Inside Iran: A Rising Chorus

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TEHRAN, Iran - It was never supposed to turn out this way.

"We had this idealistic dream that Islam would solve all our problems," an Iranian Christian said.

So much was promised. So little was delivered.

"We had hoped that this religion would save us and give us a better life," another Iranian believer said.

The goal was to raise a generation to carry the banner of Islam to the ends of the earth.

"People loved Islam so much that they were willing to die for it," said Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei.

"Nobody could have damaged Islam as much as the men who once ruled our nation, and those in charge toda," declared Human rights activist Roya Toloui.

They have left a nation struggling to find its soul.

One Iranian convert to Christianity said, "We are still asking our parents why they stood for such a revolution, for such a religion."

With too few answers, many Iranians are now seeking alternatives to Islam.

"There is a vacuum, a spiritual vacuum in Iran. In their mind, most of them are done with Islam," said an Iranian pastor.

Today, inside one of the world's most repressive societies, a growing number are turning to the Man from Galilee.

One secret Iranian believer said, "I cannot explain it, this peace I feel in my heart about Jesus. I cannot put it into words."

This is their story of faith and courage under fire.

It's Tuesday evening, sometime after 7 p.m. As usual, the streets are clogged with Iranians heading home for the night. Few cities can compete with the crazy traffic of Tehran.

But tonight, the men riding in one of the cars are willing to wait for as long as it takes. They are on their way to an underground meeting.

The event is being organized in total secrecy. The women and young girls arrive individually. Once inside, the head scarves that are compulsory under Islamic law in Iran are abandoned. A short time later, a group of young men enter the building trying to avoid detection.

But the people here are not planning a political protest or plotting the overthrow of the regime.

They have gathered behind closed doors to worship Jesus Christ.

For security reasons, we have changed the names of the believers. But the sounds of their rising chorus can be heard.

The men and women at the secret meeting spend the next several hours singing and praying.

That may not seem like a big deal to most Christians in America, but here in Iran, such a gathering is illegal. That's because most of the people at the meeting converted to Christianity from Islam.

And in a country governed by Islamic law, and whose population is 99-percent Muslim, such conversions carry the death penalty.

Among those in the crowd is one Iranian believer, 23-year-old Leila. - not her real name.

CBN News: Are you scared?

Leila: No. If it was through my own strength, of course I would be scared. But I have the Holy Spirit inside me, and He gives me the strength not to be afraid.

Leila was a devout Muslim who converted five years ago. Today, she's quietly sharing the Gospel on the campuses of Tehran's elite universities.

CBN News: How easy is it to share the Gospel?

Leila: It is not easy. We have to be very careful. But I meet so many students who are hungry to believe in something. My burden is to share Christ with them. When you have something special inside your heart, you want to share it with others.

Amir, another convert from Islam, has the same burden to share Christ. We've taken similar precautions to protect his identity.

Amir and a handful of other secret believers minister in Iran's holy city of Qom. Qom is 90 miles south of Tehran, and serves as the spiritual headquarters for Iran's ruling clerics.

"Qom is where some of the world's top Islamic schools are located," Amir said. "The religious men who rule this country have all studied in Qom. The Lord gave me the gift of teaching and called me to this city to share the Gospel with these men. And a number of them have accepted Jesus Christ."

Leila, Amir, and many others are part of the under-30 crowd who make up 70 percent of Iran's population. Many of them have little or no memory of the Islamic revolution that swept the radicals to power in 1979.

Publicly, this younger generation obeys the strict rules imposed by the hardliners. Privately, they live as they want.

"More than 80 percent of them are depressed," Amir said. "They are disappointed. They feel like they have no future. They are so angry that no good thing has come from the Islamic revolution."

CBN News: Are they rebelling against Islam?

Leila: Yes. They feel like this religion wants to always condemn them. There are so many restrictions put on them. They are constantly told what to do and what not to do. So many of them are tired of hearing this and are getting bored with Islam.

Mosques that were often filled before the revolution are often empty today.

"The young people say that they don't have any religion, they don't have any belief," Leila said. "Some of them even say they are not Muslim!"

Christians make up less than one percent of Iran's 70 million people. The majority of these Christians are from the Armenian, Assyrian or Chaldean churches.

And because these churches do not actively seek out new believers, the government tolerates them.

One notable exception is evangelical Christians, whose numbers are said to be growing. Many are Muslim-born Iranians who converted to Christianity as a result of dreams and visions. And for these people, life is often more challenging.

"The price for converting can be everything," Amir said. "But as Christ said, if you want to be His follower, you have to forsake all, including your life."

In the last decade, several Iranian believers have paid the ultimate price. The majority of those killed were former Muslims.

Several remain behind bars for hiding their conversions to Christianity.

Despite the challenges, Iranians are more open to the Gospel than ever before. The Internet and satellite television is giving people greater access to the message of Christ.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, CBN News met a group of young Muslim girls who talked about their encounters with Jesus.

"I know a lot of Muslims who go to church," one said. "I go there to find peace. I cannot explain this peace to you."

"I feel relaxed and secure when I read about Jesus," another explained. "I ask Him to help me when I have problems."

A third said, "We have so much respect for Jesus. So many of my friends feel this way too."

Today, a network of these secret underground churches operates throughout the country, giving Iranian believers a place to fellowship. Risking the wrath of the Islamic authorities, these young men and women are praying for more boldness to share their faith in a hostile culture filled with many open hearts.

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George Thomas

George Thomas

CBN News Sr. Reporter

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