“I didn’t even know where Cyprus was on the map!” Simon laughs when I ask him why he left Iran to start a new life in Cyprus. Perhaps this reflects the level of desperation he felt to leave his home, a place where saw no hope for the future. Disillusioned, he jumped at the opportunity to move to a new country—even one he knew nothing about.
“I thought I came to Cyprus by chance, but now I see it was part of God’s plan, because I found Him here.”
Simon was the first Iranian to attend Freedom Church Limassol, an international English-speaking church on the south coast of the Mediterranean island. Despite the facts that he spoke very little English and there were no other Iranian Farsi-speakers in the congregation, Simon continued to attend week after week, a hunger to know more about Christianity growing within him.
“I started asking questions and reading the Bible, and something started changing within me,” he says. “I noticed these changes, and it made me want to learn more about Jesus. I knew that I wanted to follow Him.” Simon was one of the first people to be baptized in the church.
Fast forward one year, and one-third of Freedom Church’s congregation are Iranians. Many were invited along by Simon, while others were drawn to the church through the free English lessons offered every week.
The tiny island with a big mission
Since opening its doors almost two years ago, Freedom Church Limassol has transformed into a diverse community, with over ten nationalities represented at any given event.
Freedom Church originally started in the UK and has planted over fifteen churches across the world in the last decade. When setting out to start a church in Cyprus, the leaders knew that the tiny island was a strategic location, and potentially a launching pad for reaching the Middle East and North Africa with the Gospel.
Situated between Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa, Cyprus has long been a popular base for Christian ministries. In recent years, the island itself has become home to thousands seeking refuge from conflict. Although the refugee crisis is no longer making headlines, the Middle East and North Africa is still home to millions of displaced people. While other countries close their borders, Cyprus is currently receiving more asylum applications than any other member of the European Union.
Many Iranians—especially young, single men with the independence and resources to move—are leaving their country due to disillusionment with lack of opportunities, a failing economy, and the strict Islamic republic regime. It is relatively easy for Iranians to travel to Cyprus since the northern part of the island is occupied by Turkey, meaning Iranians can travel there without a visa. Many then cross into southern Cyprus, hoping to find refuge in the European Union.
This is the journey that Iranian members of Freedom Limassol—so far, all young men seeking asylum—have undertaken.
The pastors of Freedom Church Limassol, Martin and Tracey Abel, are thankful that God has placed them in Cyprus for such a time as this. In fact, this is a long-held dream of theirs, three decades in the making.
Thirty years ago, when they were newly married, Martin and Tracey came to Cyprus as missionaries with a desire to share the Gospel in the Middle East. They returned to the UK to start a family but held onto the promise that one day God would bring them back to the region. After serving in international ministry for decades in the UK, India, and the Netherlands, they are finally seeing this promise fulfilled.
“We are very happy and excited to be here,” Martin says, who is bursting with enthusiasm about what he sees God doing in the Middle East. “Recently, God has started asking me, ‘Do you have faith that the Middle East can become a Christian region?’”
Martin admits that it can be a challenge to believe this, but he already sees God at work: “We have many people in our church who have come from different Islamic nations, who now have the chance to be discipled here in Cyprus. It is essential we invest in them because they are the ones who will bring the Gospel to their people.”
Christianity across the Middle East and North Africa looks very different; in Iran thousands are becoming Christians, while in other areas like Iraq numbers of Christians are dramatically declining. In Egypt the Christian population has been holding ground for years despite attacks.
Similarly, the needs of the different nationalities attending Freedom Church vary widely. The Iranian members are predominately new believers from a Muslim background with virtually no prior knowledge of Christianity, so their primary needs are Biblical teaching and discipleship.
“A recurring theme is that they encountered Christianity in Iran, but weren’t able to explore it much,” explains Aled Power, who moved from the UK to help establish Freedom Church in Limassol. “In Cyprus they have the opportunity to actually attend a church and find out more.”
