of the 79 million people in Iran), Christianity is a condemnable Western influence and a constant threat to the Islamic identity of the Republic.
With this as the accepted viewpoint, brutal oppression awaits specific “offenders,” including any Christian who converts from Islam like Raizal and Reza (a crime legally punishable by death under the Islamic Penal Code). Driving home their inferior social status, Iran has made speaking the country’s official language of Farsi during church worship services illegal. And anyone leading or participating in a house church (an illegal act) faces arrest and imprisonment.
Below, former prisoner Maryam–locked up in Iran for four years for her faith–shares her story:
The situation for 21st-century Iranian Christians like Maryam is not unlike the spiritual climate of the early church 2,000 years ago in the Book of Acts. Under constant threat of persecution from both society and the government—including discrimination, beatings, arrest, imprisonment, torture and killings—those who called themselves “followers of The Way” risked their lives to live and fellowship as believers.
Like the men, women and children who follow Christ in Iran.
Faith Behind Bars
In the six months he was in prison in Iran, Morad* saw 20 people executed.
“They announced it through the prison loudspeakers,” the former church teacher says. “Some of them had been in my cell; it was heartbreaking to see the fear of death in their eyes. Prison was a terrible, terrible place.”
Morad spent the first week in prison in solitary confinement. “It was just me, the door and three walls,” he says. “Sometimes the guards brought me tea, but they didn’t let me out to go to the bathroom.”
During daily interrogations, investigators made fun of him and kicked him when he didn’t give them the answers they were looking for.
Morad’s story offers glimpses of the physical brutality and mental isolation that Christians imprisoned for their faith in Iran—called prisoners of conscience—must endure.
As of 2016, there were at least 90 Christians imprisoned throughout Iran, with an estimated 15 of them serving their sentence in the notorious Evin Prison in Iran’s capital city of Tehran. Known as “the black hole of evil” and the regime’s “torture factory, Evin Prison is often where prisoners of conscience are taken and punished for their faith. One inmate described life as “never the same” after experiencing life behind bars in Evin.
“One day is like a year,” she says. “Some days, you can’t breathe because you don’t know what’s going to happen to you the next day.” She adds that after being freed, ex-prisoners cannot return to normal life.
“The stress is too much. We can’t be the same people. We don’t enjoy activities like normal people because all the time we think of those who are still there.”
Prison sentences of varying lengths are inevitable outcomes for anyone who defies Iran’s “no house church” law.
Former Iranian house church leader Mojtaba Hosseini knew that his work would one day result in prison. He used to be one of the leaders of a quickly growing house church movement. After receiving a probational sentence in 2009, Motjaba was imprisoned for three years in 2012. In 2015, he was released
“Why didn’t I stop my work for the church after I was first arrested? I don’t really know,” he says.“There was no logical explanation, but we felt that the Lord wanted us to continue. We knew this would mean we could get arrested at any moment.”
And the crackdown on house churches continues to intensify, as officials search for and arrest anyone involved in these typically tiny fellowships. In the last six months, increasing reports have surfaced of Christians being sentenced to prison terms, including a number of house church leaders and worshipers:
- Four house church leaders—including Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani whose tenacity to share the gospel has led to previous arrests and prison, including a death sentence that was overturned —were recently sentenced to 10 years each in Evin Prison.
- Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, an Assyrian pastor, was arrested and jailed for “illegal house-church activities” and was sentenced to 10 years. His appeal was heard in June. The pastor was arrested with two members of his church in 2014 as they celebrated Christmas together. His wife, Shamiram Issavi, is appealing against her own five-year prison sentence for “acting against national security and against the regime by organizing small groups, attending a seminary abroad and training church leaders and pastors to act as spies.”
- Their son, Ramil, was also handed a four-month jail sentence last month for “acting against national security” by being involved with illegal house churches.
- Evin prisoner Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh is in danger of “completely losing his teeth” due to inhumane treatment and lack of medical aid. He was sentenced to 10 years after setting up a prayer group in his home.
- In late August, house church leader Payam Kharaman, his wife and the couple’s entire house church of 10 people were arrested in Bushehr and sentenced to a year in prison for the crime of promoting what Iranian authorities call “Zionist propaganda” that goes against the Islamic Republic’s Shia Muslim-controlled system.
The World’s Fastest-Growing Church
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; eventually, one of them, James, was killed (Acts 12:2). Still, they stayed to lay the foundations for an earth-shaking movement.
So it is in Iran. When the Iranian revolution of 1979 established a hardline Islamic regime, the next two decades 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 were killed. Many feared the small, fledgling Iranian church wouldn’t survive. Instead, the church, fueled by the devotion and passion of disciples, has multiplied exponentially. Iranians have become the Muslim people most open to the gospel in the Middle East.
