Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Mission Field...

Iranian Christians
An Official Church
(Photo by Mehdi Ghasemi, ISNA)

Sunday morning has come, so what better time than now to look briefly at some intriguing but also imprecise reports on the 'growth' of Christianity in Iran (and elsewhere) -- since I happened just this morning to come across an article that got me to searching for more:
Farsi-language Christian broadcasts and websites are blanketing Iran with the gospel message 24/7 . . . . This kind of hearts-and-minds campaign is having significant results, notably among Iran's huge population of young adults unhappy with the current regime. According to Compass Direct News, house churches are growing rapidly. (Editorial, "Talk to Iran," Christianity Today, July 2008)
The expression "house churches," as you probably know, refers to the homes where Christians hold worship services in countries where religion, or often specifically Christianity, is suppressed. The spread of such churches in China is well known and accounts for the wildly differing 'statistics' on the number of Chinese Christians -- ranging from 30 million to 130 million, if I recall -- for nobody is keeping precise records. The lack of accurate official records in China had its obvious reasons in the past, but China is becoming more tolerant toward religious beliefs, so we might be seeing more accurate numbers there in the near future.

Iran, however, as with the Muslim world more generally, is a different story. One continues to hear of the 'growth' of house churches in Muslim countries, e.g., among the Berber people in Algeria's Kabylie region, who have reacted against the extreme Islamists and their jihadist violence, which has convinced them that "Christianity is life, Islam is death." But this Berber report dates from about 2000, and I've heard little since then other than imprecise reports about continued 'growth' and more recent reports in mainstream media about former Muslims being arrested for having converted to Christianity.

Something is going on in these areas, but I have no idea how to evaluate the reports. Muslim governments have an interest in suppressing not only house churches but also any reports of significant growth, and local Christians have an interest in keeping a low profile, so one might expect the true rates of growth to be higher than reported . . . except that mission reports back in the 'Christian' lands have an interest in citing higher rates to justify continued support for missions.

In one of my classes recently, I had an Iranian student. This person was a secular Muslim, so I asked about Iranian Muslims converting to Christianity. The student knew about this but like me also had no idea of the numbers.

I did find this article by Golnaz Esfandiari, "A Look At Iran's Christian Minority" (Payvand's Iran News . . .), dating from late 2004, and Esfandiari quotes an Iranian Protestant, Issa Dibaj on the number of Muslims in Iran who have become Christians:
Issa Dibaj is the son of reverend Hassan Dibaj, a Christian convert who was jailed and later found murdered in 1994. Issa Dibaj left Iran five years ago and now lives in the U.K.

"There is another Christian minority that people know little about, these are Iranians who are born as Muslims and then later become Christians," Dibaj said. "Their number is growing day by day. [There] may be around 100,000 [of them], but no one really knows the exact number."
The number 100,000 sounds impressive and would signify rather impressive growth . . . until one recalls that Iran has a population of about 70 million. But that was in 2004. What about today? Serendipitously, I found an article in Friday's edition of the San Francisco Chronicle on the topic of secret Iranian Christians:
Although there are no statistics on how many Iranians have converted to Christianity in recent years, officials at such Christian television stations as SAT-7-PARS say that in the past two years they have received a flood of e-mails and thousands of telephone calls from Iranians. With the advent of satellite television, they say, Christianity is on the rise, with some Iranians even undergoing clandestine conversions at Assyrian churches, said David Harder, communications manager at SAT-7-PARS' Cyprus headquarters. (Anuj Chopra, "Iranian Christians forced to worship in secret," San Francisco Chronicle, June 27, 2008)
Intriguing details, but "no statistics" . . . so where does one find dependable numbers on such things?

Anybody know?

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At 9:00 AM, Blogger Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

I was once told by a missionary familiar with a different Muslim country that they intentionally keep stories vague in order to avoid bringing trouble on converts. I don't know if that's the case in Iran, but it might be a possible explanation.

At 11:20 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

That picture might be confusing to Americans, Christians wearing the Hijab.

At 2:30 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for the comment.

I didn't raise the nuclear issue -- though I think that it was noted in one of my links -- but thanks for the link that you've provided.