This is what inspired the church to start a Farsi-speaking Alpha group—a Christian course which explains the foundations of the faith and invites people to ask candid questions. Most of the teaching is done via video teaching with Farsi subtitles, an approach that has already attracted more Farsi-speakers.
Brothers Sam and Dani
Currently the course is overseen by Pastor Martin, who hopes that by the time the course ends one or two Iranians will be equipped to lead Farsi-speaking Bible studies. “Our vision is to see these guys grow in their faith, and to find their place in the church. We want them to be fully integrated into our church community and start leading others, especially other Farsi-speakers.”
Aled explains that a key focus of the church is on giving Iranians opportunities to serve: “It’s not just about what we can give to them, or how we can meet their needs as refugees, but it’s also about what they can bring—because they have something valuable to offer.”
Walk into Freedom Church on a Sunday and you will quickly see that this is the case. A large majority of the volunteers welcoming new guests, setting up the chairs, running production, and serving coffee are Iranian—and they do it all with a smile.
“I am excited to come to church each week,” says Dani, who arrived in Cyprus six months ago with his brother Sam. “I enjoy singing with others, being part of the church, and serving on the café. It feels like a family.”
It is evident that God is transcending language and cultural barriers. For months, a group of Iranians who spoke very little English depended on Google Translate to understand snippets of the messages preached. Despite this, many were making genuine decisions to follow Jesus and experiencing rapid spiritual growth.
Now they no longer have to rely on Google, since Moji, an Iranian who speaks good English, has started to translate the messages on a Sunday and at other small groups.
“I am very happy that I can offer something,” Moji says, who talks faster with excitement when he describes his passion for the role. “Through translating, I am able to help other Iranians understand the message and learn more about Christianity. I enjoy doing it, and week after week, I am feeling closer to Jesus.”
Although Moji had originally planned to move on from Cyprus, he now feels that God has a plan for him here. This is largely due to the sense of purpose and community he has found within the church.
“At first, my aim was to get to the UK or Netherlands. But if that had happened, it would have been just for myself. Here in Cyprus I think I am more useful to others and I can see that God has a purpose for me here now.”
A hunger for God
After the main service, a small group of Iranians stay behind to discuss “Who is Jesus?,” a devotional led by Aled. Moji translates the lengthy conversation. Today, we read the story of the prodigal son. For many, it’s the first time they have heard the parable. The discussion goes on for hours as they grapple with questions about grace, sin, and free will. You don’t have to understand the language to see the hunger for God that animates this group.
“That was my favorite meeting,” Simon says after.
“It’s getting to the point now where they are discipling each other,” Aled adds. “More Iranians are coming in to the church, who know nothing about Christianity, and the others are able to share their experiences and faith.”
With Moji translating, I am hearing some of those stories of faith for the first time.
Moji, Dani, Sam, and Simon all share about their journey from Iran to Cyprus, and their spiritual transformation since encountering the hope and peace they were desperately seeking.
Their stories are largely similar; disillusionment with the society and religious regime in which they were brought up, coupled with a genuine search for God within a repressive society. In Iran, their spiritual search was fraught with challenges. Iran’s Islamic regime prohibits conversion to Christianity. Farsi-language Bibles and Christian resources are limited and gathering with Christians to worship is risky.
“You don’t have to understand the language to see the hunger for God that animates this group.”
However, despite (or maybe because of) these restrictions and persecution, reports suggest that Iran is the fastest growing church in the world—and, as is evidenced here, many Iranians are coming to know Christ outside of the country, too.
The men explained how God answered their desire to know Him by providing a way out of Iran, safe travel to Cyprus, and connections with Christians. Their stories are a testament to the promise found in the book of Jeremiah: “If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me” (29:13, NLT).
Moji’s main motivation for leaving Iran was to pursue Christianity, a faith that he had been investigating for years after a colleague gave him a Bible. It was a life-threatening accident that finally pushed him to take action.
