By Julie Lyons
In the late 1960s an American missionary named William McElwee Miller published a slender volume called Ten Muslims Meet Christ, describing a life’s work and the few converts it bore in Persia—modern-day Iran.
Miller, who died in 1993, wouldn’t recognize the Iran that exists today—a nation where the gospel of Jesus Christ is spreading with astonishing speed amidst one of the most repressive environments for believers.
“It is shocking to Christians to hear that Iran is the most open country to the gospel in the world,” says Dr. Hormoz Shariat, founder and president of Iran Alive Ministries, a television and church-planting outreach to the Middle Eastern nation. IAM recently relocated from California to the Dallas area, and on January 1 will launch a 24-hour Christian satellite channel reaching the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe called Network 7. The ministry will produce its own programming from a studio in a Dallas suburb.
Shariat calls the Iranian revival a work of the Lord—fueled by history and culture. Iran, he notes, is the only Muslim country that has been led by clergy for 32 years.
“Iranians have experienced Islam first-hand in every aspect of their lives and have come to the conclusion that Islam is not the answer, it is the problem,” Shariat says. “I am shocked by the depth of rejection of Islam. They are not only rejecting Islam, they are hostile to Islam. It doesn’t work.”
Farzaneh, an Iranian Christian and former Muslim who oversees IAM’s call center, says most of the ministry’s callers aren’t believers. But they’re fed up with Islam. “A lot of Iranian people don’t have any hope and are so depressed,” she says. “They are so ready to believe in Jesus.”
The irony of Iran
Shariat, a former Muslim himself, sketched scenes that illustrate the paradox of his native country in a conversation with MannaEXRESS.
● Miller toiled for years to win a single soul in Persia. But Shariat has seen Iranians gather four or five families in a single room to call in to IAM’s live show—at great personal risk–to learn how to put their faith in Jesus Christ. As many as 30 people have been saved at one time, sometimes accompanied by miraculous healings.
Iran’s evangelical Christian population is the fastest-growing in the world, increasing 20 percent in 2010. IAM has recorded 22,000 souls coming to Christ in its 10 years of broadcasting—but those are only the people they hear from. They’ve encountered people on the streets of Tehran, Iran’s capital, who found Christ through the shows.
● Christianity is exploding in Iran at the same time the government and religious authorities are engaged in unprecedented repression of believers. While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is notorious worldwide for his hateful pronouncements against Israel, the real power in Iran is wielded by a religious leader—the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Since late 2010, the Iranian government has cracked down on Christians and underground house churches with brutal zeal, arresting, torturing, raping, and sometimes killing believers. Two respected sources–the Pew Foundation and Open Doors, a ministry to the persecuted church–rate Iran No. 2 in the world among the hardest places to be a believer. One of Iran’s top clerics has even declared that raping infidels, both men and women, is sanctioned by God.
Government agents are so threatened by the underground house church movement in Iran and the spread of Christianity that they have sent infiltrators to IAM’s call-in line. They dial in and pretend to be Christians looking for a house church—and they come fully equipped with Christian lingo and fake testimonies.
“I am all alone,” they’ll say. “Can you connect me to a house church?”
IAM has devised a few simple tests to flush out the phonies. The first is prayer. “We pray with them,” Shariat says. “When you pray together, you sense if that person is real.” Test No. 2: Read the Gospel of John and report back in a week. “If you’re not born again, your reading of it will be very superficial,” Shariat says. “You can pretty much know if the Holy Spirit is working in them.”
● The subject of IAM’s most popular television teaching series to date? Marriage. Shariat and his wife Donnell even renewed their vows on the air—complete with an arch and decorations–at the conclusion of the 10-part series in 2009.
The program yielded many phone calls and decisions for Christ, even though its content wasn’t specifically aimed at soul-winning. Viewers were astonished to learn about Christian marriages rooted in love and respect—and even heard that God could transform a loveless marriage. “God is the Creator,” Hormoz taught. “God can work with zeroes. He can create love where there is none.”
In Islam, Shariat says, marriage is a “sick relationship.” The husband possesses all the rights; the wife has none. In Iran, if a woman divorces, she loses her children. A man can marry as many as four wives or engage in temporary marriages, with no commitment—a practice “glorified” by Iranian clerics, Shariat says. Financial desperation forces some women to enter into these temporary unions.
The “most painful thing” Shariat encounters among Iranian Muslims is divorce. “I have felt their pain,” he says. “A woman calls in, saying my husband beats me up daily. ‘If you looked at my face, you could see the bruises. If I get a divorce, I will be looked at as a prostitute.’”
