by Krikor Markarian
Editor's Note: Both parts of this article appeared in the Sept-Oct. edition of Mission Frontiers, but space constraints led us to run it in two parts. The author has written under a pseudonym to protect his work in Iran.
The only way were going to stop them is to kill them." This seems to be the present consensus of Iran's national cabinet concerning the growing Christ-ward movement spreading throughout the nation. Legislation is now being prepared that would make it a capital offense to leave Islam. These strict measures have come about to stem the tide of a growing dissatisfaction with Islam among Persian young people resulting from the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Now today, it seems Iran is on the verge of yet another revolution, ironically caused by the first and with Jesus at the center. The story of how this has come about is perhaps one of the most intriguing examples of God's sovereignty at work to accomplish his unchanging purposes among the nations.
A Little Background
In the early 1960s, just two decades before Iran would become completely closed to mission work, a team of American missionaries began a work among the Persian Armenian community in Tehran. Most of these Armenians were the descendants of a forced exile to Iran in 1604 under the Shah Abbas. Over the centuries they developed a unique culture, dialect, and appearance (don't ask) as they assimilated with their host nation. The missionaries recognized the potential for these Persian Armenians to serve as a "bridge-people" between Islam and Christianity, and so began work among them with this in mind.
This Spirit-led hunch turned out to be correct. One of the first five disciples of the American missionary team was a man named Haik Hovsepian. In the late 1960s he received a call from God to go as a missionary to the northern province of Mazandaran with the specific purpose of starting a work among Muslims. Though he was officially commissioned by the church in Tehran for this purpose, his burden for Muslims was one that few Persian Armenians shared or understood at that time. Most believed he was wasting his time. However, by 1976, after about eight years of laboring, five house churches had been established with around 20 Muslim background believers. Though only a small beginning, somehow Haik had a sense that God was building a foundation for a much greater work. Having a gift for music, one of the most important investments he made in the future Persian Church was his translation and authorship of over 150 worship songs into Farsi. According to those who knew him, he envisioned the day such songs would be sung by millions of believers.
By 1981, the Persian church in Mazandaran had grown to around 60 members, and many leaders were emerging. In that year, Haik was asked to return to Tehran to become the leader of the Council of Protestant Ministers (a group that is roughly the equivalent of the National Association of Evangelicals in the United States). His appointment to this post was very timely for the church in Iran. Just two years after the Iranian government was seized by the Ayatollah Khomenei, (the influential Muslim cleric with a vision for Islamicizing the country), the emerging church in Iran was beginning to feel the pressure of an increasingly hostile government.
However, at the same time, the church in Iran was not the only group to chafe under the new regime. The Persian people themselves were beginning to react in a negative way to the harsh restrictions imposed by the implementation of Islamic law. A silent rebellion among young people (70% of Iran is under the age of 30) was beginning to build momentum. Among this age group, if the government opposed something, they were for it. When the government burned American flags, they wrapped themselves in it. Most importantly, when the government began confiscating Bibles, they couldn't wait to get hold of one.
Slowly but surely, a kind of solidarity was beginning to build between the persecuted Armenian believers and the "persecuted" youth of Iran. In defiance of the law, Haik began to encourage the Armenian Evangelical churches to open their doors to Persians and to begin using the Farsi language in their services. As new Persian believers began pouring into the churches, the government issued an ultimatum demanding that all such believers be reported. In response, Haik courageously rallied the churches to send a unified response back to the government: We will never submit to such demands.
By the late 1980s, the number of Persian Muslim background believers had grown into many thousands. Then in the 1990s, two things converged to turn this momentum into one of the greatest watershed events in the history of Persian Christianity. The first was a wave of government-organized crackdowns and assassinations of Christian leaders (including Haik Hovsepian in 1994, whose campaign to stop the execution of a Persian convert received both national and international attention). The result of this was that hundreds of Persian lay leaders rose up to take the place of these martyrs and a nation-wide house-church movement was born. Indeed, the boldness of Haik and the other martyrs, both Armenian and Persian, had a profound effect on the Evangelical church, but most especially upon the Persian believers themselves. At Haik's funeral, hundreds of Persian MBBs turned out to honor him despite the presence of government agents documenting all who were present.
All of this was God's foundation-building for what would come next. In the year 2000, Christian satellite broadcasting began beaming the gospel to almost every home in Iran. This was made possible by the fact that millions of satellite dishes had been illegally smuggled into Iran by corrupt members of the same government that had outlawed them. The Christian satellite programs became a lifeline for the church in Iran. Much more, when the Iranian people learned that the government was trying to scramble the broadcasts, they became an overnight sensation. Recent nationwide surveys reveal that over 70% of the population is watching Christian satellite programs. These same surveys indicate that at least one million have already become believers, and many millions more are on the verge.
Reprinted with permission
To support the work of Bible distribution in Iran please contact:
Elam Ministries (International Headquarters)
United Kingdom, 44 (0)1483 427 778
Elam Ministries, USA, (770) 664 8800