More Iranians have become Christians after the 1979 both inside Iran and among the Diaspora than at any other time in Iran’s history since the Muslim invasions of the 7th century.
Much of this growth has been experienced by the Assemblies of God and the Presbyterian Churches. There has also been a major upsurge of house churches who meet underground. The estimated number of Protestant Christians who meet in buildings is several thousand; nobody knows the exact number of underground Christians, but there are at least ten different networks. Most of these home churches grow by the Gospel spreading through extended families. There is also evidence that there are numerous secret believers throughout the country.
Many Iranians are turning to Christ because of their instinctive respect for Jesus; their disillusionment with fundamentalist Islam; and the courage of church leaders who have preached despite constant threats. Despite this growth there are still thousands of villages and towns where the Gospel has not been shared.
Church growth has been happening in the context of persecution y. Since 1979 there has been constant intimidation of Protestant Christians, many have been imprisoned, and at least eight senior church leaders have been martyred for their faith. Many others have had to flee the country.
In the early 1980’s Anglican Christians suffered, since the 1990’s it has mainly been the Assemblies of God that have faced the fiercest opposition. It is illegal to try and convert anyone from Islam in Iran, and if any Muslim does become a Christian they can then face death for apostasy. This is what happened to Mehdi Dibaj (left), who in 1993 was officially sentenced to death by an Islamic court for becoming a Christian. (Click here to read Mehdi Dibaj’s final testament.)
In response, the leader of the Assemblies of the God Churches, Haik Hovsepian-Mehr, launched an international campaign which forced the authorities to release Mehdi Dibaj in early 1994. However only two days later Haik Hovsepian-Mehr, disappeared and was found killed shortly afterwards. Mehdi Dibaj, and Tateos Michaelian, the leader of the Presbyterian Church, were also martyred in 1994.
Before the coming of Islam in the 7th century there was a vibrant church in Iran. Iranian bishops attended international church conferences, and Iranian missionaries were the fi rst to take the Gospel to China. Under Islam, these Christians became second class citizens and they shrank to a small remnant. In the 16th century Iran’s King, Shah Abbas, brought thousands of skilled workers from Armenia to help build his new capital in Isphahan. They were allowed to practise their religion – Orthodox Christianity. In the early 20th century thousands of other Armenians came to Iran, fl eeing from the Turkish genocide. In the 19th and 20th century there was a major Protestant missionary eff ort in Iran with the English Anglicans working in the south, and the American Presbyterians in the north. Small churches were established which continue to this day. In the 1960’s an Armenian began revival prayer meetings in his house and from these meetings, an indiginous movement was born that later became part of the Assemblies of God.
The Church in Iran: her Past, Her Present and Her future.