If Issa Dibaj is right about 100,000 converts, then I agree that this is superficial in a nation of 70 million.

However, I wonder about official unconcern over converts. If the Iranian government is unconcerned, then why the recent arrests and the crafting of new, more restrictive laws in legislature?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:53 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Scott, I met a German missionary when I was studying in Tuebingen, and she told me about the mission work that she was doing in Indonesia, and she claimed that conversion was widespread.

I asked for statistics, and she said, "We don't collect them, for we don't want to know." She meant that Christians didn't want the publicity for fear of a backlash.

That would fit what you say, but it also means that nobody really knows whether Christianity is growing in such places.

Nor do people talk much about converts who fall away.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:56 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, Hathor, it might. I think that they're wearing those because the laws about women's clothes in Iran apply to all women, but that's either an Armenian or Assyrian church, so women probably have to wear a head covering in church anyway.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:45 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

Today's Wall Street Journal discusses a different kind of spiritual growth in Iran:
Positive Thinking in Tehran:
Youth Embrace Self-Help Movement

At 9:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, that's an interesting report on the 'religion' of self-help, and it's also interesting that something so American would appeal to Iranians, too.

Incidentally, though actually back "on topic," I think that part of the appeal of evangelical Christianity -- in places where it has appeal -- is that it often combines dependence upon God with training in taking responsibility for one's own actions, and it is therefore often the functional equivalent of self-help . . . somewhat paradoxically, given its talk of denial of self and its emphasis upon God's help.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:40 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

Turkey and Egypt try to suppress the Islamists and have young people becoming more religious. Iran tries to force strict Islam on its young people and the young yearn for the secular. Perhaps the young just tend to reject their parents' ideas, no matter what?

At 9:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Maybe, but I'd bet that those same young people turning to Islamism would be dismayed if the Islamists were to come to power and start applying all those rules.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Iranians were not familiar with the Khalif system, therfore in shia they created the 'tweleve Imam shia' which is more compliant with the manorchy system they had experienced for thousandss of years.

At 10:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course in Iran every one is dismayed for some reasons! It could be the fear from being arrested for thinking differently or the Israel attack ...
No one would dare to recant from shia publicly!

At 10:18 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

H A, do you mean that Shia Islam is more submissive toward monarchial authority?

If so, then Khomeini must have been a different breed of 12-imam Shia because he brought down the Shah.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:22 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks again, H A, but perhaps you should signal to whom you're responding . . . although I (as the host) might be the only person to reply, for this is an older post.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you sir. I hope you are having a wonderful summer.
In fact I just wanted to share my thought with you and did not direct to any body in particular.
I think like any other phenomena, Islam has molded in the Persian soceity and adopted many of its values and what we see in the idealogy of shia has more to do with Iran than with Islam in some aspects.
I think the idea of the 'holy gene', that shie people believe that no matter whom is preferred by the majority of the muslims in the society but the succeeding person should be genetically related to Muhammad is derived from Persian monarchial mentality which could not associate with the semi-democratic khalif electing system which was practiced after Mohammad in Saudi Arabia.
The reasons that I think they did not continue to the present these Imam system and eventually after the twelfth imam it ended are clear.
First the twelfth imam which his existance is doubted by many historians did not have any offsrings hence it could not continue.
Scond in all Ibrahimic religions there is a promised savior therefore this idea adopted steadly by Persians in the process of Persianizing Islam.

Regarding Ayatollah Khomeini I think It might be different because he was utterly disconnected with Persian valuesand culture. He grew up in Qom which is a shia version of Mecca and then lived in Iraq for a long time. He, as he mentioned many times, did not have any passion for the country but for Islam.
What he was after was an imitation of the coup d'etat arrenged by the third Imam of shia, that one failed but khomeini succeeded. He did not have any specific example for this type of government because non of shia imam became the khalif except for Ali. Therefore they keep saying they are copying his governence.
The new idea of granting unlimited power to one person to rule the country had not existed before anywhere except for some pharaohs
in the ancient time. Ithink the idea of 'velayat Faqih' (faqh is related to fiqh) introduced by Khomeini is completely new.

