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Iranian church sees rapid growth

Iranian church sees rapid growth

By Anthony Marr
Sept. 17, 2015

Church Central talked to Elam Ministries, whose mission is to help expand the church in the Iran region, to learn about what is happening in Iran. (www.elam.com)

Despite persecution, Iran has one of the fastest growing churches in the world. Church Central talked to Elam Ministries, whose mission is to help expand the church in the Iran region, to learn about what is happening in Iran.

"Despite much persecution, the church in Iran is one of the fastest growing churches in the world," said David Yeghnazar, Elam's executive director. "In 1979, an estimated 500 Christians from a Muslim background lived in Iran. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of Christians from a Muslim background. Some church leaders put the number at closer to 1 million."

In recent years, a number of Afghan Muslims have been coming to faith in Christ in Iran and in the surrounding region through the ministry of Elam's Iranian churches. Most Afghans speak Persian (Farsi), because a major language in Afghanistan is Dari, which is derived from Persian.

Reasons for growth

According to Christian organization Operation World, the Iranian church is the fastest growing church in the world.

Yeghnazar said there are several reasons for this:

• Disillusionment with Iran's Islamic regime has caused people to look elsewhere for hope;
• The Iranian church's faithfulness and boldness to share the Gospel, despite persecution;
• Widespread distribution of the Scriptures in modern Persian;
• A growing number of trained and deployed church planters and evangelists;
• Weekly Christian TV being broadcast into the Iran region;
• The Holy Spirit working through dreams, miracles and other wonders; and
• Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide are regularly praying for Iran and the Iranian church.

"The vast majority of Iranians are deeply disillusioned with Islam," Yeghnazar said. "Inside Iran, many face severe oppression. Women are legally devalued, and many suffer abuse. Drug use and depression are rampant. Fear pervades those who oppose the government. Years of suffering under the hardline Islamic regime have led even devout Muslims to look for new hope."

Jesus is a highly respected prophet in Islam inside Iran. "This makes people more willing to listen when an evangelist, church planter or Christian friend speaks about Jesus," Yeghnazar said.

Satellite and Internet ministry

Like other Christian organizations such as Sat-7, Iran Alive Ministries and Voice of Christ Media Ministries, Elam uses the Internet and satellite TV broadcasts to bring the Gospel to Iran.

"We estimate that, based on statistics from broadcasters and response rates (calls, emails and website visits), over 1 million watch Elam's TV programs during the course of one year," Yeghnazar said. "Many house churches have formed through our TV and follow-up ministry."

The Internet is opening doors in a closed land, and virtual ministry has proved an effective way to provide Christian community for otherwise isolated Christians in Iran.

One Elam-trained Internet pastor explained: "Much like a normal church, we have a weekly service, with music and prayer, and I bring a message from Scripture. We (elders) also minister (online) every night from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. Seekers come to ask their questions, new believers are taught and discipled, and people receive counseling and prayer."

Wherever possible, "cyber-church" members are connected to local house churches so they can have personal fellowship. "One guy came into our chat room and didn't even believe in God," the Internet pastor said. "He came to faith, soon joined our pastoral team, and is now serving in a house church. Praise God!"

Testimonies from Elam's TV ministry

Mahadeh married young and had a child. Over time, she developed an ongoing affair with another man. When this man threatened to expose their relationship if she ended the affair, Mahadeh came clean and asked her husband Behruz for forgiveness. Behruz, a Christian, showed mercy and forgave her. Shortly after, Mahadeh saw an episode of Elam's women TV program Women's World. She called the hotline, and talked to an Elam-trained leader. She repented of her sin and gave her life to Christ. Both Mahadeh and Behruz continue to be discipled over the phone. Mahadeh now shares her testimony with other women, and is a powerful evangelist.

Behnam was a drug addict living apart from his wife and children. He had spent all his money on drugs and prostitution. In despair, he turned on the TV and saw Elam's Bible teaching program, Bible for All. He called the hotline, and a trained evangelist answered. Behnam begged to be freed from his addictions.

After the evangelist shared the Gospel and Jesus' power to change lives, he encouraged Behnam to enter rehab. After 21 days, Behnam called to share the good news of his freedom from drugs, saying, "Jesus has freed me!" Next, the evangelist challenged him to get free of his adultery.

