Report on A Preaching Trip to Iran
James P. Needham
Winter Park, Florida
Should American Preachers Move to Iran?
That is a moot question in many ways. Certainly, we should preach the gospel to every creature (Mk. 16:16), but circumstances must be taken into account in all cases. It is easy to say that American preachers should go to Iran, but it may be something else to put one there. Here are some things to consider:
1. The Religious Situation: The populace of Iran is almost 100 % Muslin, or Mohammedan. To call it a closed society is not far wrong. It is estimated that one in every 15 citizens is involved in some kind of police work! A secrete policeman kept almost daily surveillance of my activities, The American community feels that this is true of all Americans in the country. Some Americans have been sent home at the whim of informers. The Islamic religion is interwoven in the fabric of Iranian culture: the religion is part of the culture, and the culture is part of the religion. Officially, there is almost no tolerance of any other religion. The local priests (Mullahs) wield a great influence over the people. In days gone by they practically ruled the country, but their power has been curtailed in recent years-The Shah is the absolute monarch today! But the priests continue to keep local citizens in line religiously, and will intimidate anyone who violates Islamic tradition, and persecute any who seek to lead them astray. There is a great deal of talk in the country about these priests having murdered such persons, and many feel they would do so now! One only has to study the history of Mohammeddanism to see its violence. Indeed, it was imposed upon the middle-eastern countries by the edge of the sword!
I have been told that it is illegal for anyone to enter Iran to do religious work among the natives; that a visa for such a purpose would not be issued. One of the brethren in Isfahan enquired about this at the American consulate and was told that it is not illegal, and that such a visa could probably be obtained, but such a person would have no standing before the law! If the local priests persecuted him, or even killed him, the government would do nothing. He strictly would be on his own! Believe me, that would be a very precarious position in that country! It would be like a suicide mission for Christ!
For instance, for a time the local authorities in Isfahan prohibited the church's meeting for worship, calling it an "illegal assembly." This was all worked out in time, and they now have a permit to meet for worship, but they underwent some trying times.
In order for a preacher to work with even an American group in Iran, that group must be registered with the government, receive a charter (which for all practical purposes will be written by the government) and the preacher must obtain a "work permit." While such a charter contains some questionable provisions, it would be possible to work within its stipulations by being very careful. One such provision is that, if the group disbands, all funds remaining in its treasury must be given to charity. The solution would be to dispose of all funds before disbanding, etc.
In Iran, nearly the entire populace is made up of "believers" (Muslims). Women wear Chadors (a large cloth, usually black) that veil their bodies including their heads and most of their faces. (In stricter Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, the women wear a black cheese-cloth type veil over their faces making it all but impossible to identify them. One would have trouble recognizing his own wife!) Men carry a string of beads in their hands which they constantly fondle to keep them conscious of "Allah" (God). All good Muslims pray five times a day, bowing toward Mecca. (They are supposed to wash themselves before every prayer.) In every city there are beautiful, ornate and expensive Mosques where prayers are supposed to be offered on Fridays (the Muslim day of worship answering to our Sunday, or the Jewish Sabbath-Mohammed wanted to be different). In most Mosques an Iman (important religious leader) is entombed in an ornate crypt. I saw Muslims kissing the crypt and rubbing their faces against it, and throwing in large amounts of money.
I have said all that to show how ingrained is Muslimism in the fabric of Iranian culture. It approaches fanaticism, and it will not be dislodged without great effort and tremendous sacrifice on the part of all who attempt it.
Muslims believe in one God whom they call "Allah." According to their doctrine, He has had four prophets: Adam, Moses, Christ and Mohammed, but Mohammed is the greatest of them all, say they. (You see, Cassisus Clay got it honestly!) They do not deny Christ, and they even admit His virgin birth, but deny His Messiahship. In common with Jews and Christians, they claim an Abrahamic origin, but Mohammed traces his religious heritage through Ishmael rather than Isaac! For instance, while I was in Iran, they supposedly celebrated the day when "Abraham offered Ishmael" (rather than Isaac, as the Bible says). It seems that Mohammed took off from Abraham and concocted a religion for the Arab world, copying much of it from the Jewish religion, but being very careful not to copy it too closely. In that sense, he reminds one of Jereboam. Mohammedans will not eat swine flesh and continue to practice animal sacrifices, just to name a couple of Old Testament tenants they observe.
In view of the above facts, it seems to me that the best approach to the Iranians is for American preachers to enter the country to serve the American community. Let the American Christians invite their Iranian friends and neighbors to the services. Have Bible classes for the younger ones, as well as others. Gradually, this will break into the entrenched Muslim society. This would be safer because the progress would be so gradual that it would not raise nearly the excitement that going there to "convert the Muslims" would gender. In fact, 'this process has begun already. We had several Muslims to visit our services in Shiraz, and there is at least one Iranian national who is a Christian in Tehran.
