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The Iranian Émigré Community in the UK

We have received an unexpected and underserved, immense blessing. The new refugee Christadelphians in many of our cities are what is keeping lightstands in the UK flickering and not extinguishing.
By STEVEN COX
Read Time: 11 minutes
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Updated and Republished (originally in the June 2020 Tidings)


Christianity in Iran from Acts Chapter 2 to the Arab Conquest

The first Jewish converts to Christianity in Iran were those “Parthians and Medes and Elamites” who returned home to Ctesiphon, Adiabene, and other Jewish centers to break away from synagogues and found churches. There is little evidence of sustained persecution by Zoroastrians. After AD 431, when the Nestorian churches in the Sasanian Empire split with Rome, refusing to accept Mary as the “Mother of God,” Christianity became an established and tolerated religion in Persia. While Christians mainly used Aramaic, they also produced the first Bible translations into Middle Persian. Of these pre-Islamic Persian translations, only a few pages of Psalms survive, discovered in a Silk Road Monastery in 1905.1

The Arab conquest of Iran in AD 651 ended more than 400 years of the Sassanian administrative empire, and the previous state religion, Zoroastrianism, was violently suppressed by the Muslim conquerors. Christians fared better under Arab rule but gradually came to be regarded as a minority ethnic group in Iran rather than a religion to which people could freely convert. Nevertheless, this history is still important today since many, if not most, Iranians are aware that Christianity has a longer history in Iran than Islam.

Current Christian Revival in Iran

The revival of Christianity in Iran and the rapid growth of house churches have many causes. But most writers pinpoint growing social discontent during the two presidencies of Ahmadinejad (2005-2012) and the growth of access by Virtual Private Network (VPN) to Western Iranian Christian TV channels and social media apps as significant factors.2 3

Iran’s Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi in 2019 spoke of his ministry’s research into conversions to Christianity, its questioning of ordinary people to explain their motives, and its efforts to “counter the advocates of Christianity.” Iran’s leading Islamic seminary sees the domestic fight against Christianity as one of its top priorities, and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly once vowed to “stop Christianity in this country.”

The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, blames house churches on “Zionists and other enemies.” The regime considers Christianity “an existential threat.” As one ex-Muslim put it, “We find ourselves facing what is more than a conversion to the Christian faith. It’s a mass exodus from Islam.”4

The growth of house churches in Iran and the frequent raids and jailing of leaders are an important part of the reason why so many Iranians attempt asylum overseas. Given the Iranian house church movement’s underground nature, estimates of its size are necessarily vague.

Open Doors (a Christian-based organization supporting the needs of persecuted Christians around the world) found 370,000 Muslim background believers in 2013 and 720,000 in 2020. Christianity tends to spread cautiously only among people with long-standing relationships, friends from primary school rather than university, cousins rather than colleagues. Those attracted are often, not surprisingly, those who are already disaffected with Islam and at odds with the system.5

Asylum System in Europe 

To understand how the Christadelphian Auxiliary Lecturing Society (CALS) in the United Kingdom (UK) ended up with 9,000 Iranian Bible students, it helps to appreciate the refugee road. First, most follow a long route through Turkey and the Balkans to the European Union (EU), where it is possible to apply for asylum in any country, but many head to the Calais jungle seeking a route to the UK.

This choice sometimes occurs with good reasons for not applying for asylum in France and Germany. The reason is sometimes because they know a little English and sometimes due to a large amount of fear and misinformation about EU countries.6 Once in the UK, the asylum process starts. First, there is initial accommodation in a large hostel in London, Birmingham, Derby, Wakefield, or Liverpool.7 An Iranian migrant tells the story of her waiting for an asylum claim to be processed.8

Next, allocation to smaller houses in inner cities, typically one Iranian sharing with three others, such as Africans and Kurds. At this point, the asylum seeker can get a legal-aid lawyer and start preparing for the Home Office interview. Third, the Home Office interview itself. If the interview ends in a Home Office refusal, it leads to a chain of appeals. Hopefully, the last step is acceptance, leading to a five-year refugee visa and work permit.9

History of Christadelphian Preaching

The first Iranian Christadelphians were baptized in Pakistan. The first baptisms in Iran, with the assistance of Christadelphians from India, took place in 2009 and 2011. In 2012, the Christadelphians in Iran were arrested, and visitors from India, being named by the Iranian authorities in the court hearings, were warned to cancel plans for future visits.

After their release on bail, some of these escaped from Iran to Turkey and Sri Lanka. From there, after a long process with assistance from the United Nations, Williamsburg Christadelphian Foundation (WCF), Karolyn Andrews Memorial Fund (KAMF), and the Christadelphian Bible Mission (CBM), they were able to obtain refugee visas for Germany, Canada and the United States.

There are currently around 100 Iranian Christadelphians in Turkey.

