Middle East

Iran’s Greatest Secret

We’re republishing this as part of our 25th anniversary series featuring favorite stories from our archives. This story by Doug Hsu appeared in ANM’s Voices in the Wilderness magazine in 2007. Enjoy!

Sara* (26) will never forget the day nine years ago when her sister quietly brought home the little book that would soon change her life. “You can read any part of it, but just don’t read the last page,” her sister whispered, “or by mistake you might become a Christian!”

Her curiosity stirred, the sixteen-year-old Muslim teenager started to read the New Testament. “I felt like Jesus was literally talking to my heart,” she later recounted. “By the time I had finished reading it, I was completely certain that each word was true, and that I had finally found what I’d been searching for.” Ignoring her sister’s warning, she turned to the last page: it was an invitation to become a Christian. With tears of joy streaming down her cheeks, Sara prayed the sinner’s prayer right in her bedroom and gave her heart to Jesus Christ.

Little did she realize then what impact her decision would have in her homeland, Iran.

Alone, but not for long

Without any Christian fellowship or church family (six months would pass before she would meet another Christian in Iran). Sara read her New Testament daily and talked to Jesus in her own room. Despite being isolated, her love and zeal for the Lord continued to grow. She wanted everyone to know the same amazing joy and peace she had found, and boldly she began speaking to other Muslims about Christ. Among the first to respond in faith was her own sister who had bought her the Bible!

After six months Sara found a church, where she instantly immersed herself and grew quickly in her faith. Before long she realized that there was nothing else she enjoyed more than telling other Muslims about Jesus. The very idea seemed reckless, even suicidal: how could a teenage girl hope to be a Christian evangelist in the world’s only Islamic theocracy? But Sara stood firm in her convictions, so her pastor suggested she get further training through one of the world’s leading Iranian outreach organizations, Elam Ministries. She went for four months ministry training, returned back to Iran, and since then has been zealously evangelizing and planting underground churches in the capital city, Tehran.

Some historians consider Iran’s 1978-79 Islamic Revolution to be the third greatest political revolution in history, after the French and Bolshevik Revolutions. In simple terms, the goal of the Islamic Revolution was to sweep away all Iran’s social ills—corruption, injustice, poverty, Western evils—by ushering in a pure Islamic theocracy: a new government based completely on Islamic principles and run by Muslim religious leaders. In a series of dramatic political twists from 1978-79, the U.S. backed Shah of Iran was deposed and the Ayatollah Khomeini became the supreme leader of the new Islamic Republic of Iran.

But nearly thirty years later, the consensus is clear: the Islamic Revolution has failed to solve Iran’s problems, and everyone knows it. Inside Iran, there is widespread discontent. Government corruption is rampant. Per capita income has plummeted. Numerous freedoms have been curtailed, while censorship has steadily increased. Dissidents—political and religious—are frequently imprisoned or murdered. Human rights violations have become routine. The list goes on and on. The bottom line: Iranians are deeply disillusioned with Islamic rule.

So what happens to a nation of 70 million Muslims who feel betrayed and let down by their own religion? Where does a nation turn, after realizing that Islam—for all of its promises of ushering in a pure, divine society—has failed to deliver?

A better alternative for Iran

For some, the answer is clear: it’s time for a better alternative. And that’s precisely what’s being promoted inside Iran today, presented by firebrands like Sara.

Dr. Karim (30) is another one of these firebrands. A medical doctor who was trained as a brain specialist, he never imagined he would leave Islam, let alone become a Christian evangelist. One day a few years ago, his (Muslim) sister came over and invited the whole family to sit down and watch a new video about Jesus Christ. Karim initially joined his sister and his mother in watching, but he quickly got up and left the room. “Un-intellectual nonsense,” he thought to himself. He later returned to find the two ladies crying while watching the video, and he scolded them: “You’re Muslims—you shouldn’t be watching this garbage!”

His sister started attending a nearby church and soon became a Christian, much to Karim’s disgust. Thinking that her brother would be the last person on earth to become a Christian, it took his sister two years to muster up the courage to invite him to a church event. Surprisingly, he agreed to go. As the evening progressed, he realized that he had never before been around such loving, kind, and joyful people, and his heart was softened. The sharing and the message convicted him, and by the end of the evening he had become a Christian! Karim eventually left his medical practice and is now a passionate full-time evangelist for Jesus Christ.

Like many of Iran’s young Christian evangelists, Seema (28) was struggling with depression before coming to Christ. “I woke up one day and wondered, What is there in life for me?” she shared. To cope, she began popping lots of anti-depressant pills and even toyed with suicide. While studying at an Islamic university, she came across some references to Christianity. Intrigued, she decided to do some more research on the side. One day Jesus himself appeared to her in a dream (a frequently-cited phenomenon behind many conversions in Iran) and Seema immediately became His follower. Together with husband Shaheen (29), a former Muslim hospital worker who also became a believer after seeing Jesus in a dream, they have left everything to serve the Lord in Iran. Presently they are undergoing training with Elam Ministries.

