Sunday, November 14, 2010

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.