In Turkey, teaching and evangelizing to Iranians both in Iran and Turkey continued, and the CBM’s 22 lesson course was translated into Persian. Subsequently, ecclesias of refugees formed in Denizli and Kayseri in Turkey around 2015 and were further supported by the WCF and CBM. The WCF and CBM had already worked together in Turkey with Turkish contacts, but the emphasis shifted to Iranians. There are currently around 100 Iranian Christadelphians in Turkey.

Liverpool

For the first two years of active Persian language preaching in the UK (2016-2017), work was heavily centered in the Liverpool City Ecclesia. Liverpool is a city with three large hostels, but the ecclesia depended on a handful of core English members commuting from Manchester and London to run translated classes. Liverpool quickly became a majority-Iranian ecclesia by the end of 2017.

Preaching Methods of the CBM and CALS

The materials of the main courses in use are the CBM 22 lesson course (as a series of bilingual PowerPoints) and CBM 40 lesson course (as a large blue book, more suitable for self-study). There is considerable overlap between CBM 22 and CBM 40, and students usually do either one or the other in class. The CBM “Preparing for Baptism” and CBM “New Life” courses follow.

Preaching in the Midlands by the CALS began in April 2018, kick-started by the arrival in the UK of an enthusiastic contact, Mehrdad H., who had been in the camps in Greece with a brother from Liverpool. Three classes a week were immediately set up at the Edgbaston hostel, and over the next months, the teachers followed students when “The Home Office” moved people between accommodation centers.

Also, once people have a right to remain, they move to other cities for family or employment reasons. This circumstance meant that a class in one location soon led to classes in other locations. Specifically, hostel classes in Birmingham led to classes at the other major hostels in Derby, Wakefield, and London. By March 2019, we had covered all the bases. Anywhere the “Home Office” could send an Iranian asylum seeker, classes were set up and running.

This Iranian-Christadelphian network is extremely important and functions because many of our contacts are constantly engaged in besharat (evangelizing) to other Iranians they meet. This inevitably presented a significant challenge and the need for change. Ecclesias vary in their ability and willingness to respond to these challenges. Many have made adaptations to meeting times and formats and welcomed the opportunity to support the work.

Conversely, it is sad at times to observe ecclesial halls that are within walking distance of Iranians continuing with untranslated Sunday evening lectures with no visitors. At the same time, local Iranians take an hour’s bus ride to an ecclesia providing Farsi translation.

Most ecclesias with Iranians regularly attending could see that, despite the challenges, this was clearly the work of the Lord. Initial concerns about people’s genuineness were overcome. Ecclesias, without direct contact, tended to be more cautious or simply occupied with their own members and activities. In terms of winning over and reassuring UK ecclesias releasing of the Sale Ecclesia’s Iranians video in October 2019 was a watershed.8 It opened the doors of ecclesias up and down the UK to Persian-translated classes. Suddenly, ecclesias in the prosperous south offered to find jobs and houses for Iranians with work visas to move south and join them.

What Attracts Iranians to the Christadelphians?

The doctrine of the Trinity is a big factor. Our preaching leans heavily on Jesus being the Son of Man, Son of God, not God. Another big factor is the emphasis on study. Iranians like to study. Even without the enforced leisure of the Home Office system, Iranians enjoy structured study and discussion.

The doctrine of the Trinity is a big factor.

A big factor is that the Christadelphians have a UK network that retains people as they undergo the many moves through the many geographical areas in the UK asylum system. An Iranian Christadelphian student knows that if they find their name on the hostel noticeboard for “displacement” to house share at the other end of the UK, they only need to send a “WhatsApp” location-pin and Christadelphians from the local ecclesia will be waiting to plug them into the local Persian-translated Bible classes.

Also, since we have to show both sides of the gospel, there is help to register with a medical doctor, dentist, etc. This Iranian-Christadelphian network is extremely important and functions because many of our contacts are constantly engaged in besharat (evangelizing) to other Iranians they meet.

The CALS-run Persian classes went into lockdown at the beginning of March 2020, three weeks before the rest of the country, due to fear by Iranians who had already heard of fatalities back home. Many UK ecclesias did not return to running Persian-translated classes until the autumn of that year. This development created a big online culture of classes and social events run by Iranian members themselves resulting in a great deal of cohesion in the Iranian Christadelphian community. However, something of a crash and a feeling of loss occurred when meetings reopened. While this was for the better, something was lost.

The number of baptized members is now over 3,000. Unfortunately, it was inevitable that some members stopped coming regularly after having obtained “Leave to Remain.” The turmoil of searching for housing and employment and often moving to another city has caused attendance disruption So, there are not 3,000 actively attending.

Some people, including some of our committed Iranian members, will look at some individuals and wonder if they were ever genuine. This is one reason why, apart from the need for a viable understanding of the Gospel before baptism, our more senior Iranian members may take it upon themselves to warn new arrivals that if they are just looking for a baptism certificate, they can go elsewhere.

