Increasing persecution by the Iranian authorities is forcing hundreds of believers to escape to neighbouring Turkey, reports Release’s Tom Hardie.
Morteza, who came to faith in Christ in 2005, had a small but successful office equipment business in the ancient Iranian port city of Bandar Mahshahr. Arezou, his future wife, an Arab who also came from the southwest of the country, was disillusioned in her quest to find Allah – instead she also encountered Christ and committed her life to Him.
The couple met and all was going well. They had even started running a house church, which grew to over 40 members – and were married in Release’s partners’ training centre in Armenia.
But then one day their world changed dramatically.
Identified by officials, they were called in by the state’s intelligence agency on March 2, 2010 (their first wedding anniversary) and were threatened with sexual abuse. They were interrogated on four separate occasions.
Morteza was also threatened many times by unknown individuals and every day life became harder – especially after his business was closed down.
During their final interrogation in 2011 threats of sexual abuse were again made so after Morteza’s release from prison they felt there was no alternative but to leave their home and belongings and flee to Turkey.
Theirs is not a rare experience for Christians in Iran where anyone who is perceived to challenge or criticise the ruling regime is a potential target for arrest and detention.
Corruption, poverty, inequality and ecological disaster have blighted the country during the past four decades of the Islamic Revolution – but growing unrest and economic decline are causing many Iranians, including Christians, to flee.
What is driving many believers to leave is also the relentless persecution of the church.
‘Anyone is safe in Iran as long as they don’t challenge the ruling elite,’ said our partner Lazarus Yeghnazar at 222 Ministries. ‘Christians can survive if they keep their mouths shut and read their Bible under a blanket, but have you ever met a new believer who can keep their mouth shut after coming to faith!
‘There are some we tell to be more careful about how they share but they cannot. They have decided to stay, despite the risks. They are bold, courageous, and yes, beautiful even!’
He added: ‘But sometimes it is equally courageous to flee. We have had severe persecution of Christians which has increased over the past four years. If a Muslim is baptised into Christ he or she can end up in prison for a year, while the person who performs the baptism can be jailed for four to five years!’
Christian parents wanting to bring up their children in the faith face an additional challenge – pupils at school are required to recite the Koran in front of their class.
‘If a child, say an eight-year-old boy, refuses to read the Koran aloud because he is a Christian, there comes a slap on the face. Then the parents are called and accused.’
So not surprisingly believers are fleeing Iran.
Lazarus told me: ‘I call it the forced exodus of the Christian community. Hundreds are fleeing in desperation. They realise that if they stay their lives will be in danger, and it’s worth the risk to provide safety for their children and an environment in which they can grow and learn in peace.
‘The only reason the numbers are not increasing is that the West has pretty much closed its doors to asylum seekers from the Middle East. And those who are granted asylum, bizarrely, are more likely to be Muslims than Christians. Some Christians have been waiting eight years in Turkey to get asylum to the West.’
He estimates that, of those he is connected to, in the past ten years just over 300 have been granted asylum out of the thousands who have fled Iran.
Within the republic itself, in its attempt to eradicate Christianity, the regime has forced out church leaders to such an extent that 99 per cent of Iran’s church leadership is outside the country.
Lazarus told me: ‘Church ministers are given the option: “Go to jail, leave Iran or spy for us!” Yes, can you imagine – spy for the Iranian regime! Of course, they cannot so they leave the country. That means that just one per cent are able to shepherd the flock face to face – but that is not as dire as it first seems.
‘Thanks to the technological advances of the past few years, the church – somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 committed disciples of Christ (out of a larger number who have made some expression of faith over the past 20 years) – is getting fed from abroad. Twenty years ago that was impossible, but today the church has some amazing tools at its disposal.’
Which is just as well because Lazarus believes that Iran is on course for a major crisis.
‘It is heading the same way as Syria did. Whether it will mean internal unrest or civil war or something from outside we don’t know, but it will come. Ultimately, however, I believe it will be positive for Iran. I believe it can become an open nation.’
For Morteza and Arezou, escaping Iran was not the end of their story.
Since being in Turkey more than 300 people have been baptised through their ministry!
However, life has not been easy for them, even outside their former homeland.
Their acceptance for asylum by the US was halted when the American administration changed its immigration policy, leaving them in limbo. They were also heartbroken when Arezou miscarried their first child eight weeks into the pregnancy. But God has also blessed them and they can see His hand in everything. They now have twin girls!
The needs in Turkey among the Christian community are great: as well as meeting the physical necessities of people who have often left everything behind, there is also a desperate requirement for social workers and counsellors for people who have suffered trauma such as rape victims.
‘We have needs now, but if a calamity strikes and thousands of believers flee into Turkey the church will capsize,’ says Lazarus.
‘We don’t have the capacity to cope and an influx of Christians would not be tolerated by the local authorities. We need to be ready to cope in these circumstances. The church in general is good at responding and praying when things happen – but not so good at preparing for emergencies.
‘Please pray for Christians in Iran but also in places like Turkey. They have often left a huge amount behind but also they come with problems, sometimes having suffered great trauma.’
Go and pray!
Surprisingly perhaps, given UK media coverage of Iran, Lazarus also encourages Christians in the UK to actually visit the country.
‘Iranians love tourists and westerners and are a very hospitable people. If you can go, go. Be sensible, but go and pray in your head on the streets. I would love to flood Iran with 10,000 believers from the UK out there praying. If you remember, Jesus took a boat ride with the disciples to the demoniac in the Gadarenes to cast out the demons. He didn’t deliver the man from far away!
‘Only six months ago the Iranian Minister of Health said that a quarter of the population are clinically depressed! There is a deep hunger for the truth and for freedom in Iran. Of course, we can’t all go but we must pray, whether that’s through being there in person or by “travelling there through prayer”.’
PRAY FOR IRAN
- Pray for all believers enduring prison because of their faith in Christ.
- Pray for former prisoner Ebrahim Firouzi following his ‘release’ in October, he must now serve two years’ internal exile far from his home.
- Pray for Release partners as they give practical support to persecuted Christians inside Iran – as well as those who have fled to Turkey.
If you would like further information to enable you to pray for Iran and Iranian Christians please contact www.222ministries.org
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