“God is doing something unprecedented’ as Iranian Muslims come to faith in Christ
By Michael Ireland, Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net)
RICHFIELD, MINNESOTA, USA (ANS – Oct. 24, 2018) — Iranian Muslims are ‘coming to faith’ in great numbers today.
“God is doing something unprecedented, something remarkable among Muslim people groups all over the world, in particular in the Middle East, and more specifically in the country of Iran, the country of my heritage,” said Shadi Fatehi.
Shadi Fatehi comes from a Muslim background on her father’s side and is Jewish on her mother’s side of the family. Shadi’s parents moved to London in 1990 and she was born and raised in London in an Iranian home. She is currently on a speaking tour in the United States.
“There were times when my Farsi wasn’t so good, but my job forced me to learn and refine. I have a really annoying British accent when I speak Farsi!” she said.
Fatehi cited David Garrison’s book A Wind in the House of Islam, “and he does a wonderful study of tracing some of these movements, Muslims coming to faith and he looks at Iran and notices that Iran seems to be at the center of what God is doing.”
In 1979, the Islamic Revolution occurred in Iran. Fatehi gave some background.
“In the first few years, not much changed had happened for many reasons. Gradually the Regime started having had more of an impact on society — the hijab being compulsory, all kinds of things happening. Then the Iran-Iraq War happened, which had a huge impact on the country in the 1980s. It was really from the early 1990s that a kind of wave of hardline persecution happened where a group of about 7 or 8 pastors were martyred for their faith. So that was an intense time of persecution. But then from the early 2000s to about 2013, again the church was operating — of course it was very difficult to have new members coming into a church, every member had to give their names to the Government. So there was some persecution, but not as bad. A few pastors had been put into prison in the early 2000s. Then in 2012-13, there were a number of significant waves of arrests where the government followed a group of people and tried to find out as many people as possible and arrested them all. Some of them were put into prison and then actually released and forced to leave the country. And then in that year all of the churches were forced to shut down and forced to go underground. And persecution has kind of been on the increase since 2013.”
How did her father from a Muslim background come to Jesus Christ?
“It was the year 1970. My father was born into a Muslim family, his father read the Quran in his mid-20s and after reading the Quran decided that Islam had to be false and so rejected Islam and became an Atheist, but a kind of ‘nominal’ Muslim. My grand-father became a doctor at a hospital in a small town on the Caspian Sea in the north of Iran. There were no Christians in Iran at the time. I think statistics show there were less than 200 Christians living in all of Iran from a Muslim background at the time. My grand-father in the hospital one day encountered two booksellers who happened to be in Iran with the group Operation Mobilization and they just randomly decided to go into this hospital and sell some English books.
“My Grand-Dad happened to be one of the only people who read English in the hospital and loved books. So the first book that he bought from that book seller was a copy of the New Testament. He had never seen one or had access to one before that day. And he also actually bought a number of books by Billy Graham also on sale. So he went home and through reading the Bible gave his life to Christ — his life was transformed and my dad growing up noticed that his dad had changed and would ask his mom ‘what’s happened to dad, he’s now interested in what we have to say. He’s no longer as angry as he used to be. He’s kind of smiling all the time?’ And my dad’s mother would tell him Dad has become a Christian keep it down (said in a whisper). My dad was about 10-years-old at the time. My grand-dad became someone who brought many to faith in the surgery where he worked and in the local hospital. He was well-known as being ‘the doctor (who was) the Christian doctor.’ And eventually my dad when he was 11 years old came to faith. They started a church in their home. It’s funny — they started baptizing people in the bath tub (laughs). And then that became an official church and then my dad kind of took it from there — at an early age he knew that he was called to be a bible teacher and theologian. He’s actually my boss in case I didn’t mention that! It’s amazing — he came across a few C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer books at the age of 18 and started translating them at that age and fell in love with that world of theology and God’s word and all of that.”
Earlier, Fatehi answered questions on what it is like to pursue Christianity in Iran.
Two weeks before arriving in the US on her current tour, Fatehi said PARS had a week-long intensive planned and one of the students on the first day of the conference when staff went to meet them realized they hadn’t arrived and eventually called their offices. The student was arrested, taken into interrogation. “They said, ‘we can’t come, don’t contact us and wait until you hear from us.’ And I’ll have to ask my colleagues, but last time I checked we hadn’t heard from them — so please pray for them. But that gives you a taste of the kind of thing that our students are going through.”
Fatehi said the word “pars,” from which the organization she works with gets its name, is an ancient term for Persia or Iran, especially alluding to ancient Persia and the ancient region which was called ‘the land of Pars.’ “That’s where the term comes from,” she said.
Many of the teachers and educators at PARS coming from Iran were either at one point pastors or Bible teachers or involved in the church movement in Iran who either got arrested or were forced to leave the country, then came to the UK, had advanced levels of theological education who realized they couldn’t go back to Iran and gathered around PARS Theological Center.
“Just to give you a few examples my colleague Robert, who’s an Armenian Iranian, most recently came out of Iran, actually led a Bible School in his church back when there used to be an official church in Iran. He was arrested in 2013 and put into prison for a considerable amount of time, spent weeks in solitary confinement, then released and threatened that if he didn’t leave the country something terrible would happen to his family. Then he came to us in September of 2014. My colleague who heads our curriculum development, her father was martyred — he was the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Iran and so they as a family were moved out of the country, resided in the US, and then she joined our group. So those are the kind of stories around our staff. I’m actually the only one who’s always been in the West!”
Fatehi was asked if there was any chance that 15 or 20 church members were to go over to Iran as a mission group, would they just be so conspicuous that nothing would get done there? Is there any chance of mission work inside Iran?
“In Iran? The easy answer is no!” she said.
