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Iran inching toward freedom, but Christians still oppressed

TEHRAN, Iran (BP)–Iran moved another step closer to freedom nearly a generation after the nation’s Islamic revolution when reformist President Mohammad Khatami and his allies won major victories in February’s parliamentary elections.

But Iranian Christians have some advice for outsiders expecting a new birth of religious liberty in post-revolutionary Iran: Don’t hold your breath.

“I’ve seen a lot of indications of change, and I believe (Khatami) wants change,” says a Christian worker in close touch with Iran’s much-persecuted evangelical minority. “But make no mistake. Even though the rhetoric is moderation, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is more openness for what we want to do.”

Just a week after the elections, Iran’s “religion police” were searching apartments in Tehran, Iran’s capital, for forbidden satellite TV receivers. The dragnet illustrated the continuing power of Islamic fundamentalists — regardless of public support for more freedom — to intimidate average Iranians. Iran’s small evangelical Christian community and other religious minorities can expect the same and probably worse.

“Among the Iranian Christians we talked to there is no real sense that anything is going to change for Christians” in the near term, says another long-time Iran observer. “They do not feel Muslim converts (to Christ) are going to have any better deal in Iran. In fact, after Khatami was first elected (in 1997), when the world rejoiced, there was a new wave of pressure put on the church in Iran. So what you see is not what you get.”

Iran’s Islamic religious authorities retain ultimate power, including the military and the right to veto any legislation passed by parliament. The ayatollahs have shown no sign of greater tolerance toward certain religious minorities.

Converts to Christ and those who lead them to faith can still face harsh persecution — including death.

“Authorities have become particularly vigilant in recent years in curbing what is perceived as increased proselytizing activities by evangelical Christians,” notes the just-released 1999 Report on International Religious Freedom from the U.S. State Department. “Government officials have reacted to this perceived activity by closing evangelical churches and arresting converts.”

Christians also must carry church membership cards and present them on demand, according to the report. Church leaders must inform the Ministry of Information and Islamic Guidance before receiving new believers into their congregations. Reports of ongoing harassment include the posting of Islamic Revolutionary Guards outside Christian churches to “discourage” Muslims or Muslim converts to Christ from entering.

Up to 23 “disappearances” of evangelical believers in Iran were reported in 1997-1998 alone.

Despite such conditions, Iranian believers inside and outside Iran are cautiously optimistic about the political changes — and hoping for more.

“They feel it’s a very important time to pray that the relationship between the United States and Iran might change,” says a Christian worker. “The Iranian Christian community (in the United States) is praying and indeed is beginning to write letters to the White House asking President Clinton to reconsider the U.S. economic embargo against Iran. They feel that if America takes a softening stand, Iran will respond.”

More than 60 percent of Iran’s population of 66 million is age 30 and under. Many of them seem more interested in economic opportunity and stability than ideological war with the West.

“They don’t remember the revolution,” says one insider. “They don’t have any bones to pick. How many kids in the U.S. remember Vietnam? They’re interested in being more tolerant, having a better economy. They have a right to be angry about some of the things the West has done to them in the past, but at the same time they would like to get on with being in the 21st century.”

They also are increasingly open to the Christian gospel — especially those who travel or live outside Iran. Four million Iranians now live in other countries; half of them are in the United States.

“When I go to American churches I ask how many people know an Iranian personally; in a place like Washington, D.C., 20 or 30 people will raise their hands,” says a worker. “There’s probably an Iranian in your sphere of life and that Iranian is very possibly more open to the gospel than your average American friend.”

The worker described a recent meeting in the United States with an Iranian Muslim who had left his homeland:

“He said, ‘I would walk by a church building in Iran, hoping that a curtain was open just enough that I could look inside. I was desperate to know what was going on inside a church, but I was totally fearful.’ When he came to America the first thing he did was get on the Internet, find the Gospel of John in Persian and read it. Two weeks ago I led him to Christ. There’s incredible thirst.”

That’s happening all across Asia, Europe and the Americas, the worker adds. And expatriate Iranian believers are sharing their spiritual discoveries with family members and friends back home through telephone calls, letters and increasing personal visits.

“Iran is welcoming (expatriate Iranians) back to spend their dollars in Iran,” the worker says. “In the last few months I’ve talked to seven or eight Iranians who’ve gone back, shared the gospel and led people to Christ. I know a fellow who went back and showed the ‘Jesus’ film to his whole village. It’s like putting dye in a stream; it goes downstream and touches the whole ocean.”

So why are Iranians responding to the gospel now?

Many Iranians have been pushed into a search for truth by the suffering and dislocation of the 1979 Islamic revolution, the long Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and other hardships. A massive prayer movement among Christians worldwide for Iranians apparently has increased the intensity of their search — and led many to find Jesus Christ.

“Iranians are having incredible dreams about Christ,” says one awe-filled observer. “I ask them, ‘How did you know it was Jesus?’ And they say, ‘I know without a shadow of a doubt it was Jesus.’ Sometimes they’ll say, ‘There were nail holes in his hands’ or ‘There was a crown of thorns on his head.’

“God is seeking out the Iranian people by His spirit at this moment in history.”

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