As British citizens are given a ‘roadmap to freedom’ from the restrictions of the COVID pandemic, a vast army of Iranians are tasting the delights of a different kind of liberty.
In spite of the severe ‘lockdown’ on religious observation imposed by the ayatollahs, there are now thought to be as many as several million Christians in the country.
This is in spite of an extremely harsh clampdown on dissenters. Conversion from Islam is forbidden, as are satellite dishes. But such is the hunger for outside information that many are prepared to run the gauntlet of state sanctions and have thus found freedom in Christ through a satellite TV network headed up by Dr Hormoz Shariat, known as the Billy Graham of Iran.
As a result, huge numbers are now risking their lives practicing their Christian faith, which includes loving people they have been taught to hate – most notably the Jews.
This is all the more remarkable in the light of Purim, the feast being celebrated by worldwide Jewry today as they rejoice over their rescue through Queen Esther from a plot to destroy them some 2,500 years ago.
That conspiracy emanated from ancient Persia (modern Iran) where similar threats to wipe out Israel have been a recurring mantra of its Muslim leaders since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
But thanks be to God, who has raised up a mighty force of Iranian believers praying for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6).
A Shia Muslim convert to Christianity, Dr Shariat is founder of Iran Alive Ministries and a satellite TV network broadcasting the gospel into Iran and the Farsi-speaking world. He is also author of the recently published Iran’s Great Awakening: How God is using a Muslim convert to spark revival.
Interviewed by Jerusalem-based Joel C Rosenberg for All Israel News, Dr Shariat said: “I was on the streets of Iran in 1979 shouting ‘Death to America!’”
Speaking from Dallas, Texas, he explained something of the phenomenon that began when he read the Bible and the Quran “and realised they did not match”.
“I realised Jesus is the way. And when my life was changed so dramatically, I knew I mustn’t keep it to myself. So I shared with other Iranian Muslims and their lives were also changed. That’s how the ministry started.”
He told how the regime had murdered his brother. But he did not take revenge. “I felt God saying, ‘Don’t hate these people who killed your brother. The best thing you can do is to share the gospel with Muslims’.
“God has opened the hearts and minds of Iranians. They are questioning Islam and finding out it has not done anything for their lives, their marriages and even for their country.”
He adds: “They’re very open to anything except Islam. Christianity is very attractive because it talks about love and forgiveness.”
In addition, their hearts toward Israel change. “Both the Old and New Testament talk about loving God with all your heart, and loving your neighbour. Jesus calls us to love all people. So they start questioning why they should hate the Jews.”
Rosenberg adds: “He believes that Iranian Christians who are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit cannot help but grow to love Israel because the God of the Bible loves Israel so much and has such an exciting plan for Israel in biblical prophecy.”
I don’t wish to belittle the aspirations of those, including myself, who long to renew family relationships and hug our grandchildren. But these Iranian believers have discovered what true freedom is! Though still shackled to a fascist, unforgiving state, they have found the freedom to love, to forgive, to know God and enjoy him forever.
To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31f).
In the words of their opponents, Jesus’ disciples subsequently “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). But men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil, as Jesus also said (John 3:19), and the first Christians were viciously persecuted, hated and abused, just as believers in Iran and many other nations today are still experiencing.
I was encouraged to discover that this is something which Premier League footballer Olivier Giroud has taken up. The Chelsea forward, who also plays for the French national team, has spoken out about the plight of persecuted Christians around the world, and recently took part in a charity auction partly in aid of believers suffering in northern Cameroon, Mali and Mauritania.
“It is unimaginable to see so many persecuted Christians in the world today,” he said.
As you contemplate the impending freedoms, marked by parties and other celebrations, after nearly a year of virtual lockdown which has seen 120,000 deaths in Britain alone, remember those millions of believers around the world suffering under repressive regimes. And praise God for the relative freedom we still enjoy.
With thanks to Michael Ireland of ASSIST News Service (6th January 2021) and Joel C Rosenberg of All Israel News (www.allisrael.com)
Charles Gardner is author of Israel the Chosen, available from Amazon; Peace in Jerusalem, available from olivepresspublisher.com; A Nation Reborn, available from Christian Publications International; and King of the Jews, also available from Christian Publications International.