What is it like being a Christian in Iran? In this episode of Neighborhoods and Nations, Steven Morales speaks to Iranian Christians about Iran’s secret church. Nima Alizadeh, an Iranian Christian, tells us about the persecution that Christians face in Tehran.
Steven Morales: Are you sure you want to go to Iran? I got this question a lot in the weeks leading up to our trip. Like anyone who has traveled to places known for Christian persecution. I got some looks when I told others where I was going, but that’s not really surprising. What was surprising, though, were the first words I heard when I arrived in Iran from the customs officer. He asked, almost in disbelief. “Why are you here?”
If you’re a Christian? The answer to that question will shape your life. Might change the way you look at money. The things you spend time and energy on. It might change the way you look at the person you could potentially marry. It might take you to places you never imagined you’d go to and might even take you to a mosque.
Not all mosques are the same, but they’re all fascinating architectural wonders, and they’re the center of religious life for Muslims. For devout Muslims, daily life revolves around prayer. They pray five times a day. And mosques are built as centers of worship and prayer. Before they pray, they perform a ritual cleansing at a fountain in the courtyard. Then men and women separate into two different rooms and pray in rows behind the Imam or the leader of the congregational prayers who stands on the Minbar, which is like a pulpit.
This all involves standing, bowing, and sitting on prayer mats, all an act of submission to Allah. So when Muslims pray, they’re supposed to be pointing towards Mecca, the city where it’s believed Muhammad received visions from Allah. And we see this in the architecture of mosque because they have a Mihrab or a niche in the wall that indicates the direction of Mecca. There’s even a tower called a Minaret where the call to prayer is announced. Plus, you’ve probably also noticed most mosques have a dome, and that’s because it represents the vault of heaven. So much of the physical building has representative elements of their faith. So you won’t see the same type of iconography or art that you’d see in a Catholic church or a gothic cathedral in.
You know, I’ve been to a lot of mosques outside of Iran. Many of them are huge, beautiful buildings that attract thousands of visitors. As soon as I got to Iran, I visited a mosque after mosque of different shapes and sizes. There were no tourists here, no one taking selfies. Just hundreds and even thousands of Muslims praying to Allah.
There are places on this earth where the atmosphere of spiritual warfare is palpable. You can feel the enemy. And we realize the danger of visiting this place. Just getting these shots required us to use small, hidden cameras. And yet this is just a small taste of what Christians in Iran face every day. There are no church buildings. There’s no freedom to worship Jesus openly. To follow Jesus means to live in enemy territory.
So if you ask me why I went to Iran, I went to understand the struggles of my brothers and sisters and what life under persecution looks and feels like. Ultimately, I came to find the answer to the question What does the church look like in a nation of mosques?
Steven: In spite of travel advisories, tourism in Iran is a growing economy, and it’s consistently gone up over the years. In 2019, right before the pandemic, Iran was visited by 9.1 million tourists, about 2 million more than the year before. That makes Iran the fourth most visited nation in the Middle East, only behind Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. And there’s a lot to see for any Bible nerds out there. You can visit Esther’s and Mordechai’s tombs or you can go to the Galician Palace or Persepolis and see traces of ancient history stories of leaders and empires from thousands of years ago. Or you could visit Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, a marketplace filled with everything that’s been there for hundreds of years. Or you could race down a roller coaster on Mount Tochal.
There is so much to see in Iran, but no matter where you go, one thing you can escape is that it’s the Islamic Republic of Iran. Islam is everywhere. There are pictures of the Ayatollah everywhere. Our hotel didn’t have Gideon Bibles in the drawers. They had Korans and prayer mats and an arrow on the ceiling pointing you to Mecca. As we were exploring Tehran, our guide would stop several times throughout the day at different mosques to do his prayers. It all got me wondering. In a country that is so dominated by Islam, how would anyone even hear about Jesus?
Steven: Tell me a little bit about your story. How did you come to know Jesus? And just what was that journey like?
Iman (Iranian Christian): I was born in a Muslim Shia family.
Steven: This is Iman. He spent almost a decade as a refugee in Turkey after needing to flee Iran because of his faith.
