On December 23, 2011, the Iranian Intelligence Agency raided an Assemblies of God church in Ahvaz during a worship service. Church members, including children, were arrested, detained, and interrogated. Hours later, most of the members were released. As of today, however, Pastor Farhad Sabokrouh, his wife, Shahnaz Jizani, and church members Naser Zamen-Dezfuli and Davoud Alijani are still under arrest. Their location and condition are not known.
Another Christian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, has been in prison since 2009. Tried and convicted for apostasy because he converted from Islam to Christianity as a teenager, Nadarkhani sits in jail with a death sentence hanging over his head.
This is not the first time Iranian Christians have faced persecution. (All religious minorities in Iran—Christian, Baha’i, and Jewish—are subject to a variety of legal impediments and social obstacles.) In 1993, for example, Mehdi Dibaj was arrested, tried, and convicted of apostasy, and sentenced to death. His pastor, Haik Hovsepian Mehr, initiated and led a global protest of Dibaj’s sentence. On January 16, 1994, Dibaj was released. Three days later, Haik was abducted and murdered, most likely by the regime. On June 24, Dibaj was abducted. His body was found on July 5. He had been killed, most likely by the regime.
With these stories in mind, consider what Paul, Silas, and Timothy write in 1 Thessalonians 2:1–2:
You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not without results. We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.
The missionaries arrived in Thessalonica after ministering in Philippi (Acts 16:11–17:9). In Philippi, a mob attacked Paul and Silas, and the Roman magistrates had them stripped, beaten, and imprisoned. While in prison, they suffered an earthquake. When the Roman magistrates discovered that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, who shouldn’t have been beaten, they apologized but nonetheless asked them to leave the city. In Thessalonica, a mob went searching for the missionaries. Not finding them, it abducted Jason and some other believers, dragged them before the courts, and accused them of sedition. The Thessalonian believers hustled the missionaries out of town under cover of darkness. However, despite the absence of the missionaries, the Thessalonian believers continued to suffer (1 Thes. 2:14, 3:3).
Whether in the first century or the twenty-first, persecution is the fate of many Christians around the world. Those of us who live in America or other countries that practice religious freedom should thank God every day that he has given us this grace. We should also pray for and advocate the freedom of our suffering brothers and sisters in Iran and elsewhere, as my father has done with regard to the persecuted Iranian Christians. But mostly, we should drink deeply from the well of their courage.
If, with the help of God, they dare to preach his gospel in the face of strong opposition, what is our excuse for not doing the same in our much pleasanter circumstances?