Almost everyone in Iran is Muslim – there are believed to be about 1.2 million Christians in a population of more than 86 million.
Iran is ruled by an increasingly strict Islamic regime, which views the existence of Iranian house churches as an attempt by Western countries to undermine Islam and their authority. Christians who have converted from Muslim face the greatest risk.
Iranian Christians may be banned from education, lose their jobs and find it very difficult to get back into employment. For women, the situation is even more precarious because Iranian law grants women few rights. If discovered as a Christian, they are likely to be violently punished or divorced by their husbands and have their children taken away from them.
There is an ancient history of Armenian and Assyrian Christians in Iran; these are protected by the state, but treated as second-class citizens. They are not allowed to let Christians from Muslim backgrounds attend their services, nor are they allowed to worship in Persian, the national language.
It's no surprise that many Iranian believers feel forced to leave Iran and try to start a new life elsewhere.
“When we were in solitary confinement, the only thing that strengthened us was prayer.”Ali, who was imprisoned for his faith and later had to flee the country
When people from Muslim backgrounds become Christians, they can only meet in secret house churches. They are at great risk of being monitored, harassed, arrested and prosecuted for 'crimes against national security' – an accusation that is notoriously poorly defined, and can be abused.
Ali grew up in a Muslim family. He was in the grips of a drug addiction when he met Jesus in a dream. After speaking to various people, he eventually chose to risk everything to follow Christ – and so did his wife, Zahra. That’s when persecution began. “In Iran, when someone becomes a Christian, their family becomes defensive,” he explains. “The family rejects the person. If someone like me becomes a Christian, I am seen as defiled. My life is considered filthy by them.”
Ali and Zahra lost all their friends and were disowned by their families. When their new faith became more widely known, Ali lost his job. But as everyone and everything fell away, their love for Jesus only grew. They joined the ministry team of a network of underground house churches – and that’s why, like many house church leaders, they were arrested.
Once imprisoned, the couple lived in separate cells and endured days of interrogation. “They asked questions about other believers,” says Ali. “Their goal was to identify underground churches. They wanted to infiltrate the churches.” And it wasn’t just verbal abuse. “During the interrogation I was beaten a lot. Since I was blindfolded, I couldn’t tell where the punches would land.”
Even after being release, Ali and Zahra faced constant harassment. Ali was fired from every job he got, and his sons weren’t allowed to go to school. “Every day was suffering and torture,” he says. In the end, the family had to flee Iran – the country and home that they love. But their faith has remained strong. “It doesn’t matter where we are from,” Ali adds. “The only thing that matters is that we are part of the same Body. When we were in solitary confinement, the only thing that strengthened us was prayer. Only God can go to those dark places.”
Persecution has worsened slightly in Iran. The amendment and tightening of the penal code in 2021, which is also used to prosecute Christians, continues to be part of a wider development towards Iran becoming a totalitarian state. State surveillance is on the rise and the authorities are exerting an increasing grip on daily life and activities, an attitude reflected in the harsh responses to the protests that followed the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022.
Please keep praying for your brothers and sisters in Iran. Your prayers make an enormous difference to those following Jesus no matter the cost.
Open Doors partners support the church in Iran with online ministry presence, Christian multimedia initiatives and advocacy.
Father God, thank You that Your church keeps growing in Iran despite extreme attempts to suppress it. Continue setting hearts free through the gospel. Please protect our brothers and sisters and their rights, so that they do not have to flee the country, but can stay and build a strong, mature Iranian church. We ask that communities and families will come to see Iranian Christians as genuine, not a product of the Western world, and be moved by their faith, courage and love. Amen.
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