Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Other Iranian Revolution

  Lutheran pastor Gottfried Martens 
baptizing a Persian convert on Easter Night in Berlin

In ‘godless’ eastern Germany,
Iranian refugees surprise pastors
by their interest in Christianity.

From Christianity Today, July-August 2012

Deaconess Rosemarie Götz
baptizing a Persian woman in Berlin 

“God must have been laughing up his sleeve,” muses Jobst Schöne, applying a German paraphrase of Psalm 2:4 to the baptism of seven former Muslims from Iran. Early Easter morning, the seven were baptized in the Berlin parish where the retired bishop of the Independent Lutheran Church in Germany, serves as associate pastor. But the baptisms were emblematic of something bigger—a nationwide surge of such conversions in several denominations and a spate of reports of Muslims seeing Jesus in their dreams. These converts might have dreamt of Jesus, but the Martin Luther’s Bible translation, now nearly 500 years old, also played an important role in their story.

The group baptism happened at an unsettling time for European Christians. During Lent, radical Muslims were handing out large numbers of Qurans on street corners; they announced plans to distribute 25 million German-language copies of their holy book in order to win Germans over to their faith. But in the night before Easter, some 150 worshipers filed silently into St. Mary’s Church in the Zehlendorf district of Berlin to witness conversions in the opposite direction.

Until midnight, the sanctuary was dark.  Then Rev. Gottfried Martens, the senior pastor, chanted from the altar: “Glory to God in the highest.” All at once the lights went on, the organ roared, and the faithful broke jubilantly into song: “We praise you, we bless you, we worship you.” Like Christians everywhere, they celebrated their Lord’s resurrection.

For the six young men and one woman in the front pew this moment had additional significance: They placed their lives in danger in exchange for salvation. Under Islamic law, apostasy is a capital crime, a fact brought home to the German public by press reports about Iranian pastor Yusuf Nadarkhani, an ex-Muslim, who was sentenced to death in Tehran. Some of the converts at St. Mary’s were themselves persecuted before fleeing to Germany, where the largest Iranian community in Western Europe lives numbering 150,000.

“These refugees are taking unimaginable risks to live their Christian faith,” says Martens who ministers to one of Germany’s most dynamic parishes, which has grown from 200 to over 900 members in 20 years. He views the conversion of a growing number of Iranians in Germany as evidence of God’s sense of irony. “Imagine! Of all places, God chooses eastern Germany, one of the world’s most godless regions, as the stage for a spiritual awakening among Persians!” Martens exclaims. According to a recent University of Chicago study, only 13 percent of all residents of this formerly Communist part of Germany still believe in God.

The Vision Thing
The christening in Berlin is a small piece in an amazing mosaic of faith covering all of Germany, leaping denominational barriers and extending into Iran itself. Some German clerics speak of a divinely scripted drama that includes countless reports by Muslims of having had visions of Jesus. According to Martens and others interviewed for this article, most of these appearances follow a pattern reported by converts throughout the Islamic the world: These Muslims see a figure of light, sometimes bearing the features of Christ, sometimes not. But they instantly know who he is. He always makes it clear that he is the Jesus of the Bible, not the “Isa” of the Quran, and he directs them to specific pastors, priests, congregations, or house churches where they will hear the Gospel.

Thomas Schirrmacher, chair of the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance comments on this pattern:   “God sticks to the Reformation doctrine that faith comes by receiving the Word through Scripture and preaching. In these dreams, Jesus never engages in hocus-pocus, but sends these people to where the Word is faithfully proclaimed.” This is why Gottfried Martens says he cannot dismiss such narratives: “As a confessional Lutheran, I am not given to Schwärmerei,” he declares, using Luther’s derogatory term for religious enthusiasm. “But these reports of visions sound very convincing.”

Martens’ experience with Muslim converts goes back to when his catechism classes for Persian immigrants began five years ago and quickly expanded. On Easter Sunday 2011, Martens baptized 10 converts, and there will be 10 more next Easter, and another 10 in the following year, plus some more in between.

As news of the Easter baptisms at St. Mary’s spread, churches  all over Germany reported similar experiences: Across Berlin in Neukölln, a district with a nearly 20 percent Middle Eastern immigrant population, Deaconess Rosemarie Götz baptized 16 Persians on Easter Day, in her modest house of prayer called Haus Gotteshilfe (God’s Help). This doubled her tiny congregation, which is part of the Landeskirchliche Gemeinschaft, a pietistic group within the otherwise more liberal Protestant church of the Berlin-Brandenburg region. 

“The new members brought along 50 others whom we are now instructing in the faith, and 8 or 10 of them will be baptized in August,” says Sister Rosemarie, whose involvement with the Iranians started 19 years ago when a social worker introduced her to Nadereh Majdpour. Majdpour had fled from Iran after suffering torture for declaring that she loved Jesus more than Mohammed. “She lost all her hair from being beaten savagely on her head in jail,” recounts the deaconess. Majdpour brought the other Persians to Sister Rosemarie and acts as their interpreter.

