20th Century Christianity in Iran
Open Doors currently puts Iran as the 8th most hostile country to the gospel. Yet we can see that it is also one of the fastest growing Churches in the world (some say the number fastest growing Church in the world). More Iranians have become Christians in the last 43 years than in the previous 13 centuries put together since Islam came to Iran. In 1979, there were an estimated 500 Christians from a Muslim background in Iran and now, there are more than a million Iranian followers of Jesus. Read on to see how the light of Jesus Christ has shone through the darkness in Iran and how it cannot be overcome.
In 1955, following a 42-day time of prayer and fast, where he only drank water, Seth Yeghnazar had a dramatic encounter with the Holy Spirit. This led him to begin regular prayer meetings in his home. They met in his home every night for four years (1956 to 1960) and out of these meetings emerged the Iranian Pentecostal Church. Although predominantly Armenian until 1979, the church prayed faithfully for the nation of Iran throughout this time.
Seth Yeghnazar’s own conversion came about because somebody had given him a New Testament which he found he could not put down. He read it in one sitting right through to the end of revelation at the end of which he gave his life to the Lord. Seth joining the Bible Society in Tehran (British and Foreign Bible Society which later became the United Bible Society), turning down the opportunity to work for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company with a lucrative salary and good career prospects. He and his young family were part of the Plymouth Brethren Church, a conservative Christian fellowship. He had a constant draw to know more of God and experience Him in greater intensity in his life. He began studying the book of Acts and asked God to reveal that same power in his own life.
His hunger for the Lord and for a deeper experience of Him was overwhelming. It was at this time that he conducted his 42-day fast, inspired by the many examples of fasting he saw in the New Testament. His encounter with the Holy Spirit happened soon after this fast, and the meetings in their home followed swiftly after. Lazarus, Seth’s middle son, was 6 years old at the time and recounts how they opened their doors for others to join their family devotions, “we could not contain the joy!”
Many Armenians joined them but they also shared the gospel with their Persian Muslim neighbors and friends. This led to an early experience of persecution for the family, as religious Armenians attacked them for bringing Muslims into their home. The family experienced much verbal abuse and ridicule, as well as property damage as large rocks were thrown at their home in protest. But they could not contain the gospel and the Muslims got saved.
Many of the prominent leaders of what became the Pentecostal Church in Iran were saved and discipled at these meetings. Sadly several of these men were later martyred for their faith: Pastors Dibaj, Soudmand, Mickailan, and Haik.
After more than three years of daily meetings, the young congregation had grown far too large to continue in the family home (with people pressing in to hear through doors and windows). So a building was rented which became the first formal address of what became the Jamaate Rabani Central Church of Tehran. Lazarus registered the church in 1969 and named it Jamaate Rabani, which means ‘Gathering/People of God’. He was 20 years old at the time.
In the 1960’s missionaries arrived in Iran from Tanzania and the USA. God has always brought brothers and sisters of other nationalities to help us build His Church in Iran.
Despite these encouraging beginnings, salvation amongst the Muslims was slow. It is estimated that some 300-500 Muslims came to Christ in all the years leading to the 1979 revolution (compare to hundreds of thousands since then!).
In 1978, the people of Iran began to revolt against what was seen as a secular, corrupt royal dynasty. Finally in February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini landed in Iran and within days took control of the country, naming it the Islamic Republic of Iran. The legal system was swiftly changed to strict Shi’a Islamic law. Despite the restrictions imposed by the Islamic Republic’s regime, there has been an overwhelming response to the Gospel by Iranian people especially from a Muslim background. Many joined the few established ‘physical’ churches in Iran. But persecution steadily grew in intensity, including the martyring of, amongst several, Rev Hossein Soodmand, Mehdi Dibaj and Bishop Haik Hovsepian, and the Church was driven underground. From this emerged the house church movement that has witnessed incredible growth and continues to grow to this day.
Since the 1979 Revolution the Shi’a Islamic authorities have carried out a continual persecution of other religions, including Christianity. The emergence of the vibrant house church movement in the last 20 years is seen by the regime leaders as a challenge to the religious and political structures of the Islamic Republic.
Reports have indicated that Iran has the fastest evangelical Christian growth in the world at 19.6% (Think Outside The Missions Box). Operation World says that Iranians, particularly the large proportion of youth, are “particularly responsive to the Gospel.”
Official calculations of the number of Christians in Iran has traditionally been based on figures of ethnic Christians (such as Armenians) who are legally allowed to keep ‘their own’ religion, provided they do not evangelize the Muslim Persians. These estimates would put the number of Christians in Iran somewhere between 100,000 to 300,000. But these figures do not take account house churches, the predominant vehicle of Christian growth for the last 20 years. A survey of 50,000 Iranians carried out by a Europe-based academic group (Netherlands-based GAMAAN) recorded 1.5% identifying as Christians. Extrapolated across the population that would make 1.2 million.
Praise God for the revival that is happening in Iran today! Pray for protection of the Christians, for more to come to hear the gospel, and for many more to be saved and added to the Church.