Iman: Unfortunately Muslims do believe that the Jews and Christians are not clean and they call them Najis. It means that you cannot touch them because if you touch these people, you will be unclean. But my father, in the way he taught us, he said: “No, you shouldn’t think that way”.
I remember it was Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the fasting day. All the Jews are fasting for one day, 24 hours. That night I remember my very good friend. And he told me, Iman, if we are believing every single, and we are doing all of the single laws in the Sharia and in the Ten Commandments, but we are not believing in the Mashiach or the Messiah to come, you are not even Jew. And then, it was in my mind, and about one year after there was a church, and they were talking about Jesus.
And they said Jesus is the Christ and he is the Messiah. And I heard that, and that was just all of my attention came. And was listening to them, and they had a phone number. They said, if you want a New Testament, send us an email. And then I sent an email to them, “Can I have a New Testament?”
Steven: Iman received the copy of the New Testament, and he couldn’t put it down because of both his Muslim background and his Jewish friends he was already a little familiar with Old Testament stories, but this New Testament gave him the true interpretation of who Christ was.
Iman: And after that, I went to my friend, he is Jewish. And I said, I heard that Jesus is the Son of God, and He is the Messiah you are looking for. And my friend said, no, Jesus was a liar, and he said many, many bad things about Jesus. I was shocked because I really trusted him. You know?
Steven: Your Jewish friend?
Iman: The Jewish friend, yes. One night I was feeling so, so bad. And I kept reading my New Testament. I knew I was a sinner. I knew I have no way to be getting salvation. I knew that. You know? But then I was reading the New Testament. My heart was full of the joy of God. It was the first time I prayed to God that if you are really the Son of God, please save me. Please help me.
The minute I prayed that and I finished, I feel like everything in the atmosphere in my room has changed. And I felt like the presence of God, and I heard the voice. It said, “Iman, follow me. I want to change your life.” And I was just looking back at my back, and I saw a light and I saw Jesus there, and He showed his hand to me, and said, “Iman, I died for you. Follow me, I want to change your life.” I started to cry.
Steven: Government numbers will identify 99% of the population as Muslim. Not really surprising when everyone is automatically assigned Islam as a religion at birth. But the reality is that that number is much lower. Some reports even have it under 50%.
I touched on this in a previous video, but an Islamic government that imposes Islam on its people does not equal a truly Islamic people. And when that government continues to use, let down, and even oppress its own people, you can understand how many Iranians would be dissatisfied and disillusioned with Islam as a whole.
But what’s most encouraging isn’t necessarily Islam’s decline, but rather how much Christianity has grown. Because even though many Iranians were let down by Islam, it didn’t mean they stopped looking for answers.
Milad (Iranian Christian): In my country, Iran, when I grew up. All the things you can do belong or use to belong to the mosque. So if you wanna play ping-pong or football, I mean, soccer, football.
Steven: Yeah we know, the real football.
Milad: Yes, the real football. Exactly. So you should go to mosque. So I was in the mosque almost every day and people were praying, doing the Islamic namaz and everything, and the mullahs were there.
So I always had questions.
Steven: This is Milad. He left Iran years ago after facing relentless persecution. He told me about how he would often go to the mullah or religious leader of his community to try to understand the Koran.
Milad: I always had questions. So once I asked one of them, “What do these words mean in Quran?” And that man told me, “We don’t know.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” He said this is a secret between the prophet and God. So I was like, I’m hearing you telling all these people that this book is given to guide us. So why do we need to have some secrets between the Prophet and God in the book, which its role is to, you know, guide us in life and we don’t know the meanings?
Steven: Imagine seeking the truth only to be told God was keeping secrets. What a disappointment. But in God’s good grace, there is something in Persian culture that just drives them to keep pressing on, looking for answers. And in that search, many are finding Jesus.
Iranian Christian Woman: When I read the Quran in Farsi, a series of questions came to me that I had never encountered before, because we always read the Quran in Arabic, and I saw that it was written in the Quran that the only one who had the Holy Spirit was Jesus Christ.
The only person who is going to judge the world was Jesus Christ, and as I was reading, questions came to me for which there was no answer, and when I asked my father, he said that we don’t know these questions, only scholars do, and I was so scared because I knew if I continued to read the Quran like that, I would lose my Muslim identity, so I stopped reading the Quran.
