A Light Which Cannot Be Extinguished: God’s Presence is Real in Iran
Iran is said to be one of the fastest growing communities of Muslim background believers in the world. The strict Islamic government is trying to root them out harshly. It’s having little success. Wahid is a church leader who testifies to this truth.
“On Sundays we have about 200 attendees here,” says Wahid, inviting us into the church he pastors in a neighbouring country: a spacious hall, with a stage full of instruments. It’s very different from the church he pastored in Iran where the church was no bigger than a living room, the ‘worship band’ a simple cassette player.
Still, it wasn’t Wahid’s own choice to leave his country. He led a good life, ran a dry cleaning business. His decision to follow Jesus brought about tremendous pressure and he had to flee for safety eventually. Now he lives in a neighbouring country with thousands of other refugees.
Wahid is married and the proud father of a two-and-a-half year old son, happy to show us a picture of the curly-haired boy. Wahid’s memories of his teenage years were not the best. Wahid is a child of divorced parents. “It made me feel sad,” he says. But the real depression only kicked in after his mother died. He had lived with his mother all his live, and now as a young teenager Wahid had to live with his father, who gave him little love.
The light of Jesus
Wahid was raised as a Muslim, but the circumstances in his life made him despise the faith he was born into. But then one day, light came on his path. A friend of Wahid converted to Christianity. “He told me about Jesus,” says Wahid.
“It’s hard to explain what happened with me,” He said. “I could say that something changed in my heart, I felt a warmth deep inside of me.”
That night Wahid found Christ, and he found joy too.
“I had always thought that my circumstances had to change for me to lose my depression. But when I found Jesus I realized that I needed someone to change me from the inside to feel at peace; I needed Jesus.”
How persecution began
When Wahid entered the house church he had to reach back a long way to that first experience of finding peace in Jesus. Because, while the other believers accepted him and loved him unconditionally, the outside world was harsh towards his new faith. “My father rejected me, and I was also denied a job because I didn’t want to sign a form stating that I was a Muslim.”
Persecution became worse when Wahid started attending an underground church, and later even became a leader in it. “One day when I went to church I received a threatening call from the government. After that I always had a sense of being followed, and my phone was tapped. It is not an unusual thing in Iran.”
Tensions rose, and for a whole year the house church even decided to split up into small groups of two to three people to avoid government attention. But it didn’t help. On a day that they had gathered with 25 believers the security forces entered the house, shouting, cursing and taking a video of everything. “I will never forget that night. I still remember the children crying with fear. It was so difficult to watch.”
Imprisoned for his faith
Wahid and many other church members ended up in prison. First in isolated cells, then in the overcrowded general wards. At night they slept like books in a library, but by day they struggled with the over-crowded sanitary facilities. Wahid had serious lung issues because of the bad conditions in prison. “I often dreamed of getting out of prison,” he says. “But when I woke up, I realized again that I was still inside.”
Whoever thinks the government was successful in exterminating the church is wrong. While the circumstances of the believers had changed drastically, they still had the Lord inside them. “We all prayed for one another,” Wahid shares. “And we would evangelize a lot, even though we were not allowed to.”
The church did not die in prison
The church did not die in prison. Many people come to faith through Wahid and his fellow church members. Even though his imprisonment, and the subsequent pressure, forced him out of the country, the church inside has kept on growing.
When we ask Wahid why he didn’t give up on Jesus when persecution came his way, like the government had aimed for, he smiles: “I don’t think that is a logical question,” he replies. “I need Jesus. Without Jesus I had no life, no hope. I can’t live without him for one moment. None of us can.”
In 2016, the mission research organization Operation World named Iran as having the fastest-growing evangelical church in the world.
Compared to roughly 500 known Christians in 1979, there are now approximately 500,000 (some sources say up to 1 million secret believers). According to Elam Ministries, an organization founded in 1990 by Iranian church leaders, more Iranians have become Christians in the last 20 years than in the previous 13 centuries put together since Islam came to Iran.
That growth continues to create tension between the government and the church.