The Iranian Émigré Community (U.K.)
Christianity in Iran from Acts 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, and after 431 AD, when the Nestorian churches in the Sasanian Empire split with Rome, refusing to accept Mary as “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 1905.1Thomas K.J., A Restless Search: A History of Persian Translations of the Bible, American Bible Society, 2015.
The Arab conquest of Iran in 651 AD 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 into 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 a number of 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.2Bradley M., Too Many to Jail: The Story of Iran’s New Christians, Elam Ministries, 2014.,3Khosravi S., Young and Defiant in Tehran, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.
The growth of house churches in Iran, and the frequent raids and jailing of leaders, is an important part of the reason why so many Iranians attempt asylum overseas. Christianity tends to spread cautiously only among people who have 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.
Asylum system in Europe
To understand how the Christadelphian Auxiliary Lecturing Society (CALS) in the United Kingdom (UK) ended up with 1,800 Iranian Bible students, it helps to understand the refugee road. At the end of this article are some YouTube links which will be more informative than filling a page with text in the Tidings. 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 sometimes occurs with good reasons for not applying for asylum in France and Germany, sometimes purely because they know a little English and sometimes due to a large amount of fear and misinformation about EU countries.4ITV News 3 Jan 2019, “Iranian migrants ‘willing to risk everything’ to reach UK,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChQP0kAlrds Once in the UK, the asylum process starts: (a) Initial accommodation in a large hostel in London, Birmingham, Derby, Wakefield or Liverpool.5ITV News 13 Nov 2019. An Iranian migrant tells the story of her wait for an asylum claim to be processed (see reference).6https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmbZkNn9DGo (b) 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. (c) The Home Office interview itself. (d) Home Office refusal, leading to a chain of appeals. Or (e) acceptance leading to a five-year refugee visa and work permit.7Manchester Guardian, “How does asylum in the UK work?”, 7 March 2017, but still up to date https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GeSDuMVUXY
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 by 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.
In Turkey teaching and evangelizing to Iranians both in Iran and Turkey continued and the CBM22 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 been working together in Turkey with Turkish contacts, but the emphasis shifted to Iranians. There are currently around 100 Iranian Christadelphians in Turkey.
For the first two years of active Persian language preaching in the UK (2016-2017) work was heavily centered in the Liverpool City Ecclesia — a city with three large hostels, but where 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
First, the materials — the main courses in use are the CBM22 (as a series of bilingual PowerPoints) and CBM40 (as a large blue book, more suitable for self-study). There is considerable overlap between CBM22 and CBM40 and students usually do either one or the other in class. Following this are the CBM Preparing for Baptism and CBM New Life Courses.
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 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, while 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, and 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, the release of the Sale Ecclesia’s Iranians video in October 2019 was a watershed.8Sale Ecclesia Video can be seen on: https://youtu.be/NUMLdQLlJUc It opened the doors of ecclesias up and down the UK to Persian-translated classes. Suddenly there were ecclesias in the prosperous south offering to find jobs and houses for Iranians with work visas to move south and join them.
What attracts Iranians to Christadelphians?
Hopefully, this article won’t be read without accessing and watching the Sale Iranians video. This video answers far better any questions that anyone can have about why Christadelphians attract such a large proportion of Iranians coming to the UK. The doctrine of the Trinity is a big factor. Our preaching leans very heavily on Jesus being the Son of Man, Son of God, not God. Another big factor is the emphasis on study. Iranians like study. Even without the enforced leisure of the Home Office system, Iranians enjoy structured study, and discussion. A very big factor is that the Christadelphians have a UK network that retains people as they undergo the many moves through the many geographical areas that occur in the UK asylum system. An Iranian Christadelphian student knows that if he or she finds their name on the hostel noticeboard for “displacement” to a 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 number of Iranians baptized in the UK was 549 before the March 23 coronavirus lockdown…before the lockdown,
40-50 baptisms were happening each month.
