ST MARY’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church, in Berlin, made headlines internationally this autumn. Five hundred of its 600-strong congregation are Iranians or Afghans, and its pastor, the Revd Dr Gottfried Martens, is regularly approached by people from Muslim backgrounds seeking baptism.
The British press, in particular, asked whether this was a ruse to assist with asylum applications. Dr Martens accepts that this sometimes happens, but says that most remain practising Christians, even after being allowed to settle in Germany.
Given our impression of Iran as a powerhouse of Islamic devotion, the idea of its producing significant numbers of converts to Christianity might seem preposterous. And yet, 36 years after a revolution against a brutal and corrupt Shah, the Islamic Republic has proved to be equally vicious and prone to corruption, with an added strand of religious fanaticism.
Despair about their country’s future was palpable among all the Iranians that I interviewed for this article, regardless of their religious views. That hopelessness is perhaps encapsulated by the country’s heroin epidemic — the worst in the world — which is most acute among well-educated women.
TRADITIONAL certainties are crumbling for the 79 million people, mostly young and often highly educated.
Laleh (not her real name), a professional in her twenties, became disillusioned with Islam after the disputed 2009 presidential election. Amid allegations of massive fraud to secure the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the largest protests in the country since 1979 were violently suppressed, and dozens were killed on the streets, or later in prison.
“Our schooling explained that the Shah was a killer, especially of the poor,” Laleh explained, “and the current government was different. We never believed the régime could kill in the name of God. After the protests, that trust was broken.”
After emigrating to the UK several years ago, Laleh lost interest in religious practice. “I still believe in God, but not religion,” she says. “Almost everyone I am in touch with doesn’t believe in any ideology or religion any more.”
THE Revd Dr Mehrdad Fatehi is the Executive Director of the Pars Theological Centre, in London, which trains Farsi-speaking church leaders. The revolution’s failures, he says, have tarnished the credibility of Islam. Many Iranians are becoming secular, overtly atheistic, or turning to Zoroastrianism, the pre-Islamic religion in Iran. But he estimates that at least 300,000 people have become Christian, and possibly up to two million.
The Revd Omid Moludy grew up in a Muslim family in Tehran, and is now the Mission Support Priest for Cultural Diversity in the diocese of Manchester. Accurate estimates are impossible, he says, as apostasy remains a serious offence; he cautions against the larger figures claimed on the internet. Nevertheless, he reckons that at least 200,000 — perhaps even half a million — Iranian Muslims have converted to Christianity in the 21st century.
Mr Moludy lived peacefully in Tehran as a convert for some years, working openly for Christian organisations, before having to flee in 2004 during the hardline backlash at the end of the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. “When I left, Christianity was starting to take off. I led a network of nine house churches in Tehran, each with 20 to 30 members.
“Since then, however, growth has been incredible. As well as disillusionment with the regime, technology is a major reason. With the internet, even in small villages, people have access to the Bible and Christian information.”
Persecution intensified again from 2010, the Pars Theological Centre’s Academic Dean, and an expert on religious freedom in Iran, the Revd Mansour Borji, explained.
“Supreme Leader Khamenei made a speech in October 2010 in Qom, the religious capital,” he says, “identifying three groups as ‘enemies of the revolution destroying it from within’. These were: the Baha’i; believers in what he called ‘false mysticism’; and networks of house churches. . . Mass arrests began around Christmas 2010, and have continued since at a lower intensity.”
Radio Farda, funded by the United States, reports that at least 18 people were sentenced to between one and three years in prison for involvement in house churches between mid-March and mid-May this year alone. Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports that 14 members of a house church in Varamin, outside Tehran, were arrested in early November.
“The aim is to eliminate Farsi-speaking Christianity in Iran,” Mr Borji says.
The country’s ancient Assyrian and Armenian Churches are recognised, but even they have been warned against holding services in Farsi, the daily language of most of their adherents. The oldest Farsi-speaking Protestant church in Iran, Assemblies of God, in Tehran, was closed in 2013, and pastors of that Pentecostal denomination have faced repeated arrests.
Security police frequently check worshippers’ identity cards at the few Farsi-language churches still operating openly. As these list the holder’s religion of birth, only those born into Christian families can attend without fear of arrest.
FIGURES of conversions in Muslim countries quoted by donation-hungry mission agencies sometimes strain credibility; and yet something really does seem to be afoot in Iran. There is also evidence of significant conversion among diaspora Iranians.
Dr Fatehi says that almost every large city in the West has a Farsi-language church. He acknowledges that asylum claims might explain some of this: “Sometimes, people turn up at churches for a few weeks, and then ask for baptism, and a certificate to help with the asylum process.”
Official Home Office guidance recognises that conversion from Islam is potentially a capital offence in Iran, and is therefore likely to be grounds for asylum in the UK. Yet, like Dr Martens in Berlin, Dr Fatehi says that most Iranian converts continue as active Christians after their asylum claims are accepted.
Mr Moludy says that about 90 per cent of the 120 members of his Farsi Anglican congregation in Manchester are British citizens, or have leave to remain in the UK. “Most of our members only came to Christ after they had settled here,” he explains.
Some 110 of those members were confirmed by the Bishop of Middleton in 2014. On Advent Sunday, more than 80 attended a Farsi-language eucharist in Heaton Mersey.
Those who return to their homeland for family or work reasons are afraid of the consequences if they were known to practise Christianity, even overseas. “Growing numbers of Iranian Christians are turning up in mainstream British churches,” Mr Moludy concludes, “especially in smaller towns with no Iranian community. They face particular challenges, and I would be delighted to assist clergy wondering how best to help.”
As few expect an improvement in the political situation in Iran in the short term, Iranian Christians are likely to turn up in British churches more frequently.
Gerry Lynch is director of communications for the diocese of Salisbury, but writes in a freelance capacity.
To contact Mr Moludy, email email@example.com.