Steven: For security reasons, I can’t say much about her. But her story is one of many of Persians searching for answers.
Iranian Christian Woman: One day I came to this conclusion, little by little God showed me that Islam is a lie. Something happened to me, I realized that Muhammad is a prophet who came and died, but Islam says that Jesus is alive, and it will come again. Then the question for me was, if Jesus is alive and he is going to judge the world, then why does God send a prophet who dies and cannot do anything for people?
When I opened the Bible to read it at once I realized the true meaning of Jesus’ name, which means Savior, and it was there that I gave my heart to Jesus Christ. and I said, “Jesus, I put my hands in your hands.”
Steven: Remember Nima? He came out in the first episode of this series. He knows a thing or two about reaching Iran.
Nima Alizadeh: In the West, you can just get on the radio or TV or just do public ministry. In Iran it’s different, you have to work strategies like we go shopping, again, we don’t need to shop, but we go pretending to be shoppers and talking to the sales persons because again, those are the ones who are actually meeting so many people on a daily basis. But again, there are lots of challenges.
Iman: One year after, God connected me with some of the other people, like four or five people. They came to faith and they had just one New Testament.
Steven: The one you got you would share with the other five friends.
Iman: Yeah, sometimes we’d print them and give them to them to read it. And we go somewhere, like a mountain, and we start to pray for that city. And then, we walk into a street and we just pray for that city, you know? And if we have some opportunity, we share the Gospel to them.
Nima: At one instance, I remember we were talking to a guy and then he said “Ok, let me call my friend to come in here”, and we realized he was actually calling the police. So still is dangerous. Out here some people are doing bus evangelism. It’s a bit risky, but when they are getting off, they just get up, and say, “Jesus is the Savior”, and then leave some Bibles, and they just take off.
Iman: And God, after three years, we, one time, we came together just thinking, just working and working. And then, we came to recognize that we were almost 300 people.
Steven: Just from one on one, sharing the Gospel through conversation.
Steven: I was walking through the courtyard of the Ibn Babvieh cemetery, the same one where Tahkti is buried, and I came across a funeral service taking place. This is a historic site where technically you’re not allowed to bury people anymore. But many still do. Funerals can mark some of the most somber and dark moments of our lives. And as most Christians have experienced, it’s one of those occasions where we’re especially thankful to have a church family.
We’re supposed to come alongside those experiencing loss, right? Weep with those who weep. And it’s a time when your pastor or other members of your church join you to pray or share words from Scripture, and counsel family members.
But all of that got me thinking. What happens when a Christian in Iran dies or someone in your house church passes away? Or what about other significant moments in the lives of Christians? Baptisms, weddings. Even just regular church. Where do you go?
Nima: About 25 years ago, we had buildings, but I think about five or six years ago, they shut down all the churches. So we had house group churches. Everything is underground. Everything is house churches now. So Iranian churches now in Iran, are house cells, like China. So they meet in groups, the houses, they move around meetings. They have to be really careful even over the over the phone. They cannot be direct. They cannot call each other brothers and sisters.
They have to be really, really careful in terms of gatherings, evangelism, singing songs, preaching everywhere in the society they go. They have to be mindful, especially when they are in closed gatherings, like family gatherings or any parties they go, they have to be careful when they talk about their personal beliefs because you never know. Maybe your brother and your parents, your family members will turn you in.
Iranian Christian Woman: Well, I went to both a church building as well as a house church. It was very good to have close fellowship in the house church. But, well, we could never worship loudly. And if I were to say a little bit about the positive points, the fellowship we had together, and the fact that the house church was focused on teaching and spiritual nourishment, which was very useful for us.
We got more spiritual nourishment. We were able to serve more, I mean, the service opportunities I had in the house church, I never experienced in the church building.
Milad: What makes me sad nowadays is when people talk about church, they make it so complicated and professional-sounding. But where I grew up, it was a bunch of us, mostly young people, who became Christian, and the family denied them or they don’t want to be around them. They come and join us. We were like a family. We had food and we talk, we sing. I play the little guitar and we sing worship song. We eat food, we read the Bible and we try to understand.
