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First Graduates of Persian Seminary Prepared to Serve a Traumatized Iran

London-based theological institute celebrates the academic success of 15 Muslim-background students, many of whom have suffered family rejection and political repression.
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First Graduates of Persian Seminary Prepared to Serve a Traumatized Iran
Image: Courtesy of Pars Theological Centre

Iran’s Islamic republic is driving its citizens away from religion—and into trauma and depression. But as Christianity grows among a disillusioned public, the church is not exempt from complications, whether at home or in the extensive diaspora.

“Many Iranian Christians struggle with high levels of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, stemming from persecution but also from the general oppression of a totalitarian regime,” said Shadi Fatehi, associate director of Pars Theological Centre. “We see the marks in many of our students.”

Last month, the London-based institute celebrated its first graduating class.

Fifteen students completed the Farsi-language, three-year bachelor’s in theology degree. Accredited as an institution by the World Evangelical Alliance–associated European Council for Theological Education, nearly half of Pars’s over 600 students live in Iran, with almost a third in Turkey.

Its hybrid education model is primarily online, with a yearly residential program.

Located in 23 nations overall, the seminary launched the Pars Counseling Centre five years ago and began deliberately integrating it within the academic program. While the World Health Organization estimates five percent of the world population suffers from depression, peer-reviewed studies describe far greater numbers in Iran.

Between 15–31 percent of Iranians experience some form of mental disorder, with that number increasing to 37 percent in Tehran. Saeed Moeedfar, president of Iran’s Sociological Association, described a “terrifying despair” gripping society, as one in five prescriptions are issued for antidepressants or sleep-inducing medications. And a 2021 study found that political repression “contributes significantly” to mental health problems.

Meanwhile, a 2020 GAMAAN study found that nearly one million Iranians called themselves Christian, while only 32 percent of Iranians identified as Shiite Muslim. Officially, however, Iran puts that number at 95 percent.

Citing oppression and economic troubles, one anonymous secular Tehran-based NGO came up with a somewhat spiritual solution. Fighting a culture of mental health stigma, it combines both pro- and anti-regime patients within group counseling sessions. Alumni describe a “second household” atmosphere and readily volunteer to extend what they call “the chain of love.”

Pars similarly calls its theological model “the centrality of love,” centered around spiritual (love of God), personal (self), communal (church), and missional (world) formation. Many converts to Christianity suffer rejection from their family, Fatehi said, and new life in Christ does not automatically heal their wounds. In fact, given the nature of the Iranian underground church, it can even amplify them.

“Believers often suddenly find themselves as leaders in a house church,” she said. “But only having seen authoritarian models, traumatized people tend to exert controlling power over others out of self-preservation.”

Pars offers three courses in servant leadership, she said.

“Our background in Shiite Islam leads us to believe that the pastor represents the image of God and that we should accept his teachings without question,” said Samira Fooladi, a graduating student in Turkey. “My goal now is to develop healthy women’s leadership.”

Experts say the Iranian church is largely female, reflected in 57 percent of Pars students.

Despite growing up in a religious family in Isfahan, Fooladi followed her older sister to underground services during university studies in Tehran. Non-practicing herself, she compared the Quran and Bible while praying that God would show her the right way. She gave her life to Christ in 2000 at the age of 18.

Fooladi quickly became a cell group leader, but it was not until after her studies at Pars that she fully realized her network pastor was angry, possessive, and demanded full commitment to the ministry. She was forbidden from her prior passions for painting and sports, and she neglected her family—who were also coming to faith—in order to spend six days a week traveling throughout Iran to encourage scattered believers.

In 2012, Fooladi learned of Pars and began taking her first courses, and her theological perspective began to expand. Two years later, she and 13 others were arrested in a house church raid. She spent 12 days in prison before posting bail, but then fled the country in advance of the final verdict, before her name was officially registered for a travel ban.

Now married with a two-month-old daughter, she awaits asylum decisions in Europe while attending an international church in Istanbul. Fooladi has referred 35 others to study at Pars but dreams of returning with the gospel to Iran.