Two weeks after Easter, four more Iranians were baptized in the Baptist Friedenskirche (Church of Peace) in the fashionable Charlottenburg district. Meanwhile, not far from Sister Rosemarie’s chapel, Sadegh Sepehri, an Iranian-born minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), was preparing substantial groups of former Muslims for baptism in the Bethlehemkirche, a German Reformed Church hosting a congregation of 150 native Iranians. “I have already baptized more than 500 Persians in my 20 years here in Berlin,” Sepehri reported before pointing to an American pastor who has done four times as well numerically in the southern city of Nuremberg.

Mark A. Bachman, founder of Nuremberg’s independent Word of God Baptist church, returned to the United States two years ago. Speaking by telephone from Hyles-Anderson College in Indiana, where he is now training missionaries for Islamic lands, Bachman estimates that he baptized some 2,000 former Muslims during his 23-year ministry in Nuremberg; most were Persians.

In yet another part of Germany, Baptist pastor Helmut Venske, baptized 13 Iranians on Easter Sunday. Rev. Venske serves a congregation in Mülheim in the industrial Ruhr District in northwestern Germany. “This is happening in many parts of the country, wherever there are Persian communities,” he says.

Pastor Helmut Venzke baptizing a
Persian in Mülheim (Ruhr District)

In a rural Lutheran church in Bavaria, for example, several dark-skinned strangers surprised the communion assistant during Lent when they showed up at the altar. “Who were they?” he later asked his pastor. “Oh, they are just another family of Persian converts,” the minister answered.

Missing Data
“Something significant is taking place here,” says Max Klingberg, an official of the International Society or Human Rights in Frankfurt. But when questioned about a radio report that in Germany alone at least 500 Persians become Christians every year, he cautions, “As a trained scientist, I prefer to be very careful with numbers.” However, Schirrmacher suggests, “The real figure could well be one thousand, perhaps thousands.”

Actual numbers are hard to determine because of the theologically liberal leadership of the regional Protestant bodies linked to the state. Their leaders tend to steer clear of mission, says Schirrmacher: “They worry that it might interfere with their interfaith dialogues.” Sister Rosemarie agrees: “I suspect that this is why the parish pastor around here, a woman, has never visited our congregation.”

Therefore, says Schirrmacher, only “free churches,” such as the Baptists or independent Lutherans, and semi-autonomous congregations like Sister Rosemarie’s, joyfully report conversions. “We know that faithful ministers of the state-related churches also baptize ex-Muslims, but we are left in the dark about the numbers.” Albrecht Hauser, a former missionary and retired dean of the Lutheran Church of Württemberg, adds, “We are aware of faithful Catholic priests doing likewise.” But, observes Schirrmacher with sadness, “The Catholics are just as hesitant to release statistics …. They don’t want to jeopardize interfaith dialogues.”

However, the number of baptisms of Persians andto a lesser degreeother Muslims in Germany outweighs the switch of Christians to Islam: “According to a report by the central archive of Germany’s Islamic organizations in Soest, approximately 500 Germans became Muslims in 2010,” says Schirrmacher. “Yet those were either German girls marrying Muslim immigrants or nominal ex-Christians hoping for good business opportunities in other Islamic countries. The conversion of Persians is of a totally different quality, usually following long instruction in the Christian faith.”

In Gottfried Martens’ congregation, for instance, the catechumens from the Middle East spend four or more months studying the Bible, the creeds of the church, Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, the significance of the liturgy, and the hymns. “They are very attracted by the liturgy, which was absent in their previous faith,” Martens explains. Wilfried Kahla, an ex-missionary from Germany’s state-related Lutheran church, and a veteran in evangelizing Muslims, told the Protestant news magazine ideaSpektrum that he made his candidates study a 62-page brochure on Christian doctrine and administered a written exam to them. Then, at the baptismal font, he makes them abjure Islam.

Pastors Martens and Venske, and Sister Rosemarie, follow similar curricula; like Kahla, they carefully explain to converts the difference between the Allah of Islam and the God of Christianity. “Islam is like a rope ladder on which people try to reach God,” Kahla likes to say. “They manage to climb a few rungs but with each sin fall off the ladder and must start all over again. Christians, by contrast, need no ladder because Jesus comes down to earth for them. Christians have salvation. Muslims don’t.”

An Educated People Group
Why is it that, of the 4 million Muslims living in Germany, Iranians are the most likely to turn to Christianity? The ministers interviewed attribute this in part to their high level of education. They say that most of the Iranian refugees are business people, or physicians, scientists, engineers, lawyers, economists, teachers, and other professionals or students. In coming to Germany, they followed a centuries-old pattern of cultured Persians in a country where German-Persian professional organizations have existed since the 19th century.

