The high priest and his officials, who were Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But an angel of the Lord came at night, opened the gates of the jail, and brought them out. Then he told them, “Go to the Temple and give the people this message of life!”
Acts 5:17-20 (NLT)
In today’s 21st-century Iran, the church is increasingly under intensifying persecution from both society and the state, as Christianity—and anyone involved in spreading it—is seen as a threat to the Republic’s Islamic identity. But like the early church of Acts that multiplied exponentially in the face of persecution, the persecuted church of Iran is also experiencing explosive growth.
“On Sundays we have about 200 attendees here,” says Pastor Wahid, in the sanctuary of the church he pastors abroad. It’s a spacious hall with a stage full of instruments. This church is vastly different from the one he pastored in Iran, which was no bigger than a living room, the “worship band” a simple cassette player.
It wasn’t Wahid’s own choice to leave his country. He led a good life running a drycleaning business. But because of his decision to follow Christ, increasing pressure forced him to flee. Now he lives in another country in the region with thousands of other refugees.
Wahid is married and the proud father of a two-and-a-half-year-old son. He shows a picture of a curly-haired boy. As a child of divorced parents, Wahid’s own childhood years were painful. But the real depression kicked in after Wahid’s mother died. He had lived with her all his life, and as a young teenager moved in with his father who showed him little love. Wahid was raised Muslim, but the circumstances in his life made him despise Islam. As a teenager, he hated his life.
He shares how meeting Jesus changed his life. One of his friends had become a Christian and told him about his new faith.
“It’s hard to explain what happened with me,” he says. “I could say that something changed in my heart. I felt a warmth deep inside of me.”
That night, Wahid found Christ.
“I had always thought my circumstances had to change for me to lose my depression,” he says. “But when I found Jesus, I realized that I needed someone to change me from the inside to feel at peace; I needed Jesus.”
When Wahid first entered a Christian house church, he had to lean on that first experience of finding peace in Jesus. Because, while the other believers accepted him and loved him unconditionally, the outside world was harsh towards his new faith.
“My father rejected me, and I was also denied a job because I didn’t want to sign a form stating I was a Muslim.”
“Like the early church of Acts that multiplied exponentially in the face of persecution, the persecuted church of Iran is also experiencing explosive growth.”
Persecution grew worse when Wahid started attending an underground church and later even became a leader in it.
“One day when I went to church, I got a threatening call from the government. After that, I always had a sense of being followed, and my phone tapped. Not an unusual thing in Iran.”
Tensions rose, and for a whole year the house church even decided to split up into small groups of two or three people to avoid government attention. But it didn’t help. On a day when 25 believers had gathered, the security forces entered the house, shouting, cursing, and filming everything.
“I will never forget that night. I still remember the children crying with fear. It was so difficult to watch.”
Wahid and many other church members ended up in prison, first in isolated cells, then in the overcrowded general wards. At night, they slept pressed together, like books in a library. By day they suffered from overcrowded sanitary facilities. Wahid developed serious lung issues because of the bad conditions in prison.
“I often dreamed of getting out of prison,” he says. “But when I woke up, I realized again that I was still inside.”
But wherever they were and how bad the conditions and circumstances were, one thing remained constant: these believers still clung to Christ.
“We all prayed for one another,” Wahid says. “And we would evangelize a lot, even though we were not allowed to.”
The church did not die in prison. Many inmates came to faith through Wahid and his fellow church members. Even though his imprisonment and subsequent pressure eventually forced him out of Iran, the church in Iran continues to grow.
In 2016, the mission research organization Operation World named Iran as having the fastest-growing evangelical church in the world.
Compared to roughly 500 known Christians in 1979, there are now approximately 500,000 (some sources say up to 1 million secret believers). According to Elam Ministries, an organization founded in 1990 by Iranian church leaders, more Iranians have become Christians in the last 20 years than in the previous 13 centuries put together since Islam came to Iran.
That growth continues to create tension between the government and the church.
“As Christianity grows rapidly in Iran, the Islamic government and the clergy in power are alarmed,” says Dr. Hormoz Shariat, president and founder of Iran Alive Ministries.
“Their only strategy to slow down this growth is through a campaign of fear, violence and intimidation … We expect the persecution in Iran will increase as the Islamic government feels threatened by the spread of Christianity among Muslims in Iran.”
“At night, they slept pressed together, like books in a library.”
The church continues to grow despite intensifying persecution, because people like Wahid didn’t walk away from their faith in the face of suffering.
“I need Jesus,” he says. “Without Jesus, I had no life, no hope. I can’t live without Jesus for one moment. None of us can.”
Photos by Dewi Natalia
This story was first published on Open Doors, an organization that serves persecuted Christians around the world and one of Nations Media’s valued partners. You can read more stories from Open Doors here and read our interview with CEO David Curry here.