In some respects Iran is a promising Asian base for Christian witness, although recent moves on the ecumenical left and on the independent right are limiting the evangelistic advances that might be expected in the aftermath of the Lausanne evangelization congress.
The Persians are a proud people whose history and cultural roots lie deep in the ancient past. While Iran is officially a Muslim nation, Iranians are first of all Persian, and only then whatever else they profess. Their heritage reaches back beyond the Muslim and the Christian eras to Cyrus the Great, to whom some scholars refer the Old Testament reference in Isaiah 45:1 to “the Lord’s anointed” because after defeating the Babylonians he released the captive Hebrews to return to Jerusalem and to restore their religious traditions.
Early Christianity so effectively challenged Persian Zoroastrianism that before the invasion of Islam at least half of the people were Christian. The Church in the sixth century was nonetheless unable to cope with the Muslim tide because it neglected translating the Bible into the language of the people and suffered from Christological controversies.
Although the nation and its Shah are now officially Muslim, three other religions—Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity—are officially recognized. The Persians are Aryans, not Arabs, and Islam is not their ancient creed; this fact creates a wider opening for religious alternatives.
Iran now has more than a thousand Christian ex-Muslims. They recently commissioned their first evangelist in a thousand years and dispatched him to the sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. There are also more than 400 Christian Jews in Iran; some 300 of their children consider themselves “fulfilled Jews.” This represents 1 per cent of the 70,000 Iranian Jews, a remarkable figure since only 2 per cent of the overall Asian population is Christian. There has moreover been a significant increase in distribution of the New Testament in Iran, from 80,000 portions four years ago to almost a half million the past year. Bible correspondence work, allowed by the government, could carry the Gospel to many unreached parts of the land. Religious broadcasting from Cyprus could penetrate all Iran, but its cost would be excessive except on a cooperative basis.
Yet the Muslim tradition is restrictive and prohibitive. Muslim families often evict and disown those who make non-Muslim commitments. Muslim leaders have informers even on university campuses, and Christian Iranian students who witness to Christ are often threatened and sometimes beaten.
Iranian intellectuals and young people—especially those who have been educated in the West—tend to be alienated from their religion, and to discard it as a bundle of archaic traditions. Only 45 per cent of Iranian university students in Teheran attend the mosques. Perhaps no more than 1 per cent of the young Iranian intellectuals are Marxist Muslims, and these are more slogan crusaders than professional disciples because the Marxist analysis of history does not fit Iran.
But a half-century of fascination with the West’s technological superiority and its more democratic forms of government has encouraged a deepening alienation from the Iranian Muslim heritage as well as a distaste for the Communist world and for Western politics. This distaste has been nourished by the hypocrisy of detente between the United States and Russia and China. Aware of Communist brutality and hard experience of eastern European nations, Iran has no intention of exposing its 1,000-mile northern border to Russia. Many intellectuals are staggered by the moral expediency of Western capitalism reflected by the confusing Washington-Peking-Moscow detente, and they hold that neither the military power of the West nor that of the Communists can be relied upon by the Third World.
What is needed, these intellectuals feel, is a world-wide moral revolution in which the Third World may need to strike new ground. On the one hand they tend to see Islam as intellectually inferior in view of Western scientific superiority; they view Marxism, moreover, as the only Western ideology that attacks the status quo earnestly and promises swift change. Yet they are aware of the evident failure of Marxism in many places, and the power of tradition and a recent cultural renaissance have left multitudes of young students in a condition of culture shock and ideological vacuum. It is a time of reevaluation of both Western and Eastern ideas, and Iranian students who travel to the United States for studies not infrequently discard their past heritage for the totally secular.
Modern missionaries came to Iran about 1835 and established churches as independent entities. But in 1935 the Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church in Iran (ECI) was founded as “the one officially recognized” Reformed church. It was a full member of the World Council of Churches. A tiny church in a remote land cherished such ties to a world religious body.
The Anglican bishop of Iran, Hassan Dehqani, himself a convert from Islam, officially represents the ecumenical movement; in Isfahan, Shiraz, and elsewhere, the Anglican church is the recognized umbrella that accredits all so-called legitimate missionary activity. Independent workers were not inclined to cooperate with ecumenical agencies because of theological pluralism and socio-political emphases. More than a dozen independent missionary groups operate in Iran; four have cooperated where conscientiously possible while others are under heavy home board pressure not to do so. Bishop Dehqan expressed shock at ecumenical pronouncements that issued from the WCC Bangkok meeting; he is friendly to evangelical witness although his theology is somewhat broader.
Ecumenical missionary retrenchment has been paralleled by an influx of independents, and reactionary ecumenical pressures are increasingly evident. The Lausanne Covenant is the only document that has brought together evangelical independents and ecumenical workers for a study program, but a post-Lausanne thrust is viewed guardedly because (1) Lausanne challenged the idea of a missionary moratorium and (2) the participants it invited from Iran were not screened by ecumenical leaders. The Presbyterian church has shifted its emphasis away from direct evangelism to the idea of a “Christian presence” in dialogue and education. It has cut the nerve of missions by not replacing retirees and by closing hospitals. A fraternal worker conducts a Bossey-type study center that leaves evangelical perspectives in mid-air, and long-standing privileges are being withdrawn from some evangelical leaders.
Post-Lausanne possibilities are being frustrated by a sorry display of rivalries in a land that, in the distant past of Cyrus the Great, considered religious tolerance of revealed religion a virtue.
CARL F. H. HENRY
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