Over 100 Christians have been arrested in Iran in the past week and nearly 150 in the past month, as part of the government’s attempt to ‘warn’ Christians against sharing the gospel over the Christmas period. This comes at the end of a year when dozens of Christians have been arrested, and some have been sentenced to strikingly high sentences.
Iran is an Islamic Republic, and leaving Islam to follow another faith is illegal. Sharing the gospel with a Muslim, owning a Bible in the Farsi language, or leading a secret church meeting for believers from Muslim backgrounds are all punishable offenses. Believers from Muslim backgrounds make up the biggest group of Christians in Iran – but they must keep their faith completely secret.
We spoke to several experts and some Christians in the country to find out more about how these arrests are affecting Iran’s secret church.
Violent arrests and harsh sentences
It’s July 2018. The doorbell rings in Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani’s house. The pastor has heard that he has been given a 10-year prison sentence, but he hasn’t been summoned to prison yet – a situation that sounds strange to someone from the UK, but isn’t unusual in Iran.
When the doorbell rings, unwanted guests are not expected. But when Yousef’s son Danial opens the door, police officers in plain clothes force their way into the house, and attack him with an electric-shock weapon. Then they attack pastor Yousef with it and take him to prison.
This unusually violent arrest is just one example of the intensifying hunt for Christians in Iran. “The Iranian regime continues to violate international law on freedom of religion or belief,” says Kia Aalipour of Article 18, an organisation that advocates on behalf of Iranian Christians. “There are more cases than we publish, as some have to be kept secret to ensure the involved person’s safety.”
Article 18 is also noting the higher prison sentences that are being given. Amin Afshar Naderi, who converted to Christianity from Islam, was given a sentence of no less than 15 years. “More people are arrested. The judiciary procedure is longer and usually with threats to coerce them to leave the country,” says Kia. “Those who get the high sentences are believers that refuse to be intimidated and leave the country after their initial arrests. However, there are signs that prison sentences of five years and more are now common for people arrested even for the first time.”
Growing churches, growing pressure
Kia explains that he thinks the government is increasing pressure because of the growing numbers of Iranians coming to faith in Jesus. “The number of Christian converts has increased, and that has alarmed Iranian authorities. Therefore they have begun placing more restrictions on churches, especially those attended by believers with a Muslim background. The government also continued their policy to actively impoverish those Christians by asking unreasonably high bail amounts.”
Sara, an Open Doors expert on Iran, says the current situation is very damaging for the underground church. “Imprisonment takes a high toll on believers. I’ve met believers whose drive to share the gospel had almost disappeared after their imprisonment. Their seemed to be little ‘space in their head’ for anything other than the trauma they had faced. They need to deal with their trauma first before they can make the next steps, that can take years.”
Kia says that what prisoners really need is to make sense of his or her experience and find a meaning for his suffering. “The world seems to have moved on,” he says. “Some are made heroes for a day or two and then loneliness sticks. Only those who have found a meaning to their suffering and see it as a small part in God’s greater masterpiece will survive and thrive.”
Another problem Sara sees is that of leaders. “The government identifies influential leaders, puts pressure on them and, directly or indirectly, forces them to leave the country. If leaders do not leave the country, the chance of being arrested and taken to prison increases. The high prison sentences given recently add to that pressure. A result of the exodus of experienced leaders is that many young Christians end up in leadership positions too early.”
Kia says the pressure on ‘regular’ believers is also high. “We see increasing numbers of secret church members choosing to minimise their meeting times, numbers and activities due to what has been happening in the country. The general sense is a cautiousness, sometimes driven by practical wisdom, but other times by fear.”
Fear leads to isolation
A church leader in Iran, who wants to remain anonymous, says, “Some of our brothers and sisters are afraid to be in contact with us. That’s why they have little or no contact at all with us. We know that they also have people close to them interested in our lessons but, because of such little contact, we can’t reach those people either.”
Another anonymous leader, an evangelist, says, “Many believers in Iran are wounded and tired, without consolation. They need to be refreshed in their faith. And, due to the bad economic situation in our country, many believers are emigrating.”
More and more believers are becoming isolated from their fellow believers. This is not only because of arrests, danger, and emigration within the house churches, but also because the situation has caused house churches to be more difficult to find for new believers. “This is problematic as we know that underground believers see fellowship as one of the most important aspects of their Christian life, and they say they need the support of each other to help them grow,” says Kia.
Due to isolation, Iranian Christians also have trouble finding a marriage partner. “I recently spoke to a young man who was marked as a potential leader,” says Sara. “However, he was thinking about leaving the country because he couldn’t find a wife in the isolation of his house church; he just hardly ever met believers of his own age.”
Hope and help
Does this mean that the regime is effective in their approach? ‘No’ is the evangelist’s firm answer. “After the arrests, most of our church members started speaking to their families more boldly about Christ, and many new believers joined us. And, despite what happened, we still meet and go out on evangelisation trips. Despite our weaknesses, God was using us as His hands.”
Sara says, “Although not all Christians are as brave as this evangelist, we indeed receive indicators of the number of Christians in Iran growing despite the situation. Persian language Christian media, for instance, report that their audience is growing. But the growth is fragile, especially in this situation. The question is, how will these new believers grow without the help of a house church or, if they are in a house church with an inexperienced leader?”
The two Christians in Iran that we spoke to haven’t lost hope. They continue to fight for the church. “I am thankful that I can serve God in Iran,” says the first anonymous leader. “Despite all the problems and difficulties, God’s mercy and grace are always with us. And we are thankful for those from outside Iran who support us - God has touched their hearts.”
Also the evangelist confirms that the Iranian underground church, more than ever, needs the free world to stand beside it. “First of all, thank God who strengthens His body and protects it,” she says. “And thank God for the hearts that beat for the other parts of the body; for the Aarons and Hurs that God placed besides Moses; and for those who stretch out their hands to God to pray for a spiritual awakening.”
Stand with your church family in Iran
Our persecuted church family in Iran are asking for us to continue to stand with them in prayer and action. Here are three ways that you can do that:
You can pray. Praise God that the church in Iran is growing, despite persecution. Pray for protection for secret believers, that they will be able to find safe ways of meeting together, and that their faith will grow and deepen. And pray for those who are imprisoned, for comfort and protection for them and their families, and that they know God’s love and presence with them, even in prison.
Open Doors advocates for those who are imprisoned for their Christian faith in Iran and organises trauma care conferences for former prisoners who now live in Turkey. You can give to support the work of Open Doors in the Middle East.
And you can speak out. On 16 January Open Doors will present the 2019 World Watch List in Parliament, highlighting the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution, including Iran. Please invite your MP and help them to find out what they can do to support international freedom of religion or belief.