Iranian Christians Forced to Worship in Secret

June 27, 2008

Author: Anuj Chopra

Source: The San Francisco Chronicle

Illyas, 20, precariously straddles two worlds.

At home, he's a devout Christian who wears a silver cross around his neck, reads the Bible and sings hymns praising Jesus Christ. In public, he is a pious Muslim who attends regular mosque prayers. Illyas and his parents - they asked a reporter not to mention the family name to ensure their safety - had been practicing Muslims until they watched a religious television program beamed by satellite from Reseda (Los Angeles County). At that time last year, Illyas's mother called a hot line number of Iran for Christ Ministries, prayed with a counselor and soon accepted Jesus Christ as her savior. Illyas and his stepfather quickly followed.

Islam is the state religion of Iran - 98 percent of the nation's 66 million inhabitants are Muslims - and Islam has governed most aspects of life since the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran. Frustrated with the lack of social liberties since clerics assumed power, Illyas says his family felt compelled to look for other spiritual answers.

"We were looking for a faith that offered the reassurance of freedom," he said.

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.