As does fellow graduate Behrouz Saki.

“The day will come when the kingdom of God can be proclaimed openly,” said the IT consultant at a Norwegian company in Oslo. “Until then, I continue to prepare.”

Saki fled Iran in 2003. As a 15-year-old son of an atheist political activist, he felt lost between the two cultures. An Iranian friend gave him a Bible, and in 2010 Saki placed his faith in Christ. Given his background, he first approached it critically.

“But as I read, I started noticing changes in my life,” Saki said. “I wanted to commit myself to the teachings of this book.”

He has been devoted to it since.

Enrolling in Pars in 2014, when it had less than 100 students, he chose the seminary over others in Norway due to its focus on “service, solidarity, and sacrifice” for Iranian believers back home. Praising the institute for its commitment to social justice, equality, and human rights, he also became a better husband and father over time.

But his initial motivation for pursuing studies was due to an ecclesial leadership failure.

After conversion, Saki joined his friend at a Persian-speaking church in Oslo. It was a transformative experience, during which time he met his wife and became part of a close community. But less than a year later, a pastoral power struggle split the congregation, halving attendance to around 50 people.

He praised the counseling aspects of Pars for his emotional health today.

Saki is now one of three preachers at his church, but the only one with a theological degree. He designs the teaching program of the church while virtually overseeing a 15-member cell group in Iran comprised primarily of converted members of his extended family.

Until the dream of returning to them can be realized in person, he is helping lead the Lutheran state church–affiliated body into a Free Church association—to “be the face of Jesus in Norway,” he said. But he is also pursuing an online MA in theological studies through Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS)—like Pars, also in Farsi.

Having begun its Persian Leadership Development program (PLD) in 2016, last June SEBTS celebrated its first graduating class, with 23 students awarded a bachelor’s degree in pastoral leadership. Of these, 19 will join Saki for graduate studies, with 104 students from 16 countries enrolled in academic pursuit.

“I’m so happy for the success of Pars,” said Kambiz Saghaey, director of the PLD. “I pray God will continue to bless them in laying a theological foundation for the Iranian church.”

Accredited theological studies are also available through Elam Ministries, which partners with Global University to offer a Farsi-language BA in theology. Currently there are 84 students enrolled from 10 nations, in addition to Elam’s network of trainers and evangelists inside Iran and neighboring countries.

Building Pars, however, has not been easy. Its founder and president Mehrdad Fatehi—Shadi’s father—left Iran in 1991 specifically to pursue theological education and lay a foundation for future seminary education. Along the way, seven of his colleagues were martyred, including Haik Hovsepian, superintendent of the then-legal Assemblies of God church in Iran.

Mehrdad Fatehi never returned home.

Graduating with a PhD from London School of Theology in 1998, he worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators and Elam in Bible translation and leadership training. But in 2010 he registered Pars as a legal entity, assembling a team to develop courses one-by-one. The first class was held in 2013. With 30 modules now available, he said even full-time enrollment would soon be possible. However, as most students are already deeply involved in ministry, they are encouraged to complete the program within seven years.

Yet none are trained without spiritual formation.

Every year, students are brought to a secure location in groups of 15–25 for one week of seminars, counseling sessions, prayer, and above all, fellowship. Given the surveillance nature of the state, Iranians learn to not trust one another. The paranoia that develops, Mehrdad Fatehi said, stunts the growth and mission of the church. Time together builds common faith.

“Iran is a deeply traumatized country,” he said. “And believers are not exempt.”

Therefore, in addition to standard academic offerings in New Testament studies, biblical interpretation, and systematic theology, Pars offers contextualized classes in crisis and trauma counseling, healthy Christian living, and marriage and the family. All are tied together through courses on the history of Iran and the history of its church.

As each evolves continually, so does Pars. And with enrollment surging there and elsewhere, a foundation of faith is being prepared to address a distressed nation. The runway has been paved; Shadi Fatehi said that the aviation infrastructure must follow.

“We are like a plane lifting off while the passengers are building it,” she said. “But with Iranians desperate for theological education, it is best to be deliberate.”

January/February
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