Tehran’s cafes and restaurants have been banned by police from live-screening Iran’s World Cup soccer matches. Presumably the aim is to deter mass gatherings and rowdy celebrations. However, the ban did not stop many Tehranis gathering in restaurants and cafes to watch Iran’s opening match against Nigeria last Monday, nor did it stop them seizing the moment and celebrating in the streets afterwards, despite a rather dull match that produced a 0-0 draw.
Regardless of the authorities’ qualms, the World Cup has already proved to be a useful opportunity for President Rouhani’s media team. A photo of Rouhani at home, serenely watching the game with a cup of Persian tea, was posted on social media on Monday and quickly began to trend. The image was unusual as it showed the President wearing not his usual clerical robe and turban, but rather a soccer tracksuit. Such a relaxed, ‘human’ image stands in clear contrast to other clerics who have in the past criticised soccer as a ‘western sport’. It’s all part the Rouhani administration’s strategy to show that the president is moderate and in touch with the wider world.
The World Cup also provides an opportunity for the church. The busy, carnival atmosphere it produces on city streets, even in conservative Iran, means it’s also a great time for evangelism. With the world’s eyes again on Iran, it may also be a time when the authorities are less likely to conduct mass arrests of Christians, thus giving them a window of opportunity to reach out even more boldly than before. Let’s pray for Iran’s Christians at this strategic time.