In London, 200 Iranians are preparing to return to Iran to lead “home-grown” churches that covertly gather Christian converts. The Christian Post reports that the Open House Association estimates that there are 450,000 practicing Christians in Iran who attend these house churches. Other watchdog groups cited by The Christian Post put the figure at more like a million converts.
Strength of conversions
These figures do not surprise an Iranian citizen who spent 45 years in Iran and currently lives in France, Fr. Pierre Humblot. But it is necessary to take into account a certain volatility of conversions: if they are too fast, they can be undermined by the friends and family of the newly converted, who are often very hostile to any idea of conversion. Finally, having to hide from detection complicates the measurement of the phenomenon.
While Iranian citizens show a benevolent tolerance toward historical Christian minorities, the conversion of a Muslim to Christianity triggers the ire of not only family and friends, but also the government. In 2010, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who remains the current Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, said that domestic and private churches “threaten the Islamic faith and deceive young Muslims.” Converts are seen as a “fifth column” of the West, and this fear is fueled by Western attitudes — in particular American and Israeli — towards this country for half a century. The Iranians do not forget that these are Western countries who armed Saddam Hussein during the 1980-1988 war, nor that they suffered from a costly embargo, which has been gradually lessened.
Clumsiness and courage in evangelization
The courage of those who discover Christ in these conditions is great. They find themselves between sharing a political desire to oppose the religious police and a regime braced on a Shiite Islam identity. They risk imprisonment or even the death penalty. But in certain circumstances, the poorly conceived actions of evangelizers have given the regime the upper hand. This was seen in NGO volunteers who slid Bibles into food parcels distributed during the terrible earthquake of 1990, which ended up causing nearly 45,000 deaths in the north of the country. This kind of practice, of course, endangers the humanitarian action, suspected to be a Trojan horse of the West. In fact, the regime is not exactly wrong to suspect that those who leave Islam are activists, committing a political act against them. “People, especially young people, have annoyed the religious police,” reflects Fr. Humblot. They sometimes choose drugs, but they are also many to convert to Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Christianity.
But the basic phenomenon of conversions in Iran goes beyond the political opposition. The Iranians thirst for spirituality, according to Fr. Humblot. Many of them come to Christianity driven by a dream or by convictions of the facts, and they in turn convert people around them. Many also come because they are attracted to Christian mysticism, particularly the notion of God’s love, which is not foreign to Iranian mystic poets.
This article originally appeared in Aleteia’s French edition