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Hope for Iran: Interview with Andrew Boyd of Release International about the persecuted church in the Islamic Republic

Iranian journalism, Nada Amin, who received asylum in Israel, organized a demonstration in support of the Iranian people and their protests against the regime in Iran, at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, January 2, 2018. (Photo: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Iran has been foremost in the news lately, due to the unprecedented drone and missile attack in April by the Islamic Republic against Israel, followed by the death of the president and foreign minister last month. Underlying all of this has been the ongoing story of repression and human rights violations by the Iranian regime.

Paul Calvert of Bethlehem Voice Radio spoke to Andrew Boyd from Release International, a UK-based organization that serves the persecuted church in some 30 nations around the world.

“The most fundamental freedom that we have is the freedom of worship,” said Boyd. “It’s the freedom to think, the freedom to choose who we are and who we worship. And Iran is terrible on that issue of Christian freedoms and religious freedom.”

Civil unrest and protests against the Iranian government began in earnest in September 2022, after the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was severely beaten for not wearing the hijab according to the regime’s standards.

The plight of women in Iran, and other innocent prisoners, was also highlighted in the case of the British-Iranian woman, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The mother of a young daughter was arrested in April 2016, and finally released in March 2022, following a long campaign by her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, and after Britain paid an ostensibly outstanding debt to Iran of nearly £400 million (over $500 million).

“The Iranians are already rising up against the regime,” Boyd said, describing the women taking to the streets in large numbers to protest against the imposition of the hijab. “And that’s part of a general feeling within the country that the regime is far, far too repressive, and a desire for some kind of a liberalization…"

“You know,” Boyd continued, “there’s a wonderful passage in Scripture: ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free’ (Galatians 5:1). “So it’s in the heart of every human being. Anybody who’s ever watched the film ‘Braveheart’… you’ve got the cry of freedom going out, but there’s an echo there in every human heart, and we see the same thing happening in Iran.”

The desire of Iranian women to be free of the hijab, said Boyd, is an example of that same cry of freedom reaching people when they say, “Look, enough of this. This is a failed regime. It’s a corrupt regime. We’re looking for God, we’re looking for reality, and we’re looking for hope, and we’re not finding any of it here.”

Calvert asked about Christian women, in particular.

“What I can tell you is that Christian women who have been taking part in protests in Iran have been warned that the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has published reports in Iran, and they say that Christian women who take part in the anti-hijab protests face arrest, but they also are likely to face sexual assault if they’re imprisoned in Iran,” Boyd explained.

“So, for example, one woman, an Armenian Christian woman who was detained in 2022 during those hijab protests, she was held at Iran’s notorious Evin prison. A lot of Christians end up there. And her interrogator told her, ‘You thought that because you’re a Christian, you can do whatever you want and remove the hijab.’"

“And that interrogator then sexually assaulted her. So sexual assault is sadly quite commonplace for Christian women, and I’m sure it’s not only Christian women.”

Release International understands the disillusionment of Iranian women, Boyd said, “but it’s men too, who are saying this is a failed society.” He added that while the Iranian authorities downplay the size of the Church in the nation, “they are very, very well aware of the disillusionment, particularly among their young people.”

Boyd talked about the irony of a regime that is “considered to be incredibly corrupt,” while at the same time “supposed to stand up for the highest ideals of Islam," as an Islamic state.

“So this disillusionment is turning people to say, ‘What is life about? Why are we here? Why have they got it so wrong? And what is the way, the truth and the life?’ And for Christians, of course, those are the words of Jesus, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’, and many are finding him.”

“Iran is a very polarized country,” Boyd explained. “You’ve got hard-liners in power. And Ibrahim Raisi, the president – who died recently in the helicopter crash – he was a hard-liner. He was an ideologue – potential successor to the supreme leader, a man who was accused of the mass execution of political prisoners in the 1980s. And that’s something that he’s denied."

“When he died, you have the spectacle of people lamenting him, weeping for him, praying on the streets for him, and also others openly celebrating the fact that this hard-liner has died.”

Within this “extraordinarily polarized, but also very autocratic society, a very repressive society”, there is a hard line when it comes to religious freedom, so the church is heavily persecuted in Iran,” Boyd told Calvert. He said the authorities do not permit church services in the native language of Iran, Farsi, in an attempt to try to prevent services from happening.

“Minorities, such as Assyrians and Armenians, are allowed to worship because they are minorities. But many Christians looking for freedom of faith are driven underground. Many house churches are rounded up and arrested. Last year, during July and August, 119 Christians were arrested in raids, many of them because of their involvement in the underground house church movement."