Convicted of his sin, Behnam repented and gave his life to Jesus. After a month of being discipled by the evangelist, Behnam said: "I want my wife to know Jesus." He apologized to his family and asked his wife Sanaz and children to come live with him again. They agreed, and were amazed by his transformation. Sanaz has given her life to Christ along with their two children.

Women's ministry

Iranian women are particularly responsive to the love of Jesus, and play a major role in the church's expansion.

Most Iranian women have lived under severe oppression, and endured abuse, as evidenced by women attending Elam conferences:

• Nasrin was forced into marriage at age 14;
• Sara was repeatedly raped by a cousin from the age of seven;
• Laleh was abducted and gang-raped when she was 15.

Unfortunately, this sort of abuse is common for Iranian women.

Abortion is another trauma many Iranian women experience. At a recent Elam conference, 30 of 55 attendees confessed they had had at least one abortion. "We estimate that one in three Iranian women has had an abortion," Yeghnazar said. "The aborted child is often the result of increased promiscuity due to societal pressure. This has put significant strain on countless women and marriages."

Also, women are legally devalued in Iran:

• Islamic law requires women to cover their hair, arms and legs at all times in public;
• A woman's testimony in court is worth half of a man's word;
• In cases where blood money is demanded, say after a fatal accident, a woman's life is worth half of a man's life;
• Iran encourages the practice of sighe, which is religiously-sanctioned temporary marriage (lasting as short as five minutes), serving to legalize the exploitation of women;
• A man can have four wives and unlimited temporary marriages;
• A man can initiate divorce proceedings for any number of reasons -- but only limited exceptions allow a woman to start the process.

When these women encounter the liberating power of Jesus, they can experience profound healing and become strong witnesses in their families and communities.

Persian New Testament

In 2003, Elam published its modern Persian translation of the New Testament. "To date, approximately 1 million New Testaments have been distributed throughout the Iran region and have had a profound impact on church growth," Yeghnazar said. "There are numerous, consistent reports from evangelists that 95-98 percent of the people who have the opportunity to receive the New Testament do so with joy and gratitude. Leaders in Iran estimate that at least 15 percent of those receiving a copy of the New Testaments will eventually come to faith in Christ."

Years of suffering under Iran's hardline Islamic regime have led even devout Muslims to look for new hope. "As a result, there's an overwhelming hunger to read the Word of God in Iran," Yeghnazar said. "This provides a unique window of opportunity to transform Iran.

"Wherever Scriptures are sent, people repent and turn to Christ. We receive daily reports of Iranians being added to the church. Interviews with church members indicate that a large percentage of new believers identify reading the Scriptures as significant on their journey to salvation. Scriptures are also essential in helping Iranian believers become rooted in Christ."

Testimonies of the New Testament's impact

When Alireza studied Islamic theology, he thought, "I find no life or joy in the Qur'an," but continued with his studies anyway. A friend who had left Islam to follow Christ asked him to read the New Testament. He agreed, but only to find ways to disprove the Bible and bring his friend back to Islam. As he read, he was filled with wonder. After some time, Alireza gave his life to Jesus.

The son of an Ayatollah, a high-ranking cleric in Islam, gave his life to Jesus after reading the New Testament and through the witness of another believer, who had himself studied Islamic theology.

Persian Bible

Elam completed its modern Persian translation of the Old Testament in 2014, and the first 10,000 complete Bibles were published in September 2014. The previous literal translation of the Old Testament was more than 100 years old and was very hard for Iranians to read.

"The impact of this new Bible was immediately felt across Iran's growing church," Yeghnazar said. "They want to read and study the Scriptures, because they realize it will draw them to know God more."

"I can now answer some questions about the Old Testament that people ask me when evangelizing," a believer said.

A leader said: "I think reading the Bible will have a profound impact on the lives of our people. So we've decided to get everyone in our house church to read this new Bible in three months. If we do, each life will be dramatically changed."

"Please send me a Bible," a man requested after watching a TV program in early April. In May, he called again saying: "I received the Bible, and now four of our family believe in Jesus. Please can you send more Bibles?"

Senior Iranian church leaders founded Elam Ministries in 1990 with the mission of strengthening and expanding the church in the Iran region.

Anthony Marr (not his real name, withheld for reasons of privacy) is a Christian writer living in Canada

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