By Andrew Symes
In the last few months I have met a number of Iranian Christians in England. They have almost all ended up here because of persecution in their home country. Some were Christian believers in Iran, and finding it increasingly difficult to survive in a land where the church is under increasing restrictions from the state. Others were Muslim, but have felt complete disillusion with the petty puritan legalism associated with Islam in that country and much of the world. One man told me of the ban on any kind of social or romantic interaction between boys and girls in Iran in the 1990’s. He had a “girlfriend” – and we are talking about holding hands while having a cup of tea together in a café, not sleeping together – and for that he was beaten up and his life threatened. Unable to tolerate the restrictions on freedom, he made his way to Europe, illegally entering Romania, Greece and through to France, getting piece jobs on the way, and finally arriving in Britain where he was held in a detention centre while his asylum application was processed.
This man, Mohammad, heard about Jesus first in Iran, and then again on his travels. In despair in the detention centre, he prayed “Lord if I can be free, I will serve you”. More than 10 years ago he was given leave to stay in Britain, and since then this cultured, educated man has worked in IT and served as a pastor in an Iranian church. He is now studying at a theological college.
At this time of year we remember the Magi from the East who came to worship Jesus. Because of the association with the star over Bethlehem which they followed, many have speculated that they were Zoroastrian priests, pagan shaman steeped in occult astrology, almost certainly from Persia or modern day Iran. The coming of the Magi is full of missiological significance. The Persian emperor Cyrus had defeated the Babylonians at the end of the 6th century bc, allowing the exiled Jews to return and paving the way for the rebuilding of city and temple. At the Epiphany, representatives of the descendants of those powerful pagan idolators are no longer arrogantly determining the fate of God’s people from their thrones and temples, but coming humbly to a Palestinian village, worshipping the Jewish baby, recognizing him as “King”. The prophet Isaiah records God’s promise given centuries earlier that it would be too small a thing for Israel to be saved: God’s intention was for salvation to extend to the farthest lands (49:6), and that nations and their kings would come to the brightness of Zion’s dawn (60:3 – the origin of the “three Kings” idea).