Elam - an organisation aimed at supporting the Iranian church - recently opened a regional office in Australia. Director Fiona Baird speaks about the organisation's purpose, what life is like for Christians in Iran, and why the church there is seeing such growth at the moment...

What, briefly, is the mission of Elam?
"To strengthen and expand the church in the Iran region and beyond. This is a really exciting mission, especially in this season of unprecedented openness to the Gospel among Persian-speakers. Never before has there been such an opportunity – and such a need – to minister to this rapidly growing church."

How and when was it founded?
"Elam was founded in 1990 by senior Iranian church leaders with a vision to reach the Persian-speaking world for Christ. At that time, the pressure on the church from Iran’s government was increasing severely, so Elam was established to strengthen the suffering church."

Fiona Baird

 

IN SHORT - FIONA BAIRD

A Bible verse that’s influenced me?...Hebrews 12:1-2 - “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes upon Jesus.”

A book I’ve been inspired by?...Captive in Iran by Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh; the story of two young Iranian women imprisoned for their Christian faith. They stand firm despite their circumstances and see their imprisonment as an opportunity to share the love of Christ with their fellow prisoners, and even the prison guards. I know their story is not unique [but] it gives an insight into the experience of many Christians who are persecuted in Iran.

Someone whom I admire?...So many of my Iranian brothers and sisters who take risks and make sacrifices for the sake of the Gospel. They have such a heart for their country and its people and a desire to see many more come to know Christ.

You’re the regional director for Australia - when was the local arm founded and how did that come about?
"We are excited to be just getting started in Australia. I began serving with Elam while living in the UK. I recently returned home to Melbourne to take on the role of regional director. It’s a joy and a privilege to be back here to share the incredible story of Iran’s rapidly growing church. I’m eager to see the church in Australia blessed and encouraged through this story, and to see Iran’s church blessed in return. Establishing a greater presence in Australia is something the Elam team has been praying about for some time, and my experience in the UK really equipped and prepared me to pioneer this work."

Who are Iran’s Christians - to what denominations and churches do they belong?
"There are numerous Orthodox churches across Iran, but the part of the church that is seeing the most growth today is the house churches. The house church movement is mostly Persian-speaking and evangelical. Some house church Christians previously attended one of the registered Protestant churches – Anglican, Presbyterian or Assemblies of God – in Iran’s major cities, but almost all of these churches have now been forced to close due to intense pressure and persecution from the Islamic regime. Most of the house church Christians would not have much knowledge or interest in aligning themselves to a particular denomination."

Is it legal to be a Christian in Iran?
"Yes and no. ‘Yes’, because surprisingly Iran’s constitution officially acknowledges and protects Christianity as a minority religion. There are ‘ethnic Christians’ (Assyrians and Armenians who mostly attend Orthodox churches) who are relatively free to practice their faith, though they do face discrimination. But ‘no’, because Iran does not acknowledge the right of anyone to leave Islam. Anyone who converts from that background to Christianity is an ‘apostate’. Apostates can face the death sentence for men, or life imprisonment for women, though thankfully these punishments are rarely implemented. Many Iranian Christian converts have been arrested, interrogated and harshly treated in prison simply because of their faith in Jesus, as well as suffering various other forms of persecution and discrimination."

What is life like for a former Muslim who has converted to Christianity in Iran?
"Muslim-background believers in Iran live in fear of a knock on the door from the authorities. Churches meet secretly in homes, and church members and pastors have to be very careful about who they invite to join them. But despite the persecution, many are bold in evangelism and love to share the Gospel with their friends, family and neighbours."

There is much talk that Iran is seeing an increasing number of converts to Christianity - is that what Elam Ministries is seeing?
"Yes, we are constantly hearing testimonies of Iranians coming to faith in Jesus Christ – wonderfully, often whole families come to the Lord together. In fact, according to Operation World, Iran’s church is the fastest growing evangelical church in the world today. We are not at all surprised by this assessment: the flood of responses to our TV and internet ministries, the huge demand for our Bibles and Christian resources, and the ever-increasing number of Iranians crying out for our Christian leadership and church-planting training all indicate that this is a church in a remarkable season of growth."

Why is Christianity making such an impact in Iran at present?
"Since 1979 the Iranian people have lived under an increasingly oppressive and invasive regime that rules in the name of Islam. The vast majority of the population have become disillusioned with their government and therefore with Islam. The government’s attempts to stamp out Christianity have, in fact, had the opposite effect. For example, banning the printing and distribution of the Bible in Persian (Farsi) has only made people more interested to read it – many have come to faith in Christ as a result. Imprisoning Christians has made others curious as to why they are so willing to suffer for their faith. Others still begin their journey to Christian faith as Jesus reveals himself to them in dreams or visions. The risen Lord is powerfully at work in Iran."

"Before I started working at Elam, I knew almost nothing about Iran or the situation for Christians there. But as I discovered the heart of the ministry, I knew it was something I had to be a part of. It was through meeting Iranian Christians, hearing their stories, and being a part of a team who are passionate about helping to grow and disciple the Iranian church that I personally developed a heart for this ministry."

How did you personally come to be interested in the situation for Christians in Iran?
"God brought me into this story without me even realising it at first. Before I started working at Elam, I knew almost nothing about Iran or the situation for Christians there. But as I discovered the heart of the ministry, I knew it was something I had to be a part of. It was through meeting Iranian Christians, hearing their stories, and being a part of a team who are passionate about helping to grow and disciple the Iranian church that I personally developed a heart for this ministry."

Is there a story you’ve come across with regard to the church in Iran that’s particularly impacted you?
"There are many stories I could share, but one that is particularly powerful is that of Yasmin*, a seven-year-old girl who asked for help. Yasmin’s mother, Shadi*, had been abused by both her brother and her husband over many years. Shadi was so broken and depressed she was ready to take her own life, and asked her seven-year-old daughter Yasmin to die with her. Little Yasmin regularly watched Elam’s children’s TV program, Garden of Friendship, and wanted to ask the show’s host, Aunty Maryam, to pray for them. Shadi agreed to call the hotline number provided at the end of the show. After more than two hours speaking with one of Elam’s TV ministry follow-up pastors, both Shadi and Yasmin gave their hearts to Christ. Eventually, with further discipleship from the Elam team, Shadi led her husband to Christ, and they now host a small house church in Iran. Jesus is saving lives!"

How can Christians around the world support the Christian brethren in Iran?
"There are a number of ways the global church can partner with Iran’s church:
     1. Pray for Iran. Pray for those who are being persecuted and suffering in prison. Pray for those who are faithfully building the church through evangelism and discipleship, despite the risks. Pray for those who don’t yet know Christ, that they would find the truth. Prayer is powerful and it is making an impact in Iran. Our free Iran 30 prayer guide is a great tool for helping people learn about and pray for Iran.
     2. Share the story. If you are moved by what God is doing in Iran, share with your church, your Bible study group, your family and friends. Our Iran and Beyond magazine, full of powerful testimonies from Iran, is a great way to do this. Why not order a few copies to share around?
     3. Reach out to your Iranian neighbours. Bless and encourage them by listening to their stories and sharing your own. If you need Persian (Farsi) language Bibles, tracts or other resources to help you, have a browse at elam.com/shop.
     4. Give. Elam relies entirely on donations to continue the crucial work of providing bibles, training leaders, planting churches and sending the Gospel through TV and internet ministries. In this season of incredible growth, we’d love your help so that we can take hold of every opportunity to strengthen Iran’s church.

To learn more visit www.elam.com or email [email protected]

*Names have been changed for security reasons.