“What’s happening is that the authorities see a very rapid growth in Christianity as a political attempt by the West to try to undermine their Islamic revolution,” Boyd explained.

As to the size of the Church in Iran, it is “very, very difficult to answer the true size,” Boyd said. “According to the authorities, it is not very big at all. But the most conservative estimates outside of Iran say something like 800,000, and others will say more than 1.2 million. We don’t know what the actual figures are, but the Iranian Church is often held up as a model of the fastest growing church in the world."

“The interesting thing is that, despite, or maybe because of, the open persecution that’s happening, the church is growing very, very rapidly there, and not only within Iran, but [thanks to] the Christians who are leaving the country, and many of them have left have been driven out. Some people are [talking about] a Christian revival amongst the Iranian diaspora in the United Kingdom and in other nations.”

Boyd said the thing that most people forget about Iran, because we think of it as an Islamic nation, is that it was born very early in the history of the Church. He quoted from the Book of Acts chapter 2, the Day of Pentecost, (Shavuot in the Hebrew calendar, which Israel will celebrate tomorrow evening and Wednesday):

“They were amazed and astonished, saying, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? How is it then we hear each of us in his own native language, including Parthians, Medes and Elamites.”

“Now those three people groups were from Persia, which today is known as Iran,” Boyd explained. “So the Church in Iran pre-dates Islam by hundreds of years. And it’s amazing to see that there is a revival of the Church in that country where the Gospel came as a result of the day of Pentecost.”

Boyd told Calvert the story of one person who had to flee the country, without using her actual name.

“Tabitha was forced to leave Iran after choosing to follow Jesus, and she told others about it and how she had been healed of cancer after Christians prayed for her. When she was 18, she was diagnosed with stomach cancer. A few years later, she was told she needed immediate surgery, and in the hospital, a Christian woman said, ‘Look, let’s pray together that Jesus will heal you’. So she prayed for Tabitha, who is at this time, a Shia Muslim woman. And that night, says Tabitha, I’m quoting her directly:

‘I had a dream. I saw Jesus coming to me and he was holding my hand. He told me not to be afraid. It was then that I realized fully that Jesus is God.’"

“And you know,” Boyd continued, “a growing number of Iranians report dreams and visions of Jesus. She recovered enough to attend a Christian conference. There was a further stage in her healing, and when she went back to Iran, she told her family and friends about that. Some of them mocked her, but her mother and her sister – they really wanted to know more. So Tabitha led them and some of her friends to faith in Christ. And that’s really when the trouble started for her, because the Iranian secret police found out that she and her husband were holding Christian meetings in her home and telling people about Jesus, and they raided the house.”

Knowing that the Iranian secret police would come after her and her children, Tabitha fled Iran. Release International has been supporting her with practical and pastoral help to begin that new life. The charity also trains women in leadership in the Church (once they have left Iran), which Boyd says is “really quite extraordinary when you think about what an ultra-conservative society” they come from.

Boyd gave examples of some positive signs in Iran, as well as evidence that the situation remains very dangerous, especially for Muslim converts.

He said some signs of potential change towards the church there, for example, a number of Christians have been released from prison, though arrests continue to take place. Some Christians have had their sentences reduced on appeal.

“But maybe the most significant thing is that in 2021,” Boyd recalled, “the Supreme Court ruled controversially - and as an outlier ruling because it hasn’t been taken up widely - that Christians who attended house churches could not be considered a threat to national security or as enemies of the state.

“That’s really, really significant,” he said. “It’s been pretty much ignored within Iran, but we’re seeing divisions within the society, including in the way Iran is approaching the Church.”

One of the changes for the worse, is that Iran has relaxed its laws on so-called ‘honor killings.’ These killings often happen within a family if somebody converts, Boyd explained. Tabitha, for instance, faced this threat. Women and girls, particularly those who leave Islam, are at risk of being killed by their own families as being so-called ‘traitors.’

Boyd noted another example of the difficulty that Muslims who have turned to Jesus face – that it’s illegal to drink alcohol. “Now, if you’re a Christian, you’re invited to take communion, and that can include alcohol. So Christians who’ve taken communion from an Islamic background, because they’re still considered to be Muslims, have been given 80 lashes for taking communion wine. So there’s hostility within society. There’s hostility under the law in Iran. It’s a very, very conservative society. And that’s why so many Christians have had to leave the country.”

