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Iranian Christians pressed during protests, but never without hope

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DURHAM, N.C. (BP) — Nathan Rostampour received yet another patchy correspondence today (Oct. 11) from his native Iran, where the internet has been shaky in the wake of protests that have the potential to change a decades-long regime.

“I’m in connection with house church leaders and church networks over there and thanks to God, they are safe. But they are under a lot of pressure,” said Rostampour, Central Asia Church Planting director for The Summit Church.

News of the Iranian protests is only now getting traction with Americans, but for Rostampour and others, it has been more than a month. That’s when Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old from Iran’s Kurdish region, died while being held by the country’s morality police.

“They beat her up and killed her just because she didn’t cover her hair properly,” he said.

That set off a wave of protests, with women publicly burning their hijabs and others doing the same to pictures of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Media reports say at least 185 have been killed, 19 of them minors, with hundreds injured and thousands arrested by police.

The protests started as women supporting other women. But that has changed to become something Rostampour calls “different.”

“It’s not only women, but people who are protesting the Islamic regime. They are saying ‘We don’t want you anymore.’ This isn’t just about economic problems or women’s freedom. It’s really different from previous times,” he said.

Rostampour and his family became Christians when he was a teenager through the witness of his aunt. That led to becoming involved in the house church movement throughout the country, working under threat from authorities. Forced to leave the country in his late 20s, he eventually settled in America where his current role connects him with 20 house churches in Iran.

The threat has been consistent. He visits those pastors in a nearby country where it’s safe a few times a year. Every Sunday he and his wife host a fellowship over Instagram, where VPNs, aliases, and encrypted programs are a must to protect the participants’ safety.  

Rostampour, whose story has been in BP and Christianity Today, said the breadth of the protests and their reach into Iranian society reflect a people desperate for freedom.

“Our hearts have been really heavy these days. We are thinking this may be the last chance for the Iranian people to end 43 years of oppression and persecution from these leaders,” he said.

“These protests are happening all over the country. There are oil workers, university professors, teachers, students, and people from old and younger generations. There is a hope that the country can be free from this brutal, evil government.”

Rostampour has seen this up close. In 2009 he was in Tehran among those protesting Iran’s presidential election in what was part of the Persian Spring. 

“We were there,” he said. “[Authorities] killed like 1,500 people. Yes, we were on the streets supporting people, praying for them. It was really scary because those people knew that if they lost, there was nowhere to go. So, they fought until the end.”

He has heard that the people are not only turning from the government, but because of Islam’s ruling factor, many have turned away from religion altogether.

However, he can’t help but connect that desire for peace and an intrinsic need for the freedom found only in Christ.

“They all want freedom and peace these days,” he said. “It gives us a great opportunity as the church to pray for Iran, and the people to find the peace and freedom in Jesus.

“Every week during our fellowship [on Instagram] we pray for this peace for Iran. We want them to know Iranian Christians are standing with them and praying for them and giving them hope because we have that hope.”

Americans, he added, can also pray for Iran and the churches there. They can help by being a voice for the Iranian people, as he urged in a recent Twitter video.

“Pray in your church this Sunday. Spread the word. Build awareness, because many don’t know the details of what’s going on,” he said.

As Rostampour checked his phone this morning on America’s east coast it was well into the day in Iran. The words of encouragement flashed among pastors.

“We are praying and continuing to serve.”

“It’s bad here. We’re in a battlefield but continuing to pray.”

“Our hearts are broken, but our hope is in the Lord.”

Those messages arrive every day.

“They are so bold and courageous,” he said. “I’m very proud of them.”

One Bible passage they share is Jeremiah 49:38-39. There, the Lord declares He will set his throne in Elam and “destroy their kings and officials. But in the latter days I will restore the fortunes of Elam.” (ESV)

Elam was a kingdom in modern-day Iran.

“This encourages them that God is at work,” said Rostampour. “They are not hopeless.”