“We’ve had American groups that go there to pray and visit different spots, praying for the Land and the People. But that’s really as far as it goes. We only host trips for Americans to meet with students who live and reside in Turkey now. If a student was to be arrested, and in interrogation found to have met an American on a trip, that prison sentence is usually doubled. I’m sorry to say this, but Americans are not the favorite people of the Iranian government. But Iranians love Americans. The Government not so much.”
Fatehi was asked about the Underground Church in Iran — what the dynamics look like for a congregation to actually meet together and share the Gospel ?
“The church in Iran until about 2012-13 was led quite similarly to what we have here in the US where people have a church building and they meet in churches and have services and pastors and all kinds of things. In 2013 a law was passed that it would be illegal to have any church buildings to hold services; and for any MBB’S — Muslim Background Believers — to gather together and have services in the Farsi language. So the church had to go entirely underground. And actually at that time believers would gather in big groups in houses maybe groups of 20 maybe groups of 30, maybe smaller depending on the house. But then slowly even that became something that they would get into trouble with and the Government would raid house churches with big groups. And soon they passed a law that there were to be no gatherings, significant gatherings, in homes because it was suspicious. So over the last 6 years the House Churches that were once groups of 20 shrunk in size as the persecution has intensified. So now typically you will find House Churches that that are made of groups of 4 to 6, 4 to 7. It’s becoming smaller and smaller, which is raising significant challenges for the Church. These House Churches will usually form clusters and form a leadership that kind of takes care of a number of House Churches. We at PARS invite these House Church networks, these clusters of House Churches, to recommend students to us for training, so we can train emerging leaders. Just to give you the flavor of one of the House Church networks that we partner with, that House Church network has 18,000 believers in the network. I can’t remember the number of house churches. That gives you a flavor of the kind of networks and membership around that 17,000.”
What are some of the ramifications, and some of the problems believers have in Iran with regards to the US sanctions imposed on Iran?
“It’s mixed. Obviously Iran is going through tremendous economic issues right now. Inflation is crazy. Unemployment is on the rise and it’s reaching a high that it’s never had before. So in that sense it’s not doing well. A lot of people in Iran are happy about the current Administration. I should say it’s mixed, but a lot of people are happy because they think that with the (nuclear) deal being over, firstly the Government in Iran (isn’t) spending money on strengthening the secret police and all the people who are involved in Yemen and Syria and other things. But they also are hoping that the Trump Administration will stand firm and do something. So Iranians are kind of really hopeful. While the drop of the deal has had negative consequences, a lot of them I’ve spoken to at least are glad that someone is standing firm.”
Different Christian groups will encourage new believers in Jesus Christ with a Muslim background to stay as much as they can in touch with their community of origin so they don’t transition where they identify as a believer and they’re targeted. Fatehi was asked how does PARS deal with Muslim Background Believers now identifying as believers in Jesus Christ and how does PARS encourage them to either stay in connection with their Muslim background communities or to identify as being outside of Islam?
“Muslim Background Believers face different kinds of persecution depending on their cultural context,” Fatehi said.
“In Arab countries, where Muslims are becoming Christians, in a lot of those countries the persecution comes from the Government but also the families and the people of the country. In Iran, and a few Persian-speaking countries, the dynamic is different. Most of the persecution is coming from the Government. The Iranian people overall — most of them — are not devout Muslims and don’t really care! And also Iran doesn’t really have Islam – it is not part of their cultural identity and heritage. They have their own ancient religions, i.e. Zoroastrianism, and so for them when someone becomes a Christian for some more fanatic traditional homes it would be a big deal and the child might be thrown out. But we don’t have things like ‘Honor Killings’ and that kind of thing — just because it’s not as though they’ve chosen to reject the culture. The culture is beyond the religion. And in Islam the language is different. The Quran is in Arabic, the worship is in Arabic. Iranians don’t even understand Arabic, most of them. So it’s mostly coming from the Government and the Secret Police and the Revolutionary Guard. They’re the ones causing all the persecution, less in the families. That’s why in our case that’s not an issue. We don’t worry about what’s referred to as ‘Insider Movements’ — should they say they’re Christians now, should they not say? — it’s not really an issue for us.”
How much of PARS’ work is directed toward the Iranian Diaspora?
“At the moment we have about 360 students. Just over 100 of those students live in Iran and are training in Iran. The rest, 200 students and the remaining are all spread over 15 countries of the Iranian Diaspora. We have 6 students in Afghanistan at the moment which we’re really excited about and hoping to increase those numbers there. And then a huge group of students in Turkey who actually began studying with us in Iran. Unfortunately, many of them were arrested and then as I said the year 2013 they had to leave. And then all over many in Germany that’s a key place, a few in the UK, Canada — Toronto and Vancouver, some in Australia one in South Korea, so kind of all over. Austria, that’s a big place.”
Fatehi shared how churches in the US can partner with PARS.
“We are inviting individuals and churches to prayerfully consider sponsoring some of these leaders, especially those who are serving the Underground Church in Iran for their training. They don’t have the means to cover their costs so we are looking for people who would give towards their training. So we encourage you to think through that and how the Holy Spirit leads you to go for it. We’d love to get your details and stay in touch so that you can pray for us too because that’s the most important. It costs about $2,500 to train a leader for one year. So that includes the online classes and the mentoring. There are different breakdowns of how you can contribute on a monthly way.”
This can be done through Frontier Fellowship, she said. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Frontier Fellowship is really the reason why I’m here and the reason why Hope Church got connected with PARS, and really the reason how I got connected to the American Church. I want to thank you and encourage you for what you’re doing and thank Hope Church for having someone like me here.”
**EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second part of two on this topic.
** ASSIST News Service would like to thank Robin Frost for transcribing this article.