Why is Iran hard to reach with the gospel? In this episode of Neighborhoods & Nations, Steven Morales explores the city of Tehran and the history of Persia to understand why life is difficult for Iranian Christians. Despite the persecution, the church is growing and multiplying. Today, Iranian Christians are praying for God to bring revival to Iranian cities like Tehran, Isfahan, and Mashhad as he did to Ninevah thousands of years ago.
It’s April, 1951. The World Wrestling Championships are being held in Helsinki, Finland. And this is a year that one of the greatest Persian athletes won Iran’s first international medal, the silver in wrestling. His name was Gholamreza Takhti, and he was just getting started. One year later, he went to the Summer Olympics in Melbourne where he finally brought home the Gold. Takhti’s career in wrestling took him all over the world winning medal after medal. This guy was a national icon, one of the most beloved figures in Iran’s history. I mean, they made a movie about him.
But he was loved, not just because of his athletic feats, but also because of the kind of guy he was. He was honorable and fair in his wrestling matches. He once found out an opponent was injured in one leg, so he intentionally avoided it and only attacked the other. When he beat the reigning champ of the world in Moscow, he noticed his opponent’s mother was crying, so he pulled her aside and comforted her. When an earthquake devastated Buin Zahra in 1961, Takhti walked the streets calling on everyone, especially other prominent Iranians, to provide help and relief. He was in many ways a man of the people. But why does all of this matter?
A few months ago, I was in Tehran, the capital city of Iran. And I first learned about Takhti when I visited his grave with a local guide. His unexpected and controversial death caused a stir in the nation, and thousands showed up to his funeral. It was clear that the man buried in this tomb was different from the others.
It looked like a tomb for a king, or a Shah, as they’re known in Persian. And back in the sixties, Iran was ruled by the Shah. But unlike Takhti, the Shah and his regime were not as beloved or praised by the public. Across a backdrop of political corruption, economic strife, and natural disasters, people had very little faith in their leadership. They lived in fear and distress, but they couldn’t complain out of fear of being harassed, arrested, or even killed by the Shah’s secret police. The contrast between a leader like Takhti and the Shah couldn’t be clearer. While we were at Takhti’s grave, my guide, a devout Muslim, told me story after story of the hardships and discontentment of living under the Shah.
But it’s what he said at the end of his stories that stood out to me the most. Living under the Shah was terrible, but life today under the Islamic regime is a hundred times worse.
Hard to Reach: Iran
My name is Steven Morales. I’m part of the team here at Radical. For the past year, we’ve been documenting stories of God’s work around the world and what that has to do with us in a series we call “Neighborhoods & Nations.”
I want to take you on a journey through the history of one of the oldest civilizations on the planet, tracing back thousands of years to understand the complexities, ruptures, and fractures of a nation and how that has led to cultural and religious challenges that make Iran such a hard to reach place that is bursting with opportunity gospel growth today.
The truth is, if you’re a part of Western Christianity and watching this, you’ve probably only seen Iran through the limited lens of news headlines or Hollywood movies. It’s possible that, like me, you’ve never actually considered going or sending or supporting indigenous churches in a place that just seems like another Nineveh. But if God’s heart is to reach all nations, then we have to ask ourselves, how did some of these nations, nations like Iran, become so hard to reach? And is it possible that God could bring a revival to cities in Iran like Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz, just like he did to Nineveh? This is “Hard To Reach: Iran.“
Revolution, Resistance, and Revival
So, let’s go back to the 1960s. Iran is being ruled by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Since the time of the Medes, yeah, like the ones you read about in Daniel and Isaiah, Iran has been ruled by Shahs. And Pahlavi was the last of those Shahs, and he was allegedly trying to make Iran a secular country. He came to power after World War II with promises of freedom and growth and modernity for Iran like never before. And while things seemed to be going in that direction, Pahlavi was not the ruler the people of Iran hoped for. His life was marked by excess, throwing lavish parties and living a life of luxury while his people starved and struggled through a national economic crisis.
This was nothing new for the Pahlavi dynasty or even for the dynasties that ruled before, like the Qajar dynasty, which started all the way back in 1789. Iran has had a long history of unjust rulers, revolutions, and changes of powers. And in order to understand why this is relevant, for us today we need to look back even further, back to before Iran was even called Iran.
That’s right, Persia. It’s not every day you can trace the history of a country back to the Bible, but flip open the Old Testament, and you’ll find a lot about the Persian Empire. We hear about Persian rulers in places like 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Ezekiel, but you probably know it best from this story:
The VeggieTales (singing):
“Oh no! What we gonna do?
The king likes Daniel more than me and you”
“Surely your God is above all men
Now I understand
For even at the bottom of the lions’ den
You were in his hands”
Daniel and the lion’s den, Darius and the Mede, all of this is happening during what is called the Achaemenid dynasty, one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen, and it all happened right here in Iran. The story literally ends saying, “So this Daniel prospered in the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian,” who’s also known as Cyrus the Great.
