Today's Iranian Revolution

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. We pick up his discussion of the surprising growth of the Church in Iran.

Recent growth has happened so fast, the underground church can hardly keep apace. In one example, a house church that began with two people several years ago has now multiplied into over twenty groups. The leader of this network remarked, "Starting churches in Iran is easy! Everywhere you go to evangelize, people are ready to receive the gospel, or they have already become believers through satellite broadcasts." Training leaders is also easy, remarks another leader. The government has left young people with nothing to do. So believers spend time with one another every day. They are constantly gathering for prayer, Bible study and evangelism. When a group reaches 25 people, they divide in half and begin again. Within two years, a new believer is expected to become a leader of a new house-fellowship and a discipler of new leaders.

There are now so many believers in Iran, the satellite broadcasters have begun shifting gears towards more discipleship-oriented programming. The son of Haik Hovsepian (the pioneering Iranian evangelist, church organizer, and songwriter), Gilbert, has continued his father's legacy by producing a series of "live-worship" broadcasts, as well as a CD and hymnal collection of over 500 songs for the underground church. He also broadcasts a weekly Bible teaching program that has been viewed by 40% of the population and is one of the top ten watched programs in the country.

As in China, the rapid multiplication of house churches through the "cell-division" strategy has resulted in well-organized networks. Among those that derive from Haik's Makhaz church in Tehran, there are at least 1,000 groups, most of which are the fruit of Haik's intentional discipleship of several dozen core Persian leaders in the late eighties and early nineties. One of these leaders, for example, oversees 137 house-church fellowships. However, these networks, while a strength on the one hand, can be a weakness on the other. Recently, in early 2008, a network of around 50 churches was infiltrated by government intelligence agents that responded to satellite broadcasts as would-be seekers. From there they were able to work their way into an entire network. The believers associated with these groups were rounded up and forced to sign a document that outlined their punishment if ever they assembled again. Due to such heightening security concerns, coordination between the underground church and satellite broadcasting ministries is growing increasingly difficult, though creative solutions are being sought to bridge this divide.

Leaders of house-church networks have repeatedly expressed that one of their greatest needs is for more Bibles in Farsi. The stories of how God has used the Scriptures to bring entire families to Christ continue to pour forth from Iran. There is a tremendous hunger and widespread demand for the Bible. A new translation coordinated by Elam Ministries (one of the larger agencies serving the Persian church and founded by a Persian Armenian) has already had a profound impact. An audio version is now being prepared by Gilbert Hovsepian and will be completed within the year. It has been said that even if 10 million Bibles were available today in Iran, they would not be enough. One lady, who has personally distributed 20,000 Bibles, says never once did anyone turn her down. Rather, the vast majority received it as the greatest treasure they had ever been given.

Rebirth of the Persian Church

In the last ten years a new term has become widespread throughout Iran, which can be literally translated "Persian-Christian," or as they would conceptually translate it "Muslim-Christian": farsimasihi. For centuries, it was assumed that if you were a Christian, you were Armenian. If someone saw you wearing a cross they might ask, "Are you Armenian?" or "Have you become Armenian?" But today the question has changed.

This new identity is highly significant, testifying to the presence of a truly indigenous, self-reproducing movement. It has long been believed that a breakthrough among Persians could have significant impact on surrounding peoples in Central Asia and the Middle East. This has certainly proved to be the case in Iran itself. Persian missionaries are now being sent to nearby minority peoples, such as the Azeri, Luri and Kurds, with funding coming directly from the Persian believers themselves.

Though all of this is cause for rejoicing, it is important to remember that the Persian church has been here before. In fact, it was a cross-cultural missionary from Persia, Gregory the Illuminator, who was instrumental in Armenia becoming one of the first Christian nations. Gregory was the fruit of a growing spiritual awakening among Persian peoples that was occurring in the late third century. Up until this time, most believers in the Persian Empire were of Jewish or Assyrian descent. But around the time that Armenia embraced Christianity, a powerful move of the Holy Spirit could be seen across the border among native Persians as well.

Unfortunately, this breakthrough would be short-lived. In 312 AD the Roman general Constantine was led to believe he should conquer in the name of the cross. His conversion to Christianity and subsequent rise to power as the emperor of a united Rome, suddenly brought a political dimension to the new faith. From then on, Christians in the Persian Empire were seen as a potential "fifth column" and a new wave of government-organized persecution began. By the end of the 4th century, hundreds of thousands would be martyred. Finally with the coming of Islam in the 7th century, the fledgling Persian church gradually declined and then disappeared.

Interestingly, the only churches in Asia and North Africa that survived Islamic occupation were those that had the Scriptures in their language. The Armenian, Syrian and Coptic churches are some examples. However, among the Persians, Berbers, and Arabs, no Bible was available in their mother tongue. That mistake would only be rectified in modern times, and it is likely no coincidence that with the presence of the Bible in these lands, the Church has begun to grow once again.

Among the Persians, that rebirth has been truly dramatic, and may eventually change the course of Iran's history. Although presently this new movement is entering into a new period of trial, this time around they have a strong international network of believers, churches and ministries standing ready to help them. Now they have the Scriptures in Farsi, contextualized worship songs, leadership training programs, and satellite broadcasts. And last but not least, they have the promise of Jesus, who said, "I will build my church." Without any doubt, the move of the Holy Spirit in Iran is evidence of that ultimate and enduring reality.

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

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