We ask the churches in Tehran and, you know, the more mature Christian brothers we know, to help us to understand the Scripture, and we grow up. So it was very raw and it was a very close relationship based kind of gathering. Although we did not have many things, we did not have so many people or big buildings. But what is the purpose of the church? Growing and help other people to know Christ. And I think we succeed on that.
Steven: Was that something where you guys were meeting in secret?
Steven: Was it difficult to communicate with other Christians? I mean, what did it look like? Like how do you share the gospel? How do you do that when it’s all, you know, secretive?
Milad: Secret. Yes, all in secret. We were all 007 agents. We know how to, you know, they took off the sim-cards from the phone, put it into their, you know, out somewhere safe, and always someone by the window, always checking the outside and not singing with a loud voice, everything.
But we know we were risking our life, you know, but it was like that’s the life that God is giving us and it was worth risking it to reach others.
Steven: That’s the point.
Milad: Yeah, that’s the point.
Iman: One time, when I was sharing the gospel, the government arrested me. One night they beat me, and one night I have been in jail, and they bring me out. Is the first time they arrest me.
Steven: Because you were evangelizing.
Iman: Evangelizing. And it was Christmas, we made a small bag. It’s was a small book, named The Way of the Salvation. We printed it, and put some chocolates. We put it in the bag and we passed it out to people and say, “Merry Christmas”. After I arrived home at 3 a.m. and I see that someone knocked on the door and it was two big guys. I opened the door and one of them had a camera and the other one came and they put us and my family to sit in chairs.
And then they came and they took everything, like my books and computer, everything. And they brought me to jail. I spent days in 29 one room I didn’t know if it was morning or night or what is that?
Steven: They put you in a room where you didn’t know what time it was.
Iman: They brought me to the court and they said “You are blamed as a spy for Israel.”
Steven: A spy for Israel?
Iman: And then making some groups against the government. And because in Iran we don’t have Christian punishment they put you in the category of political punishment.
Steven: This is one aspect of the story that’s worth exploring more and will do so in the next video. The realities of modern society and belonging to organizations like the U.N. should technically move Iran to treat its citizens with a certain level of dignity and care that they’re currently violating, particularly to minorities like Christians.
Milad: I was studying software engineering in the university, and I was on my last semester when they arrested my father and everyone else. And then the school authority called me in the office and said, This is your last semester finish it or not, we’re not going to give you a certificate.
And I think that’s the many, one of the many few things that Islamic regime said nd they actually did what they said. They did not give me my certificate. So challenges from everywhere. We, my wife and I, were running a computer shop. They came and closed and shut it down every single morning. We would go to our office and it was shut down. It was like official paper on the door that you cannot open it, come and pay a visit to this office And that office.
And we went and spent the whole day. And by the end of the day, they were saying, “Oh, we’re sorry, that was a mistake. It was not you. It was just something else. Oh, sorry.” And then tomorrow it was another department coming to shut it down.
Steven: Seems like the government doesn’t necessarily always want to put you in jail, but they want to make life impossible for you. So the story that I’m hearing over and over again from just different people I’ve had the opportunity to talk to is you lose your education, your access to education, you lose your access to your job, business, and you lose access to people around you, even just because of fear, because you don’t want to put them in danger. Or maybe people don’t even want to relate to you anymore either. They’re afraid that they’ll also be persecuted in a similar way.
Milad: They were monitoring us wherever we go. I went to pay a visit to my uncle’s house, one day, which he was not, and he still isn’t a Christian believer. After like, about an hour after we left, he called and said, “I do really love you, but stop coming to my house. Immediately after you left, some people called. And asked me these questions: ‘What was he doing there? Was he talking about Christ? Was he trying to make you a Christian?’” and he was like, “‘He is just my brother’s son. And, you know, he was just here’, but I don’t want this. I don’t want them to call me.”
Steven: There’s a lot to wrap your mind around here, and I can’t help but try to put myself in the shoes of Iranian believers. Imagine this for your own life. You’re born into a culture that values asking questions and searching for truth. But at the same time into a religion that you are forced to practice, and to reject it could mean losing your job, your family, your home, even your life.
Following Jesus comes at a tremendous cost. There’s no cultural or social advantage. It doesn’t make life easier. But as we’ll see in the next and final chapter of this series, following Jesus does make life with all of its pains and sorrows worth it.