Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Return to "The Mission Field..."

House Church in Iran?
The data is a bit fuzzy . . .
(Image from Christian World News)

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog entry titled "The Mission Field" and asked about the statistics that one sometimes hears concerning Muslim-background converts to Christianity. A couple of interesting articles published last week in Christianity Today provide a bit of information on this issue, though not much hard data.

Christopher Lewis, "It's Primetime in Iran," Christianity Today (September 24, 2008), describes the scene in a television studio that beams a Christian message from Pastor Hormoz Shariat to Iranian believers in Christ:
The TV studio hums just a few feet from his church office in northern California, but pastor Hormoz Shariat is still a last-minute arrival to his own show. Behind the scenes are teams of phone counselors and hip young producers.

Waiting behind an Islamic veil 7,000 miles away is an exploding house-church movement in Iran, whose compatriots eavesdrop on the illegal satellite programs produced daily by Pastor Shariat's Iranian Christian Church (ICC).
Lewis doesn't explain here why he refers to the "house-church movement in Iran" as "exploding," but in a separate article, "Looking for Home," Christianity Today (September 24, 2008), he cites information from Abe Ghaffari of Iranian Christians International, so I can see what he meant by the remark:
Missiologists say Persians have never identified as strongly with Islam as their Arab Muslim conquerors. While some studies estimate 500,000 to 1 million Iranian Muslim-background believers worldwide, Ghaffari counts fewer than 300,000 -- most of them isolated "secret believers." But even Ghaffari is stunned by how Iran's house-church movement of 50,000 has doubled in the last five years. "This is historic," he says.
Ghaffari sounds somewhat trustworthy since he downplays the total numbers of Iranian converts from Islam to Christianity, but I nevertheless wonder how one 'counts' "secret believers." Presumably, one would need to count these, or a representative sample, to back up claims of a "doubling of the Iranian house-church movement in 5 years" -- which sounds impressive but is ambiguous between meaning from 25,000 to 50,000 and meaning from 50,000 to 100,000. Initially, I took the claim to mean the latter, but I now think that it must mean the former.

However, I am not sure, for in my "Mission Field" post, I noted that Golnaz Esfandiari, "A Look At Iran's Christian Minority" (Payvand's Iran News . . . 2004), quotes the Iranian Protestant Issa Dibaj on the number of Muslim-background Christians in Iran:
"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 might sound as if it would support Ghaffari as meaning that the house-church movement has exploded from 50,000 to 100,000, but Dibaj's estimate was four years ago would therefore not support Ghaffari's round number if 100,000 is meant. Unclear, however, is whether or not Dibaj was referring to a house-church movement at all. And what does Ghaffari mean by his numbers anyway -- individual believers or house churches?

Whatever the figures, they pale beside Iran's mostly Muslim population of about 70 million. The house-church movement might be 'exploding,' but to my ears, it still sounds more like a firecracker than a bundle of dynamite.

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At 12:06 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

This post started me on an investigation on what religion was before Islam in Iran. Were there more of those followers than Christians?
I have a co-worker who is descendant of Parsi and I seemed to remember they came to India from Persia seeking religious freedom. I started to look up Farsi, found it the major language of Iran, finally found the religion, Zoroastrianism, revealing to me the prophet Zarathustra. I had never made the association. Even though, I had read Also sprach Zarathustra the only book I've read by Friedrich Nietzsche. Reminded me of Siddharthaas I seem to remember. Perhaps my mind's muddled.

Anyway, only wanted to say where this post took me.

The Tone Poem, by Strauss, Also sprach Zarathustra evokes the opposite imagery than of the book. An example of why I don't see art as instructive.

At 1:16 PM, Blogger John B said...

What would happen to the families of these 'secret believers'? Would the children of Muslim-born Christian converts-in-secret be considered Muslim-born or Christian-born, since the whole thing is secret anyways?

Is it possible that clandestine enclaves have existed that are only now becoming apparent, thanks to new avenues of communication? It would seem difficult to trace the histories of these enclaves given that they are wholly undocumented and, I would imagine, fairly transient.