At 10:24 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

So . . . is the quasi-democratic system in Iran due to influences on Khomeini from outside Iran?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think after over 100 years craving democracy neither Iranians nor West would like to have a Khalif system. Maybe people like Bani Sadr and Bazargan who were for the revolution but were not fundamentalist had some influence too.
I think other groups since they claimed some shares for the revolution for their own groups presured Khomeini and his fellows. Khomeini for sure did not have any interest in democracy.

I think this system would not be a lot different if Iran did not have prsidential elections.

From outside do you mean Western Governments? If so I have heard many times from some scholars that in Guadeloupe Western countries decided that Shah should be overthrone and also they discussed about what type of system should be set up, but to me it is not clear yet that what exact kind of influence except for some BBC radio shows they could have.

At 4:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

No, I wasn't thinking of Western governments, and I doubt that Khomeini in the flush of victory over the Shah would have been much influenced by democratic governments, anyway.

My question was prompted by the difference between the Iranian Shia religon's traditional role in politics and the quasi-democratic system that currently exists. If the democratic aspects to Iranian government did not come from within Iranian Shia traditions, then there must have been some external influence.

Now, to my outsider's eye, the political system appears influenced by Western traditions of democracy, and I wondered how.

But your explanation about other groups with a stake in the 1979 revolution makes more sense than my musings about Khomeini being personally influenced by Western political traditions.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Professor Hodges, I was reading Koran and I came across a contradiction. This accurance actually is not so recent. Enyways, Please compare Albagharah (Second surah) 6-7 to Al-Anfal 12,13,14, and 39. Do you think this is a sound argument if one is trying to disapprove Koran?

Sorry if I asked too many questions!

At 5:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Too many questions? No, and actually, your question prompted me to locate an online Qur'an.

As for contradiction . . . do you mean between Allah preventing the belief of some individuals (Al-Bagharah [Second Surah] 6-7) yet also punishing individuals for unbelief (Al-Anfal [Eighth Surah] 12,13,14, and 39)?

I guess that the possibility of contradiction depends upon how one interprets these verses.

Why does Allah prevent the belief of some individuals? Are they being punished for prior unbelief that they themselves chose? If so, then the apparent contradiction fades away.

But let's say that Allah predetermines unbelief, then punishes the individual for this unbelief. There is only a contradiction if one assumes that Allah is good, for the contradiction lies in one's expectations of what a most-perfect being would do. Yet . . . perhaps Allah is not good. If not, then the contradiction fades. Allah himself emerges as the problem in this case, however, though one response would be that Allah himself is ground of the distinction between good and evil, the point being that one cannot judge Allah. That response might not satisfy the unbeliever, but umbelievers are cursed by Allah anyway, so who cares what they think?

Just kidding.

Anyway, these are a couple of ways out of a potential contradiction. But I am not qualified to argue precisely about the issue, for I know neither the hermeneutics on these verses nor the Arabic necessary to read them for their nuances.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe it is not a contradiction but the way I read it, Allah sounds very cruel by ordering to cut off fingers of infidels eventhough Allah, himself, is preventing them from learning the truth! It seems to me simillar to punishing mentally disabled people for not fulfilling their obligations as healthy people ,if the analogy makes sense.
Maybe the contradiction is not among these verses but I see it with the nature of 'the compassionate and the mercyful'.

Since I assume Allah as the Almighty knows how to voice himself therefore it might be necessary to rule out the Islamic scholars interpretations especially in ideological contexts.
The only reason I think it is not about punishment due to perdetermination of their sins is that Allah did not say so, and Koran is intended to be consumate, but I am not sure about my opinion!

At 6:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Im am sorry for different names, it was just because if you google the name this page appears! You can guess the reason!

At 6:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hmmm . . . there must be something about Google that I don't understand. You might be able to sign in under a regular name, but I don't know.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sir, I meant if you google my name this web page will appear. Therefore just for security reason I used different names. As a matter of fact eventhough I try always to discuss politely but these issues are red-lines in Iran.
It is sad but there were number of bloggers who were sentenced to death this year.

At 4:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

In that case, do what you feel is necessary.

Jeffery Hodges

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