November 2016

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The Fastest Growing Church is in Iran!

by Keith Carey and Karen Hatley

“If we arrested people for religious reasons, there would be no room in the prisons.” An Iranian government official made this statement to a woman asking if the reason her husband had been arrested and interrogated was because he was a Christian. The official’s declaration sounds like an exaggeration, but it is not. Though statistics vary, in Iran today there are between 100,000 and a million Muslim believers in Jesus. Twenty years ago there were only 500! Operation World lists Iran as the country with the fastest growing evangelical population in the world. David Garrison, a researcher, has shown how God’s Spirit is blowing through the Persian region. Justin Long, another researcher, contends that Iranians are one of the most responsive Muslim people groups to the gospel in the world today.
How did this happen? There is a book by Mark Bradley named “Too Many to Jail,” which explores this fact. If you buy this book, be prepared to keep reading it till you are done. It’s fascinating and encouraging!
Note, however, that it is impossible to tell how much of the church in Iran is comprised of the majority Persian people group (61 percent) versus smaller unengaged minority peoples. House churches in towns and villages around the country have local flavors, and no doubt worship in their heart language such as Azeri or Turkish rather than Farsi, the national language of Iran.

Radical, Politicized Islam Paves the Way For Church Growth
1979 was a key year in Iran’s 5,000-year history. That was the year when Iranians deposed Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the final shah of Iran, and established a Shi’ite Muslim theocratic state. People celebrated the end of the Shah’s repressive regime thinking that the new government would set Iran on a path to paradise, independence, and favor with Allah. They had no idea what they were getting into.
As expected, the new dictator, Ayatollah Khomeini, had royalists associated with the shah executed. Before long he also executed those who helped depose the shah, namely an Islamic socialist faction called Mojahadin. Next the communists were brutally murdered. The government became extremely involved with controlling people’s personal lives. Women were arrested for wearing nail polish, and they even had religious leaders reading from the Qur’an to skiers as they came down slopes. Under Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran waged war against Iraq leading to eight years of unnecessary deaths and an eventual stalemate. Though the government called it Allah’s war, common people knew better. They called it Ayatollah Khomeini’s war. Surprisingly, throughout the 1980s, most Iranians did not blame Shi’ite Islam for their woes. People were thinking, “This isn’t real Islam.”
After the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, things did not improve. A new leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, tried reforming the faltering economy, and the end result was that more economic power fell into the hands of the religious elite. It became clear that true reform was not going to happen. Those who were in charge of the theocratic state would not allow it, and they controlled the military. Iranians were becoming increasingly frustrated and disillusioned with their government.

Things Grow Worse Under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
In 2005 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former mayor of Tehran, ran for president of Iran and won. Iranians thought he would take care of the corruption and cronyism that was plaguing Iran’s economy. Instead, Ahmadinejad had his own corrupt ways.
He is a devout Shi’ite Muslim who believes that there is someone called the Mahdi who is the “Twelfth Imam” and went into hiding in the 9th century and will return with Jesus during earth’s disastrous final days. Ahmadinejad tied his policies to Shi’ite Islam. Thus, anyone opposing him was considered an enemy of Islam.
When Ahmadinejad ran for re-election in 2009, it was obvious that the election was rigged to make sure he won. Protesters flooded the streets and met with brutal force by a large Shi’ite based militia called the Basij that was originally established by Ayatollah Khomeini. The Basij, indoctrinated with the most militant creeds of Shi’ite Islam, was given absolute power to break up the protests. Bystanders as well as protesters were brutally beaten. Those taken prisoner were often tortured or raped by members of this elite Shi’ite militia. By this time it was becoming clear to Iranians that the problem was Shi’ite Islam itself. They knew that this kind of behavior comes from Islam itself. People were ready to look elsewhere for spiritual answers.


Jesus is the Answer
In Too Many to Jail, Mark Bradley observes, “There seems to be something in the makeup of the Iranian character, that when there is a decision to walk away from the religion of their birth, Christianity has a peculiar pull.” There are a couple of reasons why Christianity is appealing to Iranians. First, Shi’ite Islam itself provides theological reasons to respect Jesus who left a legacy of gentleness, compassion, and humility. Jesus is mentioned 15 times in the Qur’an. The key hero to Shi’ites is Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, who chose to be martyred for a righteous cause at the battle of Karbala. Though Shi’ite Muslims question Jesus’ crucifixion, they have probably heard of his “martyrdom” to pay for the sins of mankind. They admire anyone who would die for a noble cause. Iranian Shi’ite Muslims also admire the mystical Sufi Muslims who embrace “experiencing” Allah. Thus they have a concept of experiencing a personal relationship with God rather than merely following rules.
A second explanation for the Iranian attraction to Jesus is that unlike Arab cultures that began with Islam, the Persian culture predates Islam. Persian-based Iranians have an ancient civilization dating back about 5,000 years. Additionally, a vital part of Persian identify involves respect for their ancient poets. Iranians are proud of these poets, many of whom spoke highly of Jesus.

The Strong House Church Movement
During the last few decades, traditional church buildings have been unable to survive the Islamic regime. No longer are any Farsi church structures allowed to be built, though a few still function using the Armenian or Assyrian language. To most Iranians, church buildings appear foreign. However, there are millions of homes in Iran—way too many for the government to monitor.
House churches have an unbreakable strength in Iran. High standards are held for those who attend. Everyone must have had a meaningful encounter with Jesus to be considered one of His followers and trusted enough to be part of the fellowship. Believers expect the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit to be part of their lives, so attendees of house churches will hear testimonies of how God is currently working in their lives. Financially they do not depend on outside funds, but take care of their own financial needs. Even so, house churches are often connected with the wider body of Christ through satellite TV, the Internet, and other resources produced by the Iranian diaspora. If you are a believer in Iran, you are expected to witness to others in discreet, culturally appropriate ways. Iranians welcome Jesus’ spiritual answers from those with a living relationship with Him.
Women make up 70 percent of the membership and leadership of the church in Iran, and the vast majority of believers are under the age of 30. There are not nearly enough Bibles in print, but people have access to Christian satellite TV programs and the Internet even if blocked periodically. The house church movement is multiplying rapidly. So much so, that there are literally “too many to jail.”

Let’s Pray!
• Pray for every tribe, tongue, and nation in Iran to have the chance to embrace the gentle, compassionate, humble Savior.
• Pray for people in Iran to find a way to obtain a Bible.
• Pray for the development of oral resources for non-Persian speakers.
• Pray for the Lord to mercifully protect His children facing persecution.
• Pray for persecuted followers to feel Jesus’ presence and comfort.

From the Editor

by Keith Carey, Editor-In-Chief, GPD

Dear Praying Friends,
This month our daily entries are about small people groups that GPD writers describe as “unengaged” or “forgotten.” Most of these groups have no missionary activity among them, and they have little or no evangelistic resources. They are “forgotten” by those who might try to take them the gospel. Global Recordings Network (GRN) has a list of such people groups, be they in Iran or elsewhere. We are giving them high priority this month.
Ironically, these “forgotten” peoples live in Iran, the nation with the fastest growing church in the world! We have alluded to this before in the GPD, but the process is accelerating as the Iranian government becomes more corrupt and brutal, driving the people into the arms of Jesus.
We know that the church is growing rapidly among the Farsi speaking Persians in Iran, but we do not know if the small minority groups are being affected. Hopefully they are worshipping the Lord in the same house churches as the Persian majority. Next month we will pray for spiritual breakthroughs in the Muslim world, starting with Iran.
Be thankful for what the Lord is doing!