None of this is good for a regime that depends on a belief in Islam to stay in power. Crackdowns have been increasingly harsh, especially over the past five years. But evangelism hasn’t slowed. Despite the pandemic, ministries have reported growth in engagement and interest in the gospel via social media outreach or personal evangelism among Christians inside Iran. One of those places is Nima Alizadeh’s online Bible study. Over the past few years, attendance has grown from 40 people to more than 600.
Before President Joe Biden even took office, his incoming administration hopped on the phone with officials in Iran, wondering if they could salvage the 2015 nuclear deal. In it, Iran promised to restrict its nuclear program to civilian work in exchange for sanctions relief.
Either way, the situation underlines what the Iranian people have known for a long time: their government—the only Islamic theocracy in the world—is not providing the utopia it promised.“The sanctions have been brutal on the economy, and on the people,” said Paul Crabtree, a Christian source close to the region. (His name has been changed for security purposes.) In Iran, “people are mixed about this.” Some compare Trump to Adolf Hitler. Others argue that if it causes the people to rise up against the Iranian government, it’ll be worth it.
“Water is limited, pollution is terrible, structural planning is poor,” Crabtree said. “A lot of people don’t trust the government at all.” And since the government claims to be an incarnation of Islam, it follows that people have also been growing disillusioned with their faith.
While official reports still claim that 99.4 percent of Iranians practice Islam, a 2020 survey found that just 40 percent actually identify as Muslim. An even larger number—about 47 percent—said they were “nones,” atheists, spiritual, agnostic, or humanist. Another 8 percent claim Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion.
And a small sliver—1.5 percent—said they were Christians.
“About 20 years ago, the number of Christian converts from a Muslim background was between 5,000 and 10,000 people,” Crabtree said. “Today that’s between 800,000 to 1 million people. That’s massive growth.” According to Operation World, Iran has the fastest-growing evangelical movement in the world.
None of this is good for a regime that depends on a belief in Islam to stay in power. Crackdowns have been increasingly harsh, especially over the past five years. But evangelism hasn’t slowed. Despite the pandemic, ministries have reported growth in engagement and interest in the gospel via social media outreach or personal evangelism among Christians inside Iran.
One of those places is Nima Alizadeh’s online Bible study. Over the past few years, attendance has grown from 40 people to more than 600.
“I teach four days a week,” said Alizadeh, who helped relaunch TGC’s Farsi site in May. His classes range from basic discipleship for new believers to deeper theology for people hungry for more.
“The fanatic Shia Muslims in Iran proved to people that Islam is not the way,” he said. “It gives us the opportunity to show people an alternative.”
Alizadeh was born in Tehran two years after Iran’s 1979 revolution, which deposed the country’s monarchy in favor of an Islamic theocracy. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his guard corps began enforcing strict adherence to Islamic rules (including mandatory head coverings or women and banning alcohol), eradicating anything modern or Western (including Christian missionaries), and frowning on anything fun.
Persian Christians had been in trouble long before that—their population had been shrinking under cultural pressure and outright persecution ever since the Islamic Arabs took over around 700 AD. But the shah’s government had at least been secular, which left a little space for Christians to practice their faith.
Under Islamic law, Christianity struggled. “There were very few conversions,” Crabtree said. Any gospel spread was mostly among historically Christian populations, such as Armenians or Assyrians. Among the larger Persian culture, Christianity looked dead.
But it wasn’t.
“I was born in Tehran,” Alizadeh said. “I grew up in a nominal Muslim family, trying to practice Islamic ways of worship because at school and in society you’re forced to follow Islam. But I knew it was not working.”
Still, when his uncle became a Christian, it was “a massive shock to all of us,” he said. The uncle lived in California; the next time he came to visit Tehran, Alizadeh asked him about it. “I thought Christianity was for the Western culture, and Islam was for the Eastern culture,” he told his uncle. “Why did you change your religion?”
So his uncle explained Jesus, which wasn’t the way Alizadeh had heard about him in school. “Right then, I believed everything he said. I was so thirsty to hear the truth. My eyes and ears were opened, and I had this massive conviction in my heart. This was it—this was what I was looking for. I was born to hear this.”
The story isn’t uncommon, Crabtree said. Before the shah was overthrown, thousands of Iranian students studied abroad, many in the United States. After the revolution, another wave fled the repression of the ayatollah. Many of them were exposed to Christianity and able to begin sharing it with family on trips home.
Meanwhile, Iran’s experiment in theocracy was wobbling, and the country developed something of a split personality. In public, men and women are kept apart; alcohol is illegal; and everyone hates the West. But in private, there are parties and American television shows. Once in a while, government officials come through a neighborhood and take down everyone’s satellite dish. The next day, people put them back up.
“Abbas Kiarostami, the award-winning director who died in 2016, used mostly everyday people rather than actors in his movies, because Iranians were so accustomed to switching between lives in two worlds,” reported the New York Times.
Alizadeh knew all about switching.
Switching to Survive
By 18, Alizadeh—always athletic—was playing basketball professionally.
“Both of my parents were professional volleyball players,” he said. “But when I got to high school, no one played volleyball. Basketball was popular.” Alizadeh’s dad bought him a hoop and a Michael Jordan video.
“At the age of 16, I was playing in the street and a car pulled over and a man gave me a card and told me, ‘I have been watching you playing here, and I want to invite you to come to my club to practice with us,’” Alizadeh said. He joined the man’s team and was named “star of the year.” Soon he was playing professionally, winning the country’s slam dunk competition in 1999.
He didn’t tell his team anything about his new faith.
“If they knew, I’d be kicked out,” he said. “And I’d probably be arrested.” His conversion was apostasy, a serious offense that could carry the death penalty. (When Alizadeh was 9 years old, an Assemblies of God minister and bookstore owner was tortured and hanged for apostasy. Five years later, three other Protestant pastors were also abducted and killed.)
He carefully told two close friends about Christianity, and they also converted. But the three were on their own. “We didn’t have a Bible,” he said. “We didn’t know what church was.”
At the same time, Alizadeh was trying to get out of Iran, eager to play ball in the United States. His uncle’s friend told him to go to South Korea, where a guy could get you a visa to America. Alizadeh flew to South Korea, but when he discovered the visa was fraudulent, he turned it down.
Alizadeh headed back home, but not before he ran into another Iranian. They were both lost, late at night, looking for the train. “We ended up in front of a church,” Alizadeh said.
Emboldened, he took a chance. “I said, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I thought he would be really surprised, but he said, ‘I’m a Christian, too.’ And we were both wearing crosses around our necks—identical crosses.”
Alizadeh’s new friend worked with South Koreans who ran a hotel and a Bible study in Tehran. They were just a few blocks from Alizadeh’s house, and he began walking over there to study with them in secret.
“I had so many questions, and the Korean pastor couldn’t speak Farsi fluently,” Alizadeh said. “He said, ‘You have too many questions. I have to send you to some Persians.’”