Reports from our ministry partners inside the closed country reveal that God is working through the faithfulness of courageous believers to expand His Kingdom. Our partners in these areas have heard and shared repeated accounts of God’s hand moving and Muslims coming to Christ. Compared to roughly 500 known Christians in 1979, there are now approximately 500,000 (some sources say up to 1 million secret believers). According to Elam Ministries, an organization founded in 1990 by Iranian church leaders, more Iranians have become Christians in the last 20 years than in the previous 13 centuries put together since Islam came to Iran.
In 2016, the mission research organization Operation World named Iran as having the fastest-growing evangelical church in the world. The second-fastest growing church is in Afghanistan, the organization reported, and Afghans are being reached, in part, by Iranians because their languages are similar.
How Did This Growth Happen?
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.
Reportedly, Islamic clerics are expressing serious concern about many young people converting to Christianity. One Islamic seminary leader, Ayatollah Alavi Boroujerdi, remarked that “accurate reports indicate the youth are becoming Christians in Qom and attending house churches.”
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—including thousands of Christians—continues to grow in size and impact as God works through transformed lives. Elam Ministries’ Mark Howard shares three powerful testimonies from house church leaders Kamran*, Reza* and Fatemah* he has met and talked with personally:
- Kamran was a violent man who used to sell drugs and weapons. One day, a friend gave him a New Testament. After reading for five consecutive days, he gave his life to Jesus. When his family and friends saw his transformed life over the ensuing months, many of them also came to faith. A church now meets in Kamran’s house.
- Reza was a mullah (a Muslim scholar) who hoped to become an ayatollah (a Shiite leader). One day, while studying at an Islamic seminary in Iran, he found a New Testament that had been boldly left in the library. Out of curiosity, he picked it up and was deeply shaken. Over time, he fell in love with Jesus. Today Reza is a trained church planter serving in the Iran region.
- Fatemah’s earliest memories were of being raped by her brothers. At age 11, she was sold into marriage to a young drug addict who abused her and then divorced her when she was 17. On the streets, she heard the gospel preached and trusted Jesus. In time, she married a Christian man. As they were receiving training in evangelism and church planting, Fatemah felt called to go back home and witness to her family. Her entire family repented and gave their lives to the Lord. The first church Fatemah and her husband planted was in her childhood home.
Church leaders in Iran believe that millions like Kamran, Reza and Fatemah 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,” a house church leader shared. “Because Iran is a strategic gateway nation, the growing church in Iran will impact Muslim nations across the Islamic world.”
Ex-prisoner Morad’s life offers a vivid and inspiring illustration of how Christianity has grown so fast in Iran—similar to the rapid, widespread expansion of Christianity in Acts. As committed disciples shared the gospel, gathering individuals into churches, they made disciples who made disciples—taking seriously Jesus’ Great Commission charge (some witnessed it personally).
“I don’t know why all of this happened to me,” Morad shares in trauma counseling for ex-prisoners provided by Open Doors’ ministry partners. “I have no easy explanation. I still don’t understand God’s higher purpose in putting me there. All I know is what He asks of me now: to follow Him and live out the gospel. And that’s what I’m doing.”
The Role You Play in This Expanding Story
From the farthest U.S. eastern city in Maine, Iran is some 6,000 miles away. In many ways, this closed country feels like another world away. But hearing the stories of believers like Morad, Kamran, Reza, Fatemah and Pastor Youcef, among others, begins to close the gap.
And when we support and pray daily with these believers—and the church of Iran—we begin to not only deepen that connection, we also get to participate in what God is doing to transform lives and ultimately, prepare the world for His return.
While we may be quick to villainize Islam and those who persecute, God has called us to a frontline faith that keeps our eyes and words on Him and His people. The Apostle Paul reminds us that we are to “rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:12).
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 and exhorts us to stand with and encourage our brothers and sisters as they—like Morad says and is currently doing—live out the gospel.
Praying With Christ Followers in Iran
Open Doors has a new Prayer Wall devoted to praying with isolated believers in Iran. We’d love for you to check it out, share your prayer and read the prayers of others who, like you, are also remembering our brothers and sisters.
- Pray that God would continue to open hearts in Iran and that many more will give their lives to Christ.
- Ask God to give endurance and joy for Christians in Iran suffering in prison for their faithfulness to share the gospel—many ex-prisoners have testified to sensing the prayers of the global church while they were in jail.
- Pray for the protection of believers (and their families) the government is still seeking to arrest.
- Pray that believers would be trained and mobilized to serve as evangelists, church planters and pastors who will disciple the many new believers in Iran.
- Pray for the church in Iran to continue faithfully, proclaiming the Good News of the gospel.
To support and encourage persecuted believers in Iran and the Persian-speaking world, Open Doors is working with specific ministry partners in several ways to bring Bibles and Christian literature into the closed country; to offer training, including trauma care for ex-prisoners; to support Christian multimedia initiatives for sharing the gospel; and to advocate for believers through petitions and U.S. government involvement and aid.
*Name changed for security reasons; photos are representative.