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God's Politics

Jeff Carr: Solidarity with Iran’s Christian Minority

My guess is that most Americans either don’t know or don’t think much about Christians in Iran. The country is, after all, the Islamic Republic of Iran, a theocratic state where Islam is the state religion.

While Islam is certainly the dominant religion, there presently are Christians in Iran, and they trace their roots there back to the 5th century. There are a number of significant minority populations in Iran (including about 25,000 Jews who have a representative in the Iranian Parliament), with the largest being ethnic Armenians. The vast majority of Armenians are Christians, with most identifying as Orthodox Christians.

We had the privilege of actually meeting with the Archbishop of the Armenian Orthodox Church during our visit to Iran. Archbishop Sebu Sarkissian was a very charismatic leader who welcomed our delegation and spoke with us about the ethnic and religious community of Armenians.

There is a limited amount of religious freedom for Armenian Christians, as they are free to worship on a regular basis, and they have schools that are supported in part by the government. Within those schools, religious education is actually a part of the curriculum, and therefore, Christian education is allowed by the state.

There is also a smaller Armenian evangelical Christian community in Iran, numbering around 2,000. This community dates back over 100 years to missionary work established by the Presbyterian Church (USA). We had a wonderful meeting with the pastor of the largest Armenian evangelical church in Tehran, and I was asked to preach at their weekly worship service. Due to the fact that Friday is the Islamic day of worship, most Christian churches hold services on Friday morning.

While there is freedom of worship for Christians, there is not complete religious freedom such as that found in our country. Proselytizing is actually a crime in Iran, so being an “evangelical” has a very different meaning there. To be honest, I didn’t know much about the Christian community in Iran prior to this trip, and I did not go prepared to preach a sermon. It was quite an honor, however, to be asked to preach to a group of Christians who are a minority group in an Islamic-dominated country. It was an even greater privilege to worship with a group of people who have experienced some difficult times in the last 27 years as a community. I took the opportunity to try and encourage them as best I could, and chose Hebrews Chapter 11 as the text for my message. Following are some of the excerpts:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

I want you all to know that we have come to Iran as Christians, not as representatives of our government. We have come because we share a deep love for Jesus Christ and a belief that Jesus was a healer and peacemaker. During this time of increased tensions between our nations, we have come as followers of Christ to listen to the Iranian people, to learn about your country, and to return home and share with our churches and the American people what we have experienced while here in Iran, with the hope that it might have an impact on the policies of our own government. Today, however, I didn’t come to talk about politics or peace. I came to talk briefly about faith and hope.

As Paul says to the Corinthians, after love, there probably are not two more important aspects of our faith in Jesus Christ than faith and hope. I know in my own faith journey it was love that freed me from the bondage of sin in my life, but it was faith and hope that enabled me to see the possibilities the future might hold.

In this letter to the Hebrews, the author is laying out to his Jewish audience the basis for faith in Jesus Christ, and the faithfulness of God throughout human history. If you read through Chapter 11, the writer takes us on a journey through the scriptures, demonstrating the power of faith and hope in the lives of His people. It reads like an Old Testament Hall of Fame, with stories of Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Joshua, and Rahab.

What an amazing and inspiring passage of scripture.

I believe the author is telling us here, “Look at all these ordinary people who did extraordinary things because of the faith they had in God and the hope they had for the future. In spite of impossible and often terrible circumstances, God was faithful. In the face of death and destruction, God was faithful to deliver his people. In spite of disobedience, God was still faithful.” If that does not inspire hope, I don’t know what will.

And I don’t believe the faithfulness of God ended with the stories here in Hebrews. The story of God’s faithfulness continues even to today, and gives us reason to hope. In the face of personal struggles in our own lives, the faithfulness of God offers us hope. In the face of persecution, faith in God gives us hope. In the face of war, we have faith in God and hope for peace.

I guess I want to leave you this morning with a new translation of Hebrews 11:1 that my boss, Jim Wallis, shares with people as he speaks around the world. He says, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and watching the evidence change.”

Hope is not a feeling. Hope is a decision. It is a decision to stare the evidence of the challenges right before our eyes, and have faith that God can change the evidence. May each of us leave the sanctuary this morning walking in faith and the hope of the power of God in our lives.

Jeff Carr is the Chief Operations Officer for Sojourners/Call to Renewal. Learn more about this delegation at

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posted March 5, 2007 at 8:41 pm

I wish I could have heard your sermon. p

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posted March 5, 2007 at 10:22 pm

Jeff, You are an ambassador of hope. I’m glad you represent me, my friend. I’ve been following your trip with great interest. Rebecca L.

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Mark P

posted March 5, 2007 at 11:18 pm

Great sermon (though I don’t like the Wallis paraphrase :) )

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posted March 5, 2007 at 11:27 pm

Jeff, I’m so glad you and others went to Iran as Christian ambassadors. when I was in high school we attended a mission congregation. The pastor and his wife had been missionaries to Iran and were quite literally on one of the last flights out of Tehran before Ayatolla Komeini siezed power. Paster Elvert and his wife always spoke so lovingly of the Iranian people and the experiences they had had in Iran. during the Iranian hostage crisis they were able to shed much light on Iranian culture and life in Iran. I’m sure given the chance they would have returned to Iran. Your blogs are as helpful as their memories were so many years ago. God bless your continued efforts.

