Part XXII: Iranian Christianity

Part XXII: Iranian Christianity
by Abu Daoud
November 2010

That Muslims are converting to Christianity in numbers unprecedented throughout history comes as a (welcome) surprise to most Christians in the West. Every now and then I find someone who has heard about one of these movements, like the tens of thousands of Berbers in Algeria who in the last two decades have converted, or the hundreds each year who are baptized into the Catholic Church in countries like France and Italy. Or perhaps they have heard of the experimental laboratory that is Bangladesh, where there are groups of people who call themselves Christ-followers but don’t use the term Christian or Muslim to refer to themselves.

But one of the most numerically significant movements of Muslims to Christianity is among Iranians. I am not talking about people with Iranian citizenship who come from ethnic groups which are traditionally Christian (Armenians and Assyrians), but about the large ethnic group whose ancestors were Zoroastrians and slowly but surely, century by century converted to Islam. Today there are very few Zoroastrians left in Iran.

While I have spent most of the last five years in the Arab world, I have of course occasionally spent time in the US and the UK for multiple reasons—conferences, education, vacation, weddings, and so on. And during that time I have had the pleasure of meeting with many Iranian Christians. Some of them are brand new believers, just-baptized, some of them converted decades ago and are seasoned leaders in their churches. Some left Iran under favorable circumstances, while many left Iran as political, economic, or religious refugees. Some of them converted while still in Iran, some of them after their departure. I want to outline here a couple of things I have noticed about Iranian Christianity in the Diaspora.

First, this is a new church. If you have an Egyptian or Palestinian who comes to Christ, they are able to look back to their ancestry and say, ‘I had Christian ancestors, I’m returning to something ancient.’ And that can be important from a psychological and emotional point of view. Knowing that can bring them strength and encouragement. But Iranians never were Christians. So the churches they are forming and the sort of Christianity they are constructing is genuinely something brand new, and not simply a newer version of something ancient.

Second, Iranian Christianity preserves Iranian culture and identity. Iranians who become Christians tend to be critical of Islam to some extent. Many of them identify it with Arab culture and thus as something imported from afar, and ultimately something that degraded Persian culture. Most of their children have Persian names, and not Arabic ones. On the other hand, they continue to celebrate the Iranian New Year (Nowruz) with its rich traditions, because it is pre-Islamic.

Third, it is non-denominational. While these Christians by and large are evangelical and perhaps charismatic, there is no one denomination or Christian tradition that dominates the movement. On the plus side this means that Christians from many different churches and denominations are able to bring their ideas and spiritualities to the table. The down side is that personal differences among leaders can sometimes lead to divisions that probably did not need to happen. Over the years I have been in touch with Iranian Christians who are Anglican, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, as well as some who don’t belong to any one denomination. In spite of all this diversity, the good news is that the churches and leaders tend to stay in touch and consult together by means of meetings, conferences, the web, and so on.

Fourth, Iranian Christianity is facing huge challenges. The most obvious one is persecution within Iran, but there are others too. How does one train leaders when it is impossible to open a seminary (in Iran)? How can churches and leaders remain accountable to each other when they belong to so many different denominations? Will the prosperity gospel lead to a bitter split among their churches? And what to do with the second generation, who are born in the West and perhaps feel more at home in a normal English- or German-speaking church?

Nonetheless, the story of Iranian Christianity is exciting and inspiring. We can now very realistically speak of hundreds of thousands of Iranian Christians around the world, and a substantial population in Iran itself. But as the church grows, opposition increases too. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Remember the Iranian Church in your prayers. It is the new-comer to global Christianity, but one with a lot of energy, but a lot of difficulties to face as well.


Steve Scott said…

A church we used to attend had an Iranian group meet in the afternoons. I didn't know anything about them, but I know the church thought highly of the group. There's a fairly good sized Iranian community here in the San Fran area.
Anonymous said…
I think the following statement is not totally accurate:

[But Iranians never were Christians. So the churches they are forming and the sort of Christianity they are constructing is genuinely something brand new, and not simply a newer version of something ancient.]

Referring to Wikipedia:

[Christianity in Iran has had a long history, dating back to the very early years of the faith. It has always been a minority religion, overshadowed by the majority state religions — Zoroastrianism in the past, and Shia Islam today — though it had a much larger representation in the past than it does today. Christians of Iran have played a significant part in the history of Christian mission. Today, there are at least 600 churches in Iran]

Allah says in Quran:

[They intend to put out the Light of Allâh (i.e. the Religion of Islâm, this Qur'ân, and the Prophet Muhammad SAW) with their mouths. But Allâh will bring His Light to perfection even though the disbelievers hate (it). (8)

He it is Who has sent His Messenger (Muhammad SAW) with guidance and the religion of truth (Islâmic Monotheism) to make it victorious over all (other) religions even though the Mushrikûn (polytheists, pagans, idolaters, and disbelievers in the Oneness of Allâh and in His Messenger Muhammed SAW) hate (it). (9) Al-saff]

Growth Of Islam on youtube,

Although it’s prepared by our Christians friends, but really nice we couldn’t do it better, Thanks.
Abu Daoud said…
Hi Abdullah,

I was quite careful in this article. It is correct that there have been Christians in Iran since before Islam, but they were not the Iranian ethnic people, they were Armenians and Assyrians. Ethnic Iranians were Zoroastrians and then converted to Islam, and are now converting to Christianity in significant numbers.

