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Mashad: The imam has a shadow

 

Up to 20 million pilgrims each year and tourists visit

Mashad, Iran’s second city of three million in the north east of Iran. Shias look to the Imams, the direct descendants of Mohammad, and  the eighth Imam, Reza, met an untimely death in Mashad when he was poisoned in 818 AD. His expansive shrine of golden domes, tiled minarets, and elegant courtyards is truly one of the wonders of the world. Twenty four hours a day, three sixty five days a year, it is open to thousands of pilgrims who sit and pray in the courtyards, or descend into the magnificent mausoleum of mirrored walls where the actual tomb is. Here the fervency becomes hysterical as they desperately try to touch the grave of a man who died over a thousand years ago.

This shrine casts a long shadow over Christian witness in the city as the guardians of this most potent symbol of Shia devotion refuse to tolerate rivals. The Armenian Church of Saint Mesrop is still open, but will not let in Muslims; the Presbyterian Church has been closed down; and in a brutal way, so has the Assemblies of God Church. Its pastor, the Revd Hussein Soodmand was hanged in Mashad prison in 1990 for apostasy, and he was buried with the ‘cursed’ in the city cemetery. His son, Ramtin Soodmand, an evangelist, has faced intimidation, and spent time in prison.

Despite this shadow there are a few older Christians in the city – and nobody knows how many have turned to the Lord through the witness of satellite TV and the internet. But it is definitely happening. One day an older Christian lady got into the back of a taxi, feeling very sad. The driver noticed her drawn face in his mirror and told her that he had the answer to her sadness: Jesus. And then very excitedly he told her of the satellite station to watch to find out more. He had started following this Jesus and had experience a joy he did not know existed.