Eh, it's a problem for people smarter than me to consider.

At 3:47 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, if I recall, Zoroastrianism was dominant in Persia prior to the Islamic conquest.

There were Jews, Christians, also Manicheaens, maybe some Buddhists, and probably a lot of smaller religions.

This is probably a case where Wikipedia could help us.

I also read Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra . . . long ago in an existentialism class. I've even heard Strauss's musical version (though not in a long time).

When I was at Berkeley, I knew a woman -- a fellow TA -- whose father had been a Zoroastrian priest in Iran, one of the few remaining.

We seem to have lived parallel lives.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:50 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B, perhaps the information came via divine revelation?

Supposedly, these are new, evangelical Christians. I suppose that the estimates might be based on knowledge of the number of house churches in particular areas that could be used as a benchmark for estimating the whole.

But I'd say that nobody really know the numbers.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:46 PM, Blogger John B said...

Heh, they could try mailing questionnaires.

Are you a secret Christian? Check one.
_ Yes
_ No

The articles you linked seemed to focus on immigrant communities, but they didn't say, if I recall, if the subject converted before, after, or roughly simultaneous to their migration. It seemed like a salient detail, or at least it was the first question that came up in my head when I was reading it.

At 4:57 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

A lot of Christians belonging to old churches in Iran left after the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah.

Similarly, a lot of non-fundamentalist Muslims also left, and some of these have since converted to Christianity.

But the big issue right now is the number of converts from Islam to Christianity who are living in Iran and forming house churches there.

At least, that's how I've understood the issue.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:50 AM, Blogger John B said...

The topic of interest is on Christians in Iran but the article focused on the testimonies of Iranians in the US. I had the impression that the reader was being led to extrapolate the church movement in Iran from the trends of these immigrant churches. Which is not a ridiculous idea (the old joke about looking for your keys where the light is) but they pretty conspicuously avoided telling us the circumstances of the individual's conversions.

I would assume they left this detail out because it was counter to their assertion of 'mass-conversion' in Iran.

At 11:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the time of the Arab conquest of Persia Zoroastrianism, while still the religion of the court and the aristocracy, was largely a spent force in its homeland.
Christianity was the dominant religion in the cities and had been gaining traction in the countryside, too. (Demographics mostly -- imported uprooted citifolk from what is Iraq and Palestine today was the majority population by now) Well, something similar to christianty: A bit Syrian, a bit Nestorian, plus homegrown local/zoroastrian additions. Jesus was the major prophet, but not God's son. They knew the thora of course, but had only bits and pieces of the NT, since these were "exiled" congregations, with litte contact to the Syrian mother chrurch, which was additionally persecuted by Persia's enemy, Byzantinum.
When the Arabs arrived, Islam as a religion was still very much in flux, and strongly drew from the christian churches in Persia. Their most obvious fusion is what we know as shiism today (sunnis retained aspects, too); the "offical" story about the very Jesus-like son-in-law of Mohammed, 'Ali, is probably a metaphor for ths historical event. Actually "'Ali" was and still is one of the names, or aspects, of Jesus Christ in the Syrian church, namely for the "sufferer/redeemer" side of his character. Another name/aspect for Jesus Christ is/was Muhammed, this one stressing the "praised prophet/servant of god" side of his character. Both meanings persist in Arabic of course, and similarities between the "Hidden Imam" of Shiism and the story of Jesus' resurrection have been the subject of many a recurring rumour in Sunni circles over the centuries...

At 11:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, John B, the articles would also certainly have reasons to hide the conversions, given the Iranian Islamists' views on apostasy.

I think that one of the articles stated that names had been changed.

The link between expat Iranians converts from Islam to Christianity and converts in Iran seems to be due to the media programs beamed into Iran from outside.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:18 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Azate, thanks. That's very interesting. Is there a source online where this is discussed? Or any online articles?

Jeffery Hodges

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

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merv is a treasure trove for further, wider horizons in this regard

At 1:43 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Azate, thanks.

Jeffery Hodges

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