Hope you are doing well.

Anonymous said…
Thanks Abu Daoud for your question, Hamdellah I am fine.

What about you, when you will become Muslim insh’Allah…

Why it’s taking too much time,
Believe me brother, you will be fine and doing better in Islam than now, so don’t waste too much time.

Following Islam will keep you always in safe side whether with Jesus or God in this life or afterlife.

Don’t worry about your future or money or position, they are all in God’s hand.

Just ask your Creator tonight before you sleep, to Guide you to the right way, and hope he will open your mind and your heart to Islam…

Jeff said…
From Marco Polo's "Travels":

In Persia is the city called Saveh, from which the three Magi set out when they came to worship Jesus Christ. Here, too, they lie buried in three sepulchres of great size and beauty. Above each sepulchre is a square building with a domed roof of very fine workmanship. The one is just beside the other. Their bodies are still whole, and they have hair and beards. One was named Beltasar, the second Gaspar, and the third Melchior.

Messer Marco asked several of the inhabitants who these Magi were; but no one could tell him anything except that they were three kings who were buried there in days gone by. But at last he learnt What I will tell you.
Jeff said…
Three days farther on, he found a town called Kala Atashparastan, that is to say Town of the Fire-worshippers. And that is no more than the truth; for the men of this town do worship fire. And I will tell you why they worship it. The inhabitants declare that in days gone by three kings of this country went to worship a new-born prophet and took with them three offerings -gold, frankincense, and myrrh - so as to discover whether this prophet was a god, or an earthly king or a healer. For they said : 'If he takes gold, he is an earthly king; if frankincense, a god; if myrrh, a healer.'

When they had come to the place where the prophet was born, the youngest of the three kings went in all alone to see the child. He found that he was like himself, for he seemed to be of his own age and appearance. And he came out, full of wonder. Then in went the second, who was a man of middle age. And to him also the child seemed, as it had seemed to the other, to be of his own age and appearance. And he came out quite dumbfounded. Then in went the third, who was of riper years; and to him also it happened as it had to the other two. And he came out deep in thought. When the three kings were all together, each told the others what he had seen. And they were much amazed and resolved that they would all go in together.
Jeff said…
So, in they went, all three together, and came before the child and saw him in his real likeness and of his real age; for he was only thirteen days old. Then they worshipped him and offered him the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh. The child took all three offerings and then gave them a closed casket. And the three kings set out to return to their own country.

After they had ridden for some days, they resolved to see what the child had given them. They opened the casket and found inside it a stone. They wondered greatly what this could be. The child had given it to them to signify that they should be firm as stone in the faith that they had adopted. For, when the three kings saw that the child had taken all three offerings, they concluded that he was at once a god, and an earthly king, and a healer. And, since the child knew that the three kings believed this, he gave them the stone to signify that they should be firm and constant in their belief.
Jeff said…
The three kings, not knowing why the stone had been given to them, took it and threw it into a well. No sooner had it fallen in than there descended from heaven a burning fire, which came straight to the well into which it had been thrown. When the three kings saw this miracle, they were taken aback and repented of their throwing away the stone; for they saw clearly that its significance was great and good. They immediately took some of this fire and carried it to their country and put it in one of their churches, a very fine and splendid building.

They keep it perpetually burning and worship it as a god. And every sacrifice and burnt offering which they make is roasted with this fire. If it ever happens that the fire goes out, they go round to others who hold the same faith and worship fire also and are given some of the fire that burns in their church. This they bring back to rekindle their own fire. They never rekindle it except with this fire of which I have spoken. To procure this fire, they often make a journey of ten days.

That is how it comes about that the people of this country are fire worshippers. And I assure you that they are very numerous. All this was related to Messer Marco Polo by the inhabitants of this town; and it is all perfectly true. Let me tell you finally that one of the three Magi came from Saveh, one from Hawah, and the third from Kashan.
Jeff said…
And here is some stuff about 6th century Christianity in Persia. While not the dominant religion, it was probably much more widespread than most people realize:

"Maruthas quickly gained great influence over the Persian king, to the annoyance of the Zoroastrian magi, and Yezdegerd allowed the free spread of Christianity in Persia and the building of churches. Nisibis once more became a Christian city. The Persian Church at this period seems to have received, under Maruthas, the more developed organization under which it lived until the time of the Mohammedan conquest."

There is more ...

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