The rise of persecution against Christians in Iran has served both as a sign of the rapid growth of Christianity within the country and as fuel for further growth. In the 1990s, several key leaders of the church in Iran were killed. One of the most famous martyrs, Mehdi Dibaj, gave a defense before the Islamic courts prior to his death that has become a rallying cry for many Christians in Iran.
Robert Bruce, a Scottish missionary to Iranian Muslims in the late nineteenth century, wrote home to his supporters, “I am not reaping the harvest; I scarcely claim to be sowing the seed; I am hardly ploughing the soil; but I am gathering out the stones. That, too, is missionary work; let it be supported by loving sympathy and fervent prayer.”
For many years, Iran was one of the most difficult regions of the world to reach with the gospel. A significant development occurred in 1979, however, with the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The ruling monarch, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown, and in his place an Islamic Republic was birthed, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Sharia law became the law of the land, and Muslim clerics became the heads of state.
Many in those days believed the revolution would lead to a time of flourishing in Iranian society. The new regime made great promises about rights and economic progress, as Iran was finally free from the influence of the West. The laws of man would be replaced by the laws of God, they claimed. Under the Republic, conversion to any other religion was considered apostasy and could be punished with death.
As we near the fortieth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, however, we see that the prayers of many Christians over the years have been answered, and the climate in Iran is vastly different. The gospel has spread throughout the land in unprecedented fashion despite increased persecution of Christian believers. To use the words of the apostle Paul, “A wide door for effective work has opened . . . and there are many adversaries” (1 Corinthians 16:9).
As of 1979, there were about five hundred known Christians from a Muslim background in Iran. In 2005, it was estimated that there were 40,000 ethnic Iranian Christians (not including ethnic minority Christians who live in Iran). That number grew to about 175,000 Christians in 2010, according to the Joshua Project. Today, the average estimates of Christians within Iran range from 300,000 to upwards of one million, according to some missions experts.