“Iran is suffering from a big brain drain as a result of its fanatical religious policies,” observes Schirrmacher. Hans-Jürgen Kutzner, who ministers to 1,000 Persians on behalf of the state-related United Evangelical-Lutheran Churches in Germany, agrees: “As far as the university-educated elite in Iran is concerned, Islam has lost all moral integrity; especially among the young.”

Citing a report by the nationwide Deutschlandradio network, Martens wrote to his parish that perhaps half of all young, educated Persian urbanites sympathize with Christianity these days, while Mr. Klingberg of the ISHR cautions that such estimates might be exaggerated.

U.S. Pastor Mark A. Bachman baptizes
Persians in Nuremberg

Still, Bachman ascribes the rise of underground Christianity in Iran partly to the fact that every day 17 million of its 79 million people listen to programs via Christian satellite radio and television from abroad. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a U.S. Lutheran pastor involved in clandestine missionary work in this theocratic nation speaks with awe of the intensity of exchanges between the expanding Christian communities in exile and in Persia itself.

Why Do They Do It?
Clergy interviewed for this story reject the suspicion held by some German government officials that many refugees from Iran convert solely to be awarded refugee status. They point out that many converts had to exchange a comfortable life for an impoverished existence. “You don’t do this simply for material reasons,” says Sister Rosemarie. “Neither would you study so hard for your baptism, and attend services so faithfully.”

Martens admits that he gets angry when testifying before immigration tribunals on behalf of Persian congregants. “Can you imagine?” he growls, “here we have judges whose knowledge of Christianity is at best on the superficial level of cultural Protestantism, and they presume to judge the sincerity of someone else’s Christian faith!” Like his German colleagues, Bachman says, “I have always made it clear to ex-Muslims asking me to instruct them in the Christian faith that baptism would not automatically save them from being returned to Iran by the German authorities.”

Perhaps the most convincing argument supporting Bishop Schöne’s image of a laughing God at work in Germany might be found in the genesis of the Persian awakening at St. Mary’s. It began in Saxony, birthplace of the Reformation, where Christians have become an endangered species. Twelve years ago, Trinity parish in Leipzig, a tiny congregation of the Independent Lutheran Church, began teaching German as a second language to asylum seekers awaiting government approval of their refugee status.

Trinity used Luther’s Bible translation as a textbook. Linguists credit that translation with having created the modern German language. Intrigued by what they read, several exiles soon asked to be baptized. They brought along friends who then also wished to learn the basics of the Christian faith. “Today, one third of our 150 members are Persians,” says Markus Fischer, Trinity’s pastor.

They include 28-year old “Amin” and his young family. “Amin” says he is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. He was a successful corporate executive in Tehran until an Armenian friend introduced him to the Christian faith. “Amin” and his pregnant wife then fled to Europe. Their story is much like that of “Hamid.” The former owner of a Tehran shopping center, “Hamid” was arrested and tortured after a raid by Iran’s religious police on the house church he attended.

“In this congregation I heard for the first time that God is a loving father who desires a personal relationship with every human being. This was news to me because Islam had taught me the image of God as a distant, punishing deity,” says “Hamid.” He was one of the ex-Muslims baptized this Easter in Berlin where he had moved after the German authorities granted him refugee status.

So did other Persian converts from Leipzig. Others still moved on to Hamburg, Dresden, and Düsseldorf, where they joined the local congregations of the Independent Lutheran Church, according to Hugo Gevers, the denomination’s special representative to migrants. Wherever they went, they started evangelizing fellow refugees, which helps to account for the current surge in conversions.

Meanwhile in Leipzig, the fame of Trinity’s success among immigrants has caught the attention of German-born seekers. The congregation is outgrowing its minute makeshift building in a park and negotiating a permanent lease of a large but little-used sanctuary of the state-related Lutheran Church, a shrinking denomination.

Rev. Schirrmacher finds stories like this engrossing. Remembering the late leader of Iran’s lethal Islamic revolution of 1979, Schirrmacher says, “Isn’t it odd that the Ayatollah Khomeini has turned out to be one of modern Christianity’s greatest missionaries?”

Rev. Matthias Pankau is a Lutheran pastor and an editor of Idea, a Protestant wire service and magazine in Germany. Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto, a journalist, directs the Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Capistrano Beach, California.


  1. You have several Persians in Orange County. So any of them become Lutherian?

    1. Many Persians in OC are already Christians; just look around Wholesome Choice in Irvine. I don't know how many have become Lutherans here, though I know of some in LA. At any rate, my story is not about conversions to Lutheranism in Germany but to Christianity. You noticed that I mentioned three Baptist congregations and one Presbyterian.

  2. I just read this, concerning Britain. It's from a review of:

    "Among the Hoods" by Harriet Sargeant: an account of the author's three year friendship with a teenage gang.

    Most of the boys [of Caribbean extraction] are Muslim: they have adopted the faith in pure ignorance because their brothers, converted in prison, have been told that "them Christians sold people right here in the UK".