The ancient kingdom of Persia plays a prominent role in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. It was Persia that put an end to the Babylonian empire and allowed the Judeans to return to their homeland after three generations in exile. Moreover, the Persian king Cyrus permitted the Jews to rebuild their temple, decades after Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed Solomon’s fabled predecessor. The Persians themselves were once Zoroastrians, followers of an ancient dualistic religion largely replaced by Islam in the 7th century AD. Persian culture retained a certain prestige status in the Near East, and the Ottoman Turks took on elements of both Persian and Byzantine cultures as they built their own imperial legacy.
Today we call this historic land Iran. Since 1979 it has been ruled by Shiite Islamic mullahs who have fomented terrorism in adjacent countries in a volatile region of the globe. It is thus surprising to hear reports of massive conversions of Iranians to the Christian faith in the midst of this turmoil. According to Open Doors USA, “Muslims are rapidly coming to Christ – so rapidly that Iran’s government leaders are acknowledging the exponential growth of the church.” Iranian Christian expatriate Lazarus Yeghnazar, now living in the United Kingdom, believes that there are one million Christians in a country of over 80 million. That may not sound like much, but the proportion is growing quickly, and this is worrying the government.
I recall seeing demonstrations of Iranian students on the University of Minnesota campus in the mid 1970s. They were protesting the Shah and the American policy that propped up his regime. At the time many of us assumed that Iran’s future would be Marxist, with the Soviet Union perhaps playing a role in the transition. As a political science student, I knew that conventional wisdom held that the arc of history was moving in a Marxist direction. After all, the Arab nationalism of Gamal Abdel Nasser saw Egypt cozying up to Moscow, which was doing its best to extend its influence in the region.
By the time the Shah’s regime had ended, I was living in Toronto. A group of us were returning from Quebec City’s Winter Carnival when we heard on the car radio that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had returned to Iran and was now in charge. Efforts to understand what was happening in terms of such dusty labels as fascism and nationalism were useless. How could the apparently historically inevitable have suffered so obvious a setback?
Of course, the following decades saw the previously unimaginable happen: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the expansion of the European Union and NATO, and the rise of radical jihadism in the Middle East and elsewhere. The wave of secularization that had begun in 1789 had stalled as one of the world’s great monotheistic religions returned to centre stage, ready to combat an exhausted and ailing west. The 9/11 attacks were perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of this development.
Nevertheless, despite a resurgent Islam, the good news of Jesus Christ continues to spread and the growth in numbers of Christians outpaces population growth in many countries of the world, according to Operation World. Remarkably, Iran is one of these.
As I write, massive demonstrations are paralyzing Iran as citizens angrily call their leaders to account for shooting down a Ukrainian plane with mostly Iranians on board. Indeed Iranians are increasingly unhappy with the entrenched clerical regime. “Death to the liars!” and “Clerics, get lost!” are not the cries of a contented populace.
In the book of Daniel, we read of the “prince of the kingdom of Persia” resisting God’s messenger Gabriel for 21 days (Daniel 10:13) before Michael’s intervention. Could it be that this mysterious prince’s days are finally numbered and that the church in Iran is poised to play an important role in that country’s future? May God bless the people of Iran as his kingdom advances there.