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May 15, 2012

Iran Demands List of Church Members in Effort to Contain Growth

Screen shot 2012-05-15 at 3.22.32 PMIran (MNN) ― The Iranian government is tightening control on a Farsi-speaking Church, says a report from Compass Direct News.

Todd Nettleton with Voice of the Martyrs USA says he's met with members of the Assemblies of God (AOG) Central Church of Tehran before. He notes that the AOG church holds two Sunday services, both conducted in Farsi. In fact, since 2009, it has been the only church remaining in Tehran that offers Farsi-language worship on Sundays in a dedicated building.

Recently, church leaders told their congregation that authorities have demanded a list of names and identification numbers of church members--a major risk to converts from Islam.

Nettleton explains, "The Armenians: [the government] considers to be ethnically Christian. Persians: they consider to be ethnically Muslim. [The government is] very concerned to see Farsi speakers who they would consider to be Muslims coming to Jesus Christ and worshipping together in this church."   

If Farsi-speakers are considered ethnically Muslim, then their participation or conversion to Christianity would fall under the country's apostasy law, says Nettleton. "That really is the concern of the church leaders here. If we start turning over names and ID numbers, they can start tracking who these people are, what their background is, and they could come under the fire of that apostasy law."

However, in an effort to circumvent force, church leaders took an unconventional approach. Nettleton urges prayer for them. "One of the things we can really pray for is the wisdom of the church leaders. They announced in the services, 'The government is asking for your name and your ID number. If you want to volunteer that information, we will give it to the government.'"

The government demand puts Christians into an ethical bind similar to that which faces believers in China. They can identify themselves and risk being singled out for scrutiny, interrogation, or possible charges.  Or, they can choose to disobey the order, which would put them in disobedience to Scriptural teachings about government.  

Nettleton notes the familiarity of the government approach, too. "What that shows us is the frustration of the Iranian government at how many people are coming to Christ and choosing to be Christians. They don't know how to put a stop to that. They aren't being successful against the house churches in spite of raids and arrests. They're going to try now with the building churches, and they won't be successful there, either."

The church is already regularly monitored by authorities. This is not the first time a demand was made for a list of participants. According to CDN's report, this occurred 20 years ago, but church leaders refused.  

It is likely that the pressure of the dilemma will only continue to grow. But so, too, will the Church. The Gospel is making inroads due to the disillusionment over the results of the last "revolution." It's a difficult path to navigate for church leaders. Nettleton concludes with this request: "Pray that those leaders will continue to have wisdom, not only in encouraging the believers to have that in the congregation, but also in dealing with the government authorities, being able to stand firm in their faith but also to be respectful and winsome in a way to present the face of Christ."