Boyd said that it seems that fewer Christians are being killed for their faith than previously. In the past, Christian leaders have been targeted for assassination. “We’re seeing less of that, but we are seeing Christians rounded up and imprisoned. We’re seeing those Christians tortured…You put your life at risk.”

“And of course, for the rest of us in the free world,” Boyd continued, “where the worst kind of persecution we face is what I call ‘the persecution of the raised eyebrow’. It’s, you know, where somebody kind of looks at you askance and says, ‘You really believe that?’"

“That’s the worst most of us face. But in a country like Iran, it can cost you absolutely everything. You know, even if it doesn't cost you your life, it can cost you your family. It can cost mothers their children."

“The price is incredibly high in countries like Iran and other totalitarian states. And yet it’s a price that people are willing to pay because when they find Christ, they find life. And as Jesus said, ‘Those who who find Me find life.’ And if we’re looking to preserve our lives, actually in the end we lose our lives. We find our life when we find Christ.”

Boyd said that it is “extraordinary” to see how, under these circumstances, the Church continues to grow. He pointed out that authoritarian societies like Iran have not learned the lessons of history, that “the more you repress people, the tighter you clench your fist on them, the more they cry out for and gasp for freedom.”

In the case of the Iranians, it is not only freedom that people are hungry for, Boyd said, but they are also hungry for truth and life. “And they believe in God. They just want to find him. And many of them are finding Him in Jesus, who, as I said earlier about Tabitha, presented Himself to her in a dream.”

Speaking about the wider Middle East, Boyd said: “I’ve spoken to Christians who fled Syria and have gone to Lebanon, escaping down the mountains. And they too have had dreams and visions of Jesus, and they don’t know what they mean. But when they get to Lebanon, they see the crosses on the churches and they say, ‘I saw that in my dream!’”

“And they go into the churches and say, ‘What is this? Tell me what this is about.’ And then they’re introduced to the Christ who’s already introduced Himself to them. It is an extraordinary form of God-driven evangelism that’s taking place across the Middle East, particularly with Muslims.”

Calvert asked about poverty within the Iranian Church and if it is difficult for believers to find employment.

“You have to keep the identity of your faith secret,” Boyd answered. “So if somebody has come from a Muslim background, their identity card will say ‘Muslim’ and it will continue to say ‘Muslim’. You’re going to encounter no end of prejudice if you present yourself as a Christian.”

“Iran is not actually a poor nation, but where you’ve got that kind of level of repression going on, you’ve got to be very, very wise about how you worship and how you conduct yourself, which is why the churches are driven underground.”

Boyd reminded listeners that the message of the Saviour was taken by Persian Jews back to Iran after Pentecost, and that “nothing is actually going to prevent that spread of the Church and the desire for freedom amongst people.”

“It’s a little bit like a cherry pit,” he explained. “If you take a cherry pit between your thumb and your finger and you give it a squeeze, it’s going to shoot out. And that’s what persecution does and has always done. Wherever there’s persecution, under the hand of God, who always looks to redeem every bad situation and turn it to good, and who always will, He always will, you find that persecution actually doesn't extinguish the Church, it spreads the Church. 

“So while persecution is a terrible thing and it’s a violent thing, and we need to stand up for freedom for one another, we also need to recognize that God has His hand on His people and that nothing, absolutely nothing, will stand in the way of the spread of His hope...”

Boyd agreed with Calvert that Iran is playing a dangerous game by attacking Israel through proxies and directly.

“As you say, Hamas and Hezbollah are both clients. And in Yemen, we’re seeing effectively a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia going on. We’re seeing Iran controlling much of what goes on in Iraq, for example. So Iran is reaching out all over the place and is meeting the ire of the world for doing that, let alone anything that they’re doing spiritually.”

“So, yes, Iran is playing an incredibly dangerous game. The authorities are, and I suspect that the people of Iran know that. I mean, there were some people who were protesting in Iran about the Hamas attack and actually wanting Iran to fail, Iranian people wanting Hamas to fail.”

In conclusion, Boyd said: “So, yes, it’s a hugely polarized society where there is a thirst for truth and a thirst for the Lord in that country, which is not just affecting Iranians who live in Iran. There is something special going on amongst the Iranian people, wherever they’re scattered around the world. So the Iranian Church is growing.”

Boyd invites the public to visit the website for stories of individuals like Tabitha, “because then you can pray effectively when you can picture them in your mind's eye and you can then pray.”

Click below to listen to the full interview.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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