Revolution on the inside
A loveless marriage was one of the pressures that pushed
to faith in Jesus Christ. He and his wife Donnell were an unlikely pairing: He marched in the streets during the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s that toppled the West-friendly Shah of Iran, and Donnell was an idealistic young American attracted by the passion of the young protesters, who were willing to die for their Muslim beliefs.
They met through a relative of Hormoz and married in Iran. Hormoz knew even before the wedding that it wouldn’t work—“so many differences,” he says. The couple came to the United States in 1979, ready to get a divorce. They had even set a date.
Shaken by all of the changes in their lives, Hormoz and Donnell had begun their own separate searches for truth. Hormoz didn’t find the peace he was looking for in Islam; even after a careful study of the Koran, he came up empty. As an engineer, a man who examined information rigorously and objectively, Hormoz decided to seek another perspective. He picked up a Bible and found himself transfixed by the life of Jesus, and particularly the Sermon on the Mount. If this was the standard for goodness, for meaning, Hormoz reasoned, we’re all in trouble. Who could live like that?
Hormoz ended up taking his questions to a California pastor, who led him to Jesus Christ. He immediately found the peace he was looking for—but still found himself stuck in an awful marriage. Donnell, however, had recently found Christ herself—thanks to the simple testimony of a Guatemalan janitor at her workplace, who barely spoke English but told her earnestly that “Jesus loves you” and invited her to church.
Hormoz presented his problem to his pastor, who pointed out that God hates divorce. In Islam, divorce was easy for a man. But Hormoz and Donnell decided to “give Jesus a chance” in their marriage. “The Lord worked on us,” Hormoz says. “There was a lot of change, crushing, crumbling—gradually, the marriage got better.”
Today, that transformation is part of their ministry.
The invisible church
By the late 1980s, Shariat had started a church in California for Iranian believers. He would eventually turn to full-time ministry and plant several more churches. His first foray into television came in the late 1990s with a local cable show, but several years later, satellite technology opened a door to broadcast in Farsi to Iran.
IAM produces its own evangelistic programming and in January will re-launch as a 24-hour channel, Network 7. The name holds ironic significance for Iranians: Their government runs Networks 1 through 6, but No. 7 is an altogether different animal—and a proven threat to the religious regime.
Network 7 will supplement its six hours of programming, repeated three times daily, with live chat rooms and a call center overseen by Farzaneh, whose family could be in danger if she used her full name. Even though IAM’s broadcasting has been on hold for a few months as they prepare for the relaunch, Farzaneh and her team of Farsi-speaking volunteers still field calls from Iranians in Iran, Europe, and elsewhere. The ministry’s phone U.S. number is passed from hand to hand, and callers in Iran make dangerous and expensive calls from public phone booths, knowing they could be arrested.
Sometimes the callers curse Farzaneh and her Christ. She is trained to listen, even when the conversation is abusive. More than once, a caller has been convicted by her kind, peaceful demeanor and has ended up asking about Christianity.
Another IAM staff member named Mahyar hosts a chat room where seekers can ask questions about Christianity. While Christianity has found fertile ground in 21st-century Iran, new believers have few options for worship and fellowship, so IAM’s programming takes on added importance. The small number of existing churches refuse to accept Muslim-background believers. Converting to Christianity—the crime of apostasy—holds severe penalties in Iran.
Street protests in Iran made headlines two years ago, but the less-publicized repression that followed has pushed young people out of the cafes and into their homes every night. All they have is television: a perfect opportunity for Network 7.
“The government has given us a more powerful platform,” Shariat says.
IAM, however, recognizes that without a spiritual family, a believer won’t reach maturity in Christ. So part of its programming will be centered around a television set that looks like a typical Persian living room. It is here that IAM will broadcast a model house church, with live services in Farsi—albeit in Dallas, not Tehran.
“When people come to Christ, you can teach them and disciple them on TV, but that is not the whole deal,” Shariat says. “To fully understand the life of Christ, you have to be in community.”
The television house-church members greet each other, sing, worship, study the Bible, pray for one another and even tithe on the air. Of an estimated 1 million Iranian Christians, only 50,000 are going to house churches, Shariat says. But IAM’s model-church programming has taught many new believers how to start their own underground churches.
The newly minted believers soon encounter a formidable adversary: fear. Some are expelled from their families; others flee. “The spirit of Allah is fear,” Shariat says. “You are so fearful you are going to hell, because Allah is going to strike you.” The authorities are poised to strike as well, serving as extensions of the terror embedded in Islam.
But none of their efforts has stifled the growth of Christianity, Shariat says, because it is the one place Iranians have found real peace.
Iran Alive Ministries is looking for partners in the Dallas area who will join them to change the nation of Iran. Call Ken at 469-426-9478 for more information.
Julie Lyons is a journalist and author. She lives in Dallas with her husband and son.