Numbers of baptisms
You will still hear some of us saying, “Of course, we don’t count numbers,” but the Acts of the Apostles starts with the author doing exactly that. The redirection of resources in the UK from evening lectures into activities like the hostel classes is more than just a change of venue and addition of a translator; it is also a change in methods and a change in message, although oddly, the heavily first principles-focused message in CBM Persian materials harks back to the very earliest preaching.
The number of Iranians baptized in the UK, most within the last 18 months, was 549 before the March 23 coronavirus lockdown. Also, before the lockdown, by God’s grace 40-50 baptisms were happening each month. It was a big jolt when the Prime Minister specifically mentioned no baptisms in his address. Under these circumstances, we cannot flout the law. But the lockdown has not stopped students from completing pre-baptismal instruction by Zoom classes. If anything, the enforced home study has only sped things up and increased the numbers requesting baptism. We pray that by the time this article is published some logistic solutions following both the letter and the spirit of the social distancing laws will have been found.
Integration problems faced by English members
A term frequently discussed is “integration,” which is sometimes misunderstood by those on the periphery of the changes in the UK to mean Iranians must learn English. For those in ecclesias which are now majority Iranian on Sunday mornings they know that “integration” is a two-way street. Ecclesias that are majority Iranian are primarily in the Northwest, Northeast and London, but note that in March 2020 Iranians passed the 50% mark among attending 20-40-year-old Christadelphian males nationwide. (This figure discounts estimated non-attending members from the Big Conversation survey of Christadelphians in the UK.) There are inevitably small cultural differences on both sides. One which has been unlearned is the charming, but not always helpful Iranian tradition of ta’arof — of saying “no, thank you” to a lift, help with bus fares, phone top-up for online classes, second helpings, etc., when you really want to say “yes”! On the English side, there are similar do’s and don’ts. The big logistic integration issue obviously is language. It isn’t that UK ecclesias are unwilling to provide translation, particularly after Iranian students are baptized and take full part in Sunday meetings, but logistically how do you translate a full Sunday meeting? And how do you do it when Persian-speakers are spread across 90 meetings, but the total number of translators in the country may only be 40 or 50?
What can Christadelphians in North America do to help?
There are many more students in the UK than it is possible to teach. Therefore, help from North American Christadelphians would be very welcome. Now that everyone can videoconference, time zones don’t have to be a problem. Zoom and Skype make it possible for someone in the USA — EST to teach a morning class (Bible or English), which is the afternoon in the UK. At the time of writing a small group of teachers from the United States and Canada is planning to learn how to get involved.
What can Christadelphians in Britain do better?
What about the Brits themselves? This article is not meant to be a self-congratulatory pat on the back. Some from North America seem to think that the UK is doing amazingly well with both preaching and retention. Words like “miracle,” “revival” and “Pentecost” are in circulation. But that’s only true if your benchmark is the handful (or in some years less than the fingers on a hand) of baptisms of genuinely non-Christadelphian contacts per year for the whole of the UK in recent decades.
Even as regards asylum seeker contacts, many of our frontline workers in this effort don’t really feel that we are doing well enough. Anyone involved in the Iranian effort will have equally great awareness of the numbers (that word again, numbers, souls, people) being missed because of our failures to also provide classes and support for the other nationalities among the asylum seekers — Kurds, Eritreans, Arabs, and more. We could double the number of classes and still have students wanting more.
What about our community as a whole?
Maybe the Iranians are more of an opportunity for us than we are for them? If we can work out what is saving fundamental doctrine and what is cultural baggage, it should be good for indigenous English Christadelphians too. If we can be re-converted to the core doctrines about Jesus, then that should make us want to put our house in order, to make Christadelphians again the clear and attractive first choice church for those who do not see Jesus as a pre-existent being. We have already seen dividends in a more outward-looking community. We have seen a few baptisms of English people who are encouraged by Iranian baptisms. In some towns, practical needs driven by the arrival of the Iranians have brought ecclesias to work together again after decades of local mistrust.
Steven Cox (Leicester Westleigh, UK)