Simon after his baptism
“I was involved in a serious car accident, and I nearly died,” he says. “Everyone who saw the car didn’t know how anyone could survive.”
Fortunately, Moji was taken to the hospital in time and received life-saving surgery for a punctured lung. This marked a significant turning point; after feeling that God had given him a second chance, he knew that he wanted to commit his life to Him. After returning home, he started reading the Bible but he did not feel it was safe to join a Christian community.
“I was afraid, not just for me, but for my family, of what the authorities might do if I became a Christian. Some people gather in house churches, but they have problems; I wanted to get out of Iran and be able to worship freely.”
Within a year, Moji had left his family and friends and a good job in accounting to set out into the unknown, on a journey to find God and freedom.
“It was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life,” he says about his move to Cyprus and the challenges of assimilating to a foreign culture. He encountered roadblocks with his visa application and ended up in a detention center for four months. But God also used this diversion to reach out to him: while at the center, two pastors visited each week to offer encouragement and prayer.
Moji had been too afraid to take his Bible with him from Iran, but the pastors brought him a new one which he began to read every day. Moji decided to follow Christ while still in the detention center and shortly after was released, marking the start of his spiritual and physical freedom.
Dani and Sam also became interested in Christianity in Iran. “Our father’s boss was a Christian and his behavior was different,” says Dani. “He was so kind and generous. This intrigued us and we wanted to know more. We found the same thing in Cyprus—the Christians we met were kind and helpful, and that’s why we wanted to come to church.”
A few months after attending Freedom Church, both brothers made a decision to follow Jesus and were baptized.
The group is eager to share what Jesus has done in their lives, and they discuss with each other the freedom they have found. They describe how their frustrations and worries have been replaced with a peace beyond understanding.
“Before I knew Jesus, my life was just consumed by stress and fear, and I didn’t find any peace in the religious rules I was following—they just gave me more fear,” Moji says. “Now I have peace within myself, I feel safe, and I don’t get angry with others. That’s really changed my life.”
“God is always with me now,” Simon adds. “I can talk to Him about anything and everything, just like a friend, and He gives me wisdom. I’m learning to put God first in every area of my life.”
Uncertain futures, sure hope
All four men are asylum seekers waiting for a decision on whether they will be able to legally stay in Cyprus long term. Some ended up in Cyprus “by chance.” Others, who chose to migrate, found the reality of living in a foreign country more challenging than they expected. However, when I ask them now, they are all confident that it was part of God’s plan for them to be here.
For Dani, Cyprus has become a safe place: “I was born again in Cyprus, my new life started here, so when I got baptized I decided that this is my second home—I choose Cyprus. I am happy that God brought me here.”
Of course, they all miss Iran, their families, and the familiarity of their home country. They would love to go back to visit, but none of them see returning under the current regime as a viable option. Now that they are practicing Christians, returning could be dangerous for them and their families. However, they remain optimistic that things will change in the future and hope that one day they will be able to return and worship freely in their homeland.
“The number of Christians in Iran are growing; the new generation is sick of the [Islamic] regime and they are searching for something else,” Moji says. “I think many more people will find hope in Jesus. It is very difficult to be a Christian in my country, but it won’t stop people believing. If they arrest more people it will just cause the Gospel to spread. Just like it has since the beginning, like in the book of Acts—when the church is persecuted it just causes the Gospel to spread.”
“When I got baptized I decided that this is my second home—I choose Cyprus.”
The future is uncertain but one thing is clear: in this waiting period these men are building strong foundations of faith, ready to face whatever the future holds. Their testimonies and their transformed lives are already impacting their community in Cyprus, as more and more show interest in knowing the Jesus about whom they speak. And this is just the beginning.
“I don’t know what is going to happen, whether I can stay here or if I’ll have to leave, but I have hope,” says Moji.
“Life isn’t easy as an asylum seeker,” admits Simon. “But as I go through hard times I get closer to Jesus. I have a relationship with God now, and that is better than anything else in the world.”