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Mike Hayes

posted March 6, 2007 at 3:01 am

I think the circumstance of minority Christians in Muslim countries that are as Jeff describes them, helps make the case against theocracies… If Christian beliefs should be incorporated in to law in countries (such as the US) which are predominantly Christian, then Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddist, etc. beliefs could be incorporated in to law in countries which are predominantly comprised of believers in these other religions. Following that logic, Iraq should be allowed to incorporate Sharia in to the laws of Iraq, if the majority of Iraqis want that… paralleling what some Christians want to do with their interpretations of Christian scripture, in the US… It makes the case for protection of the rights of minorities… In my view…

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posted March 6, 2007 at 3:20 pm

I’m curious as to how much exposure to the persecution of religious minorities Mr. Carr and his associates have had while visiting Iran?Once again, I can’t help but think that this is a very carefully orchestrated visit (by the hosts of this tour) to show Mr. Carr and his associates only what the Iranian government wishes them to see.Even though I think talking is better than not talking, I am a little surprised at what I see as somewhat Pollyana-ish responses to this visit.Perhaps the delegates that are visiting need to try and refrain from cynicism, but I would appreciate a little leaven of skepticism in the midst of all the wishful thinking.

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posted March 6, 2007 at 3:46 pm

Alicia: I echo your views. Although I am very grateful to Jeff and his associates for bridging the communication gap between Americans and Iranians, I would like to read a more realistic and balanced portrayal of what is going on there. In particular, I’m curious if Jeff or any of his fellow travelers had a chance to speak to the Iranians about Iran’s treatment of Baha’is. The Baha’i faith grew out of Islam but diverges from Islam in some very important ways. Muslims, therefore, commonly regard Baha’is as apostates and infidels. Baha’iism originated in Iran and has its largest number of adherents there. Persecution of Baha’is in Iran goes back long before the current Islamic government, but according to the Baha’i headquarters here in the USA, the Iranian government is systematically trying to eliminate Baha’iism. Even though they are not Christian, I think we as Christians should be concerned about their plight. Peace,

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posted March 6, 2007 at 4:09 pm

Absolutely, Don. I think it is great to be hopeful about Iranian society, to be open to learn more about them, to try and understand them on their own terms, but hope and naivete are a toxic combination, it seems to me. I’ve heard something about the persecution of members of the Baha’i faith, and, indeed, of the status of all religious minorities (or infidels) under Islam, and I think it is absolutely shameful.One of the many interesting points that Sam Harris makes in his book, “The End of Faith” is that so many religions consign those who are “outside their faith” as “outside their moral community” and not covered by the same ethical standards as fellow believers.So, if somebody is “an infidel” by that definition, they are already going to Hell, so there is no reason for me to treat them ethically or justly, if I am “a believer.” They fall outside my area of “moral concern” into outer darkness.

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kim margosein

posted March 6, 2007 at 5:06 pm

I have found it interesting that until very recently, the Islamic nations were quite the opposite of Christendom, protectors and preservers of minority religions. Ancient pre-Islamic religions such as Sabaean, Samaritan, Yazidi and Zorastrian have survived and prospered. Syncretic religions such as Alawite, Druze, and Sabbataean were also founded, survived, and prospered under Islamic rule. The oldest Jewish and Christian communities in the world are found in Islamic and formerly Islamic lands. Nothing of this kind was found in the traditional Christian lands until the easing of religious persecutin in the eighteenth century.

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posted March 6, 2007 at 7:01 pm

From all of my reading about Islam, my impression has been that Islamic conquerers oftentimes granted second-class citizenship status (aka dhimmitude) to conquered peoples of other faiths.I’m sure that sometimes this approached genuine tolerance and respect for people of different faiths. Unfortunately, it all too often did not. If my faith will only be “tolerated” if I accept my second-class citizenship status as a non-Muslim, then my answer is, respectfully, no thank you.

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posted March 6, 2007 at 8:13 pm

Alicia: Muslim tolerance for non-Muslims living among them varied from place to place and during different time periods. Yes, at times, Christians and Jews especially were tolerated as second-class citizens. But at other times and in other places, people of all faiths got along rather well overall. The Qur’an, after all, sends a mixed message on tolerance of other faiths, depending on which verses and who is interpreting them. For example, some Islamic scholars think the less tolerant-sounding verses were specific to a certain situation in the life of Muhammad and the early Muslim community, and that the more tolerant verses are more universal. Others, especially the more rigid modern sects like the Wahhabis, see just the opposite. But I agree with you, if I were given “protection” under Islamic law and it meant second-class status for Christians, I would probably say I’d rather not. Peace,

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Mark P

posted March 6, 2007 at 8:14 pm

“Nothing of this kind was found in the traditional Christian lands until the easing of religious persecutin in the eighteenth century.” In which revisionist high school textbook did you read this?

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posted March 9, 2007 at 1:53 am

Hi All, Surely these recent posted comments (about the relative goodness of the various shades of Christiandom and Islam the world has ever seen) are drifting off the point of the original article? Was this not about the need to be concerned for, and in regular dialogue with, the ‘global’ Church – in all its forms and in whatever host state. Let s not miss the chance to help this Church (of Jesus Christ)in other nations help their oppressed neighbours as best they can; but let s also ask what they think of our state s performance on civil rights! G rdan M Artair Mhic Artair na tir a chladich

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