Cyrus was the leader that Isaiah prophesied about in Isaiah 45, saying he would bring Israel back from exile. Cyrus was the founder of the first great Persian Empire that extended over the southeast of Europe and Egypt and into parts of India. His grandson, Xerxes, was also an important Bible figure. You might remember him with another name.
“Now, in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia, he gave a feast for all his officials and servants. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were before him.” Esther 1:1-12
This is the beginning of the book of Esther, and it’s also happening in present-day Iran.
So 2,500 years ago, Persia was a powerful empire that ruled over almost half the population on Earth. And it seemed like for a moment there, Persia was poised to rule the world. And then history took a turn that no man could have foreseen. A group of tribes that had historically been dispersed and at odds with each other united under one man and one creed and began expanding into Iran. Arab forces made their first incursion onto Iranian soil right after the death of Muhammad in 683 AD.
At this point, the Persian Empire had worn itself out from internal civil war while defending its grounds from the Romans and now found itself fighting off a Muslim army. They pressed on and continued to fight for almost two decades, but this new Islamic threat would ultimately prove the demise of the Neo-Persian Empire. And so Islam entered Iran.
Islam in Iran: Resistance
Now, we can’t cover a whole religion in one video, but for the sake of this story, there are some things you should know. Islam is an Arabic word that literally means submitting. Muslim means one who submits to God. You may have heard the Islamic creed, “There is no God, but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.” Their holy book is called the Quran, which should only be read and studied in Arabic. There are two major denominations in Islam: Sunni and Shia. Across the world, Sunnis make up the majority, but the most well-known exception is in Iran. The split between these two denominations happened in the first generation of Islam in the seventh century, and the breaking point was about who should be Muhammad’s successor.
Today, there are a number of theological and practical differences between the two, but they do share some common beliefs. Islam has a high regard for Jesus, considering him a prophet and a sinless man. However, it denies him his rightful place as a son of God and the payment for our sin. Muslims may be devout and earnest in their beliefs, but just like everyone else, they’re in desperate need of salvation. I talk a little bit more about this later.
So back to the story, the Muslim conquest of 651 AD changed the game in Iran, transforming its political and religious landscape, but many Iranians today are still resisting Muslim influence.
Nima Alizadeh: Yeah, so I mean, Persian culture goes back a lot. I mean we see it in the Bible too. When Islam actually came to Iran and the Islamic way impacted Iran, slowly and slowly we adapted the culture, but when you go back to the root, we are Persians. That’s how Iranians would look at it. We say we are Persians, we are not Arabs. It’s not that, you know, being Arab is bad, no, but we have our own identity. So Islam was not part of our culture. We had our own culture. Now, Iranians actually wanted to regain that culture again.
So they’re opposing the Islamic way and thinking, because we think, okay, this is for another world.
Steven: This is my friend, Nima Alizadeh. Before he became a believer, he was also a star athlete in Iran, not in wrestling, but playing for the national basketball team. When he converted to Christianity, he was forced to leave his home and dreams of playing professional basketball. But the Lord took him on a different path, training Iranian church leaders for gospel ministry and translating a whole bunch of resources into Farsi. He knows firsthand what it’s like to grow up under the heavy weight of Islam in Iran.
Nima: When you go to school, for example, you have to learn Arabic to be able to read the Quran, and then pray five times in Arabic. So still, you have no idea what you’re talking about, but you’re just, you know, rehearsing something every day. You have no idea what you’re talking about. And then we say, okay, like 2,000 years ago, we had this in Farsi. Why can’t we just keep that culture? Why can’t we just be Persians and have the freedom of having our own God and worshiping, you know, God in the way that we want to, you know, worship our God?
Steven: When your country is so culturally rich and historically influential, for outsiders to only see you as Muslim, it’s a bit insulting. While there are many people groups within Iran, Persians, in particular, have existed for thousands of years before anybody who spoke Arabic ever entered their land. All of this is crucial to understanding Iran’s history and even to understand what’s happening with Christians today. Islam may be Iran’s national religion, but it wasn’t always that way. It’s not even what most Iranians want today.
Iranians: Hospitable Truth Seekers
Quick break from the rest of the video. We’re currently in Tehran, in Shahr Park, really close to the Grand Palace, the Grand Bazaar, and it’s incredible, the hospitality, the kindness we have faced in this country. A lot of people look at Iran and maybe don’t have the best impression, but really when you get here, you realize how much the media probably doesn’t tell you the full story.
So I’m guessing the majority of people watching this haven’t been to and aren’t planning on going to Iran anytime soon. And if that’s the case, I just wanna let you in on a little something. There’s something just lovely and unique about the people of Iran. They’re truth seekers.
They’re really not afraid to ask you questions, even hard questions. But at the same time, they’re very warm and inviting. Culturally, you just don’t know hospitality until you’ve experienced Persian hospitality. I mean, I was walking through a park here in Tehran when a woman approached me and for no other reason than seeing that I was from out of town invited me to sit with her family, drink tea, and eat sweets. I mean, I think every Christian can learn something about hospitality from our Iranian brothers and sisters. It doesn’t matter how far or different a place may seem to us, the image of God is everywhere, and it’s beautiful to see. And it’s why this story matters so much.
