San Diego Over the past two years, U.S. senators, lobbyists, the New York Times, and the 700 Club's Pat Robertson have brought national attention to the persecution of Christians in Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan, and China. But there has been little notice of Iranian Christians, who must be among the loneliest Christians in the world.
Of Iran's 60 million citizens, only 300,000 are Christian. Most of this small number are Armenian or Assyrian "ethnic Christians" affiliated with the Orthodox Church. The rest -- perhaps 20,000 -- are Muslim converts to the Anglican, Presbyterian, and Assembly of God denominations. Since the 1979 revolution, government and non-government forces have made life difficult for all Iranian Christians, but it has been this very vulnerable Protestant minority that has endured the worst of their country's religious zeal. Under Islamic law, a Muslim who converts to another faith is guilty of a capital offense.
While Iran has so far hesitated to execute Protestant laypeople for their beliefs, clergy have not been spared. Since 1979, seven Protestant clergy -- six pastors and one bishop-- have been killed by Islamic authorities. To make its point even clearer, the government has moved inexorably to close Protestant churches. Of the 20 left functioning in 1990, only 3 remain open today. Most Protestants now worship in each other's homes in secret -- an act of faith made hazardous by the fact that one's comings and goings are monitored by a revolutionary "neighborhood watch" officer who makes sure his neighbors aren't up to anything fishy.
Despite menace and oppression in their homeland, Iranian Christians in exile express great love for Iran and tend to consider the current fundamentalist regime an aberration in Iran's long history.
"We're not enemies of the government. We're not even anti-Islam," says Soreb Ramtin, who pastors the 20-member Iranian Christian Church of San Diego, a nondenominational congregation founded in 1991. "Some people at our church converted in Iran, others converted here in the U.S., but none of them, in fact, no Iranian Christian I know, has converted out of a hatred for Islam. Actually, if I ever met someone who said he'd converted because he hated Islam, I'd seriously doubt the sincerity of his conversion.
"Of course, what's happening now in Iran is very painful for us. Iran wasn't always like this. Iran has a history of being a tolerant country. The Armenian minority sought refuge in Iran 300 years ago because they were persecuted as Christians in the Ottoman Empire. In this century, under the Shah's government, we had complete religious freedom. Christians could worship openly and were free to evangelize. Nobody cared. And I would have to say that even now your average Iranian doesn't feel animosity toward Christians. It's only a small, very radical minority that persecutes Christians. The persecution and discrimination are very real."
Mansour Haghighi, a member of Ramtin's church, knows how real. Feisty, expansive, 62-year-old Haghighi moved to San Diego two months ago from Tehran.
"The fundamentalists think Christians are unclean," he says. "To them, we are unclean like dogs. But I didn't care what they thought. I love the Lord and I knew the Lord was with me. Knowing the Lord was with me, I couldn't be intimidated or frightened. I am very secure in my faith.
"I come from a devout Muslim family. We are related, by marriage, to Ayatollah Khomeini's family. Growing up before the revolution, I knew religious tolerance. I even used to visit a Seventh-Day Adventist church in Teheran, not for spiritual reasons, but to learn English. Nobody thought anything of it. You should know that the late Shah's twin sister converted to Roman Catholicism and had a chapel built in the palace. The Shah didn't care what religion people belonged to. They were free to choose for themselves.
"I didn't really begin to investigate Christianity until 1959 when I came to the U.S. to study chemical engineering at the University of Oklahoma. I started attending an Assembly of God church to make friends, meet girls. My interest at first wasn't spiritual. But after a while, after attending services, I became curious about this Christian god and the person of Jesus Christ. I wanted to know who this God was who I was praying to. One day I went to my pastor and asked, 'So, tell me, who is right, Mohammed or Jesus Christ?' And he said, 'Well, why don't you pray to them and ask them to tell you?'
"I was very upset by this. I thought he'd just sort of dismissed me, that he hadn't taken my question seriously. I went to several other people in the church and complained to them that our pastor hadn't been helpful. They told me, 'Why don't you try doing what he said?'
"So, one Friday afternoon I went to a prayer meeting. On Fridays this church would leave its doors open all day and people could come in and pray alone or in groups. And I went in the afternoon and ended up praying for several hours, asking God to reveal His true self to me. And at some point I had a vision -- it was a vision of three men in white robes, and one of them said to me, 'I am Jesus and I am the Way.' He disappeared. When I opened my eyes, the church was dark. Everyone else had gone home. The only person sitting there was my pastor. He had been watching me pray. I told him what had happened, what I had seen, and he jumped up and hugged me. I decided to follow Jesus Christ.
"I was never ashamed of my decision or tried to hide it from my family, although they weren't happy about it. When a magazine published by Oral Roberts University ran an article about my conversion, I sent 50 copies to my family in Iran. My father burned them all. They didn't want anyone to know what had happened.
"When I returned to Iran in 1967 with my American wife, things with my family at first were difficult, and I learned to laugh off the difficulties. Things changed, however, immediately after the revolution in 1979. Right after the revolution the government made it very clear that they didn't want Christians to practice their faith. It was okay for my wife to be a Christian. People respected her. The real problem is with Muslims who convert to Christianity. Under Muslim law, conversion is a crime punishable by death. The situation in Iran quickly became impossible for us, so we left.
"I went back five years ago because I still had a lot of real estate there which had been confiscated by the government. I wanted to see if I could get some of it back. The economy was in terrible shape. The official unemployment rate is 20 percent, but it is probably much higher. This is especially hard on Christians because no one will hire them. The government keeps a file on every Iranian citizen, the surveillance is enormous, and if it says in your file that you're a Christian, no one is going to hire you, no one will loan money to you. You are constantly being watched. Our mail was opened. My phone was constantly tapped. And at one point, after a pastor had been killed -- they literally buried him alive -- someone left a note on my front door asking if I didn't miss the pastor who'd been murdered. I showed the note to my pastor, and he told me to be very careful and keep a low profile.
"The sad thing is that most Iranians trust Christians. They know it is difficult to be a Christian in Iran, and they know Christians are honest, serious people. They would like to hire you and do business with you. But they can't. It's too risky. And for Christians, the situation is impossible. The government does not want you to talk about Jesus. And if the Christian mission is to preach and to teach others, what can you do? Once I passed out a few fliers about our church, and the next day the man on our street who keeps an eye on everyone for the government, he came to me and said he knew what I'd done, and he told me not to do it anymore. Iran right now is no place for Christians.
"I don't believe it will be this way forever. The government right now is an unjust government and, as we all know, unjust governments inevitably fall."