By: Ian DeJong | December 13, 2022
It is painful to hear about the Iranian government enacting violent measures against their people for participating in protests throughout the country. While Iran has officially abolished the “morality police,” the whole world continues to witness the unfolding events with feelings of sadness, fear, and confusion. After seeing the uprisings across Iran from a distance, one deserves a better understanding of the overall issue as well as a satisfying call to action.
The protests began when Mahsa Amini (peace be upon her), a twenty-two-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, was arrested by Iran’s morality police for improperly wearing her hijab on September 14, 2022. Two days later, Amini was pronounced dead after she suffered a fatal head injury caused by the police. Since then, this tragic death has ignited a nationwide series of protests against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Reportedly, the protests have amounted to approximately 90,000 participants within the country, as well as an unfortunate 531 deaths and over 1000 injured. Following the protests, there have been widespread media shutdowns, an investigation into human rights abuses, and a three-day nationwide strike by protestors.
In our effort to catch up on the news of this pressing event, it has been common to summarize this story as an outcry of oppression against women and calls for gender equality. However, while this is indeed a true and justified call against oppression, there is an element in the larger picture of Iranian demonstrations that is not often taken into account in the basic coverage that we receive at home: the presence of Christians in Iran and their potential contribution to this movement for a better future.
Not only have Iranian Christians participated in this event, but some claim that these protests represent a call for religious freedom in addition to the demand for women’s rights. Another detail that ought to be considered as part of this protesting spirit in Iran is the Kurdish identity of Mahsa Amini and the reflection of the Iranian oppression of the Kurds. In short, the protests symbolize a call for justice for women, ethnic minorities like the Kurds, and religious minorities like the Christians.
A similar consideration has been put forward by a former professor of politics at Redeemer and prominent scholar David Koyzis who wrote an article for the Christian Courier titled “The Unlikely Growth of Christianity in Iran.” Here, Koyzis suggested over one million Christians now live in the country, which is more than the entire population of Hamilton. As Koyzis wrote, “Despite a resurgent Islam, the good news of Jesus Christ continues to spread, and the growth in numbers of Christians outpaces population growth in many countries of the world … Remarkably, Iran is one of these” (Koyis 2020).
Koyzis is not alone in this observation. More recently, in an interview with Christianity Today, Shirin Taber suggests that the demonstrations are energized by discontentment with Islam: “Iranians are spiritually hungry and looking for answers; even with government restrictions on religion, the church continues to grow through Christian teaching coming into the Islamic nation over satellite TV” (Shellnut 2022). It is hard to say what sort of change these protests will bring about, but what can be said is the emerging desire for Christianity in Iran.
“We just have to wait and see because it is too soon to predict what will come about,” said Redeemer’s own Dr. Jonathan Loopstra, an expert in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, “but there are indeed growing undercurrents in the region.”
Loopstra not only refers to Christianity as becoming more attractive to Iranians today, but democracy is also a desperate request on behalf of the population and potentially the rest of the Middle East. As Taber suggested, “We need to demand that they [Iran] become a democracy. That’s the only way forward. People can be Muslim, but it just cannot be a Muslim state anymore. That would send a huge shockwave all over the Middle East because everyone is watching” (Shellnut 2022).
However, advocating for a democratic shift in an Islamic nation is a difficult undertaking. Already thirteen years ago, in 2009, a series of protests in Iran called the Green Revolution also demanded similar government measures but did not achieve their outcome.
Moreover, because of the marginalized feeling of Iranian Christians and the ever-present persecution of Christians in Iran, it is difficult to join the crowd and protest. Criticisms of the Iranian government are nonetheless present, as the Council of United Iranian Churches condemned the “systematic suppression of women and human rights violations in Iran” and called for “freedom, justice and equal rights for all Iranians” (Ardeshir 2022) In addition, the council stated, “we oppose the imposition of the mandatory hijab on the people of Iran, who have religious, ethnic, cultural and ideological diversity” (Ardeshir 2022).
However, it was reported that Yonathan Betkolia, Iranian Christian politician and head of the Assyrian Society of Tehran, encouraged Christians to stay out of the protests, as “the intelligence and security authorities of the Islamic republic have asked the representatives of Christians, bishops, and Assyrian priests to prevent the participation of Christian and Assyrian citizens in nationwide protests sparked by the death of twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini” (Ardeshir 2022).
Loopstra noted that, like Betkolia “there are Christian minorities serving on the Iranian government, but a big challenge for them is raising their voice. Most Iranian Christians would support the protests, but not many are often open about it because they fear that they will be associated with the West and blamed by the Iranian government for the existence of the protests.”
Much of the blame has already been put on foreign entities. As Loopstra remarked, “The Iranian government is blaming the West because of their economic sanctions. They are also blaming Kurdish groups in Iraq for the protests.” This continuous blame-shifting further adds to the uncomfortable setting of Iranian Christians and their limited desire for living in freedom and peace.
So, this begs a handful of crucial questions: how can Christians on one side of the world feasibly and effectively help the cause of their coreligionists on the other side of the world? What can equip Redeemer students to take part in a movement toward justice and freedom for Iranian Christians? In what ways can we help?
In the first place, Loopstra said that the best thing we can do is send our prayers: prayers for the Christian communities in Iran and prayers for Iranians that reside in our own city. “Hamilton is a multicultural community,” said Loopstra, which he regards as a key motivator for engaging with Iranians and/or Muslims in several different ways. One local example was the “Woman, Life, Freedom” art exhibit at the Centre Film Studio Hamilton this past October, which showcased paintings from Iranian artists that strive to give Iranians a stronger voice.
For local Christians that seek to aid their fellow believers, one can support the Assyrian Church of the East, which has one of its churches located here in Hamilton at 63 Stone Church Road West. As Loopstra said, “There are many Assyrian Christians in Iran,” so sitting down and starting a conversation with a bishop or one of the church’s members can bring important insight into one’s perception of the recent protests and the overall Iranian society.
A call to action may also include financially supporting both local Assyrian churches and the churches in Iran. Moreover, in Hamilton, one can contact the Bet Nahrain Assyrian Heritage Centre to find out ways they can support the Christian communities in Iran.
In Koyzis’s article, he reflected on the important references to the ancient Persian kingdom in the Old Testament. By the hand of God, Persia ended the Babylonian empire, returned the Judeans to their homeland, and allowed the Jewish people to rebuild their temple. In other words, the land we know as Iran played a meaningful role in God’s grand story of Scripture. This can serve as a firm basis for engagement with Iranians—Christian or non-Christian—knowing that their people have historically and meaningfully contributed to the formation of God’s community in Israel.