But the deliberate fakers are rare; it’s much more often the case that our contacts genuinely are sympathetic to Christianity and see being Christian as part of their new lives in the UK. So, the challenge is partly the universal problem of the Parable of the Sower:

Some fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered away. And some seed fell among thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. (Mark 4:5-7).

Few could anticipate and then rise to the expectation that we might have of them to dedicate most of Sunday and one evening a week to their church. The pressure of working as a migrant, two or three poorly paying jobs, evenings, and weekends, doesn’t fit well with the comfortable middle-class lives most UK-born members enjoy.

the deliberate fakers are rare

It isn’t the expected Christadelphian way to only attend three or four times a year, but for those struggling to make a new life, doing only that, while not at all good, doesn’t mean faith in their new religion has totally died. Therefore, ecclesias can adjust to the reality of the life of our refugee members to some degree, and there are some things we can do. We can offer online supplemental bread and wine on weekdays. We can make it easier for those working unsocial hours in fast food businesses to attend meetings. We can enable people to help find housing better.

A more difficult question would be what we can do where we feel there is some Biblical support for Christadelphian positions that can unexpectedly alienate our Iranian members. For example, protest.

An important date for every Iranian is September 16, 2022. This date marked the death of Mahsa Amini, a twenty-two-year-old Kurdish girl who was arrested by a clothing patrol for not wearing her head covering properly while visiting her brother in the capital. She was subsequently beaten into a coma while in custody.

The protests following this death naturally galvanized the population of Iran, especially women and Kurds. In the UK, the Persian-Christadelphian ecclesial WhatsApp groups were full of upset, consternation and sympathy for Mahsa and for the protests in Iran. In some of those groups, Western Christadelphians made the mistake of trying to shut down the discussion.

In some ecclesias, the question sessions after Bible class turned to this subject. In some ecclesias, there was upset that ecclesial prayer did not address the situation. In the past, when occasional political upset had strayed into the groups, a gentle reminder and recirculating the several relevant Persian-translated PDFs on politics and protest was enough to calm things, but this was different.

It was wiser, and probably right, for English members to bite their tongues or simply agree. Whether this was a real trigger or pretext, this caused the resignation of some Iranian members who had served as pillars of their local ecclesias. In 2024, the subject still remains sensitive.

Going forward, challenges will only increase. And yet we must thank God for these challenges as we as a community have received an unexpected and underserved immense blessing. The new refugee Christadelphians in many of our cities and their families are making the difference between the Christadelphian message remaining open in those cities or not. It is what keeps a lightstand flickering and not extinguishing.

The CALS (the domestic preaching and teaching Christadelphian support charity) has, since the start of formal CALS, provided support targeted at refugee preaching. In 2018, CALS tried to provide ecclesias with resources, not just for first principles preaching and teaching but also for exhortation, encouragement, development, and retention.

Persian materials are mainly produced in collaboration with the CBM. Recent CBM materials, such as the “Growing into Christ” course, also help UK ecclesias. CALS continues to work on resources to help with the retention and development of the Iranian speakers and leaders that our community will need. Additionally, CALS works with welfare charities such as the Christadelphian Aid for Refugees (CARA). View information on CARA and how you could contribute at https://cara.fund

Finally, we have to remember our small place in what happens in men’s and women’s hearts. This idea is God’s work, and as much as it is true, “How can they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14), it is God who gives the increase, and those who plant and water are nothing (1 Corinthians 3:6). Most of all in the words of 2 Corinthians 5:19, it is God reconciling men and women back to himself through the obedient example of his Son.

It is Christ’s example that must work on all of us in everything.

Steven Cox
Leicester Westleigh Ecclesia, UK

 

  1. Thomas K.J., A Restless Search: A History of Persian Translations of the Bible, American Bible Society, 2015.
  2. Bradley M., Too Many to Jail: The Story of Iran’s New Christians, Elam Ministries, 2014.
  3. Khosravi S., Young and Defiant in Tehran, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.
  4. Pipes, Daniel, Newsweek, June 24, 2021
  5. Ibid.
  6. ITV News 3 Jan 2019, “Iranian migrants ‘willing to risk everything’ to reach UK,” https://youtu.be/ChQP0kAlrds
  7. ITV News 13 Nov 2019.
  8. https://youtu.be/RmbZkNn9DGo
  9. Manchester Guardian, “How does asylum in the UK work?”, 7 March 2017, but still up to date https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GeSDuMVUX
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peter wisniowski
2 months ago

Very good article of a miraculous event occurring in Great Britain!
Would that we had that much to do here in Canada over the past few decades.
Thank you for this brother Steven and the ‘Tiding’s’ for it’s publishing.
I would agree that we ought to be more sensitive to newcomer’s issues such as protesting against a wicked regime which murders the innocent. Many Christadelphianss can attest to this. Is there not a middle ground whereby we let our community voice their concerns against evil in high places without actually breaking the law? Sometimes I think it’s a cop-out when we say we can’t proclaim our views to the outside world. What do you think?

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