Islam in Iran: Revolution
Alright, back to the story. It’s December 1979, and after years of political instability and public demonstrations, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown and forced to leave the country. You see, Pahlavi was no stranger to Western influence. He was after all a huge proponent of secularization. And if you watch historical footage of Iran in the 60s and 70s, you’ll notice it doesn’t look all that different than some places in Europe and even the US. And while initially many supported Pahlavi, dissatisfaction grew, particularly among Muslims, who felt that Western influence had gotten too strong. Not to mention that the Shah’s opulent lifestyle left many wondering how he could throw such lavish parties while the people were going hungry.
All of this led to the point of no return. The Shah was deposed and in came the Islamic Republic’s new supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Things were about to drastically change for the people of Iran, beginning with a new leader, a new Islamic constitution that would shape the life of every citizen moving forward, meaning no more religious freedom. Islam is the rule of law. And most of all a new name, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Islamic Republic of Iran
Now, I want to talk about what this actually means for believers in Iran. And I know that talking about government structures may not be the most exciting thing, but it is really relevant for our story here. And so let me take one minute to break down what it means to live under an Islamic republic.
As a republic and as part of the UN, Iran technically has a separation of powers. There’s an elected president, a constitution, a parliament of 290 elected officials. These officials represent all the people groups of Iran. And there are even three seats reserved for leaders of traditionally Christian backgrounds. There’s a chief justice, police, and armed forces. Everything a typical government needs to function. But let’s go back to that word Islamic. Being an Islamic republic means that the latter is subject to the former. Yes, Iran has a president, but above the president, there is a supreme leader, known as the Ayatollah, which means a sign from God.
And the Ayatollah can approve or remove any president at any time. He sits at the top of the guardian council, which approves or removes every member of parliament. He supervises the special clerical court that handles religious and clerical matters. He appoints the chief justice, and you guessed it, the police and armed forces answer to him as well. Iran is one of only three Islamic republics in the world. And when you get down to it, you can see how it doesn’t actually function like a republic at all. But here’s why this matters. For the last 40 years, politics and religion in Iran have been one and the same.
Nima Alizadeh: It’s the Islamic Republic of Iran, so the main religion is Islam. So you cannot have any other religion rather than Islam. So when you are born in Iran, you are told you are Muslim. You have to practice Islam since that’s your religion by birth.
Islam in Iran Led to Christian Revival
Steven: Islam is not a choice. It’s what you’re forcibly born into. And in people’s minds, the rule of the government and the rule of Islam are the same thing. There is no separation between the church and state. And while that has elevated the level of persecution against Christians and other religious groups, it’s also had one huge unexpected consequence.
And I’ll say it like this, the Islamic regime came to power in a time when people were looking for hope for the future. And they came on a wave of promises that things would change for the better, but that didn’t happen.
Ramtin Soodman: For example, the promise of their religious leader in Iranian never takes place in Iran. And it causes that people search about their, for example, truths in the other way. You know, because before that, Iranian was so strong in Islam, but after they started Islamic Revolution, they found out there is nothing in Islam.
Steven: They were disappointed by it.
Ramtin Soodman: Yes.
Steven: This is Ramtin Sudman. Ramtin is an Iranian pastor who recently had to flee his home because of persecution. He’s also the son of the first Christian martyr who was officially killed by the Iranian government after the Islamic revolution took place.
So what happened after the Iranian revolution?
Ramtin Soodman: The excitement caused by the establishment of the First Republic Regime based on the law of Islamic Sharia and the hope of creating utopia so quickly faded in the eyes of many Iranians because, not only all social problems, despite the initial promise of the religious leaders of the Iranian revolution, such as poverty, discrimination, corruption, never disappeared, but also all problem were clearly visible in Iran’s society more than before. And this caused unanswered questions among Iranians.
Steven: The Islamic regime was not able to deliver on its promises to build a better country. And the disillusionment and disappointment people felt after wasn’t only with their government, but with Islam itself. And for people whose culture values the search for truth, this led many on a search for truth elsewhere, particularly in Christianity. It was in many ways the first step towards revival.
Ramtin Soodman: Perhaps the corrupt fruit of Iran’s government had left a bitter taste in people, but it never tired them of searching for the truth. The positive evidence and good testimony of the life of Armenian and Christian communities in Iran during the years draw a lot of attention to Christianity among Iranians.
Steven: There’s this quote by CS Lewis in his book “Miracles.” He says, “Every good chess player takes what is precisely the strong point in his opponent’s plan and makes it the pivot of his own plan.” He takes his opponent’s best move and makes it work in his own favor. He makes unpredictable moves. This is kind of the pattern of persecution that we see across the world and in places like Iran. God’s enemies will do everything in their power to crush the gospel, but somehow God turns it around and makes it work in his own favor to advance the gospel.
And so if you take away anything from this first episode, it should be that life for Christians in Iran is not easy, and that’s a huge understatement. But we also need to acknowledge that life is not easy for Iranians in general living under the Islamic regime. There is a long list of urgent physical and spiritual needs and yet God is doing something incredible and unpredictable here in Iran which we’ll dive into in the next episode.