Some missions experts believe that Iran is the most spiritually open Islamic country in the world today. Why is this so? The sovereign and mysterious working of the Holy Spirit aside, many attribute Iran’s spiritual hunger to the dashed hopes of a nation which had expected far greater things under Islamic rule. Just as the failure of communism to deliver on its grand promises eventually led to tis collapse in the former Soviet bloc, so also in Iran, Islam has failed to deliver. In the words of one Iranian convert, “80% of our population is against the government. But they cannot do anything about it, so they lose hope.” An alarming percentage of young Iranians suffer from depression, and many end up turning to alcohol and drugs.

Iran’s greatest secret

But there is good news: more dissatisfied Iranian Muslims are turning to Jesus Christ than ever before in Iran’s history. Many missions experts consider the church in Iran to be the fastest growing church in the Middle East—which is nothing less than a miraculous spiritual movement in the heart of the Muslim world. As Sara explains, “People are very curious when we tell them we are ex-Muslims. They want to know how we became Christians and why we became Christians. Most people understand that Islam is not the true faith and are looking for the truth.”

How is it, though, that Muslims in the world’s largest Islamic theocracy learn about Christianity in the first place? Perhaps the most effective evangelism tool in Iran today is the aptly named “Love Channel” (Mohabbat, in Persian). High quality Christian programming from overseas enters Iranian homes via satellite TV, sharing the irresistible love of God through Jesus. As Hamid, a twenty-something pastor of six underground churches in Tehran, explains excitedly, “It’s the best satellite channel in Iran! Many people in Iran (Muslims) turn it on in the morning and keep it on till they sleep at night. Many Iranians—even those from small villages—have come to Christ through the Love Channel.”

Christian literature is also winning many Muslims to Christ, because they are spiritually starved. “We always carry a bagful of Christian books whenever we go out,” explains Sara.   “Whether we are in shops, in taxis, or on the street, we always start conversations with people. And when we begin talking, they always ask us for a Christian book.”

Every evangelist can rattle off numerous testimonies of Muslim contacts who were desperately longing to get their hands on a Persian New Testament. Hamid narrates a recent episode when he took his wife out to a restaurant for her birthday. “When I paid the waiter the bill, I also slipped him a gospel tract. Before we could exit the restaurant, a different waiter (who had seen the tract) rushed up and asked me if he could have a Bible. I told him that I didn’t have one with me, that it was in my car. He begged me to please go out and get it from my car and bring it to him!”

Sara shares about the time she was riding in a taxi and felt the Holy Spirit nudging her to give a New Testament to a fellow passenger. “When I gave it to her, she started to cry. She told me that every day she watches the Love Channel and desperately wanted to get a Bible but didn’t know how. Many are ‘secret believers’ in Iran now, even though they don’t go to church or own a Bible.”

Stories like this are commonplace in Iran. Truly, a spiritual movement is well under way, fanned by the Holy Spirit.

Fanning the flame

No spiritual movement gets very far without committed followers willing to die for the cause. Leading the Christian charge in Iran today is a generation of passionate Iranian evangelists, many of them former Muslims themselves who grew up as children of the Islamic Revolution. They are young, hip, and educated: most are bright university graduates under 30. A surprisingly large number of these are women, because men have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet in Iran’s inflationary economy and therefore have less time for ministry.

And they are fearless, too—even though persecution of Christian workers by the Islamic authorities has increased over the years. Churches have been closed. Pastors have been arbitrarily arrested and jailed. A few have even been executed. But these young Christian evangelists don’t care. Says Sara, smilingly, “We have many [church planting] plans for the future, across different cities in our country. This is God’s vision for Iran! We really love our God, and we are ready to die for Him. Yes, we do many dangerous works, but so far God has protected us because many people are praying for us!” Hamid concurs. “People ask me if it’s difficult, because every week we see [spiritual breakthroughs]. Plus, we are safe here, because we’re in God’s will. I just have two prayer requests: mat God protect us, and may God keep me in Iran!”

A spiritual movement needs one more thing to keep it going: finances. Many of these young, educated Iranian evangelists have given up their careers in order to preach Christ to every corner of their land. They look to the Lord to provide their daily bread.

Twenty-five years after we started partnering with native missionaries to reach the unreached, the work continues, and we are closer than ever to seeing the Gospel proclaimed and lived out among every people group in the world. Thank you for your partnership in the Gospel!

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