It seems to me that the safest and surest method--of taking the gospel to Iran is to allow it to work like leaven; quietly and inconspicuously. Any sudden, pushy moves will bring down the wrath of the Mullah's on our heads and that will defeat our purpose. Jesus told His disciples to be "as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves." The kingdom needs to come "without observation" (gradually and quietly) to the Islamic world.
2. Transportation: Transportation is a major problem for Americans in Iran. The cheapest automobile one can buy (a compact) costs about $6,000, but then driving it on the streets and roads of Iran is a nightmare! There are almost no traffic rules! Everyone drives as he pleases! Traffic lights, signs and speed limits are ignored at will. One way streets become two-way streets, and four-lane streets become eight-lane streets if there is just barely enough room to get in; then, if there is not, they use the side walk! (I was literally brushed by a fastmoving car on a sidewalk in Tehran). Painted traffic lanes on the streets and roads are for cowards, but I did not see any! It is every man for himself!
Now, all that is bad enough, but just wait until you have an accident! They often put you in jail without a hearing until they decide if you are at fault (which Americans almost always are). And they do not get in any hurry about deciding if you are guilty. Then, when it comes to settling your liability, the family of the injured decides how much you will pay! There is an average of five traffic fatalities per day in Tehran alone! Consequently, many Americans in Iran choose not to own an automobile. They walk or use local taxis for transportation. Without an automobile, a preacher's work would be quite limited in the country-not completely nullified, but severely limited. I am not saying he could not or should not have a car; many Americans do, I am just pointing out a few facts.
3. Cost of Living: To put an American preacher in Iran will require a sizeable outlay of cash. Round trip ticket will cost about $1,300.00 per adult. Rent on a two-bedroom apartment will cost about $400 per month. Food is terribly expensive, especially if one eats western type foods since they have to be imported. Western beefsteak will cost about $9 per pound! American children have to attend an American school which costs from two to three thousand dollars per child per year! (This is paid by American corporations for their employees.) Thus, it would be much preferable for an American preacher going to Iran not to have children in school. One brother commented that no American preacher should attempt to work in Iran for less than $20,000.00 per year, and that would be a minimum for a person without school children. A couple of children in school within itself would be five or six thousand dollars per year! Americans working in Iran earn about twice as much as they would earn at home and companies pay their school bills.
4. Medical Care: Medical care for an American living on the local economy ranges from fair to really bad. It would be also very expensive. This is another reason why it would be preferable for a preacher not to have small children. The medical care would be somewhat inadequate for them. Some of the American corporations have their own American doctors, so their employees have ,it better. Those working for the American Government receive excellent care.
5. Transient Membership: An American preacher working in Iran would have to deal constantly with a transient membership. As the reader can see in the early part of this article, congregations in Iran have ranged from 80 down. One might have 80 one month and 20 the next! Since Americans living in Iran earn very good salaries, the churches there are quite capable financially, and could contribute substantially to the support of a preacher, but he would need an underwriting church or churches in the States, or he would stand the risk of being stranded financially. Some church or churches in the States, or in Iran would have to agree to keep enough money in reserve to bail him out in case of drastic changes in membership.
Iranian Churches Wanting Preachers
So far as Shiraz is concerned, the decision was made that it is better for an American preacher to come over periodically and work with them on a temporary basis, rather than getting someone to move there. The local brethren are carrying on in a good way, and it is thought that since there are only four families and three of their contracts will expire within a year unless they are extended, it would be wiser to carry on as in the past for the moment.
The Isfahan church is very interested in getting an American preacher to move there to work particularly with the, local people. They feel they are capable of taking care of local preaching and teaching so far as Americans are concerned, but would be very interested in talking with any American preacher who would be interested in coming to work with local Iranians. To do this, one must take into consideration the tremendous language barrier. Iranians speak the Farsi language. (It uses an Arabic-type alphabet. Arabs can understand it, but can not read it.) It is a difficult language, but not impossible. I saw several Americans who were quite fluent in it. If any brother would be interested in trying to move to Isfahan to work, I would be glad to put you in contact with the brethren there, and give whatever assistance I can.
Tehran also is interested in securing the services of an American preacher. They have had one already, but some problems developed, necessitating his returning to the States. I do not know the details, but I know that one problem was the school expense.
There are many employment opportunities in Iran. There are U. S. Government jobs, ranging from school teachers to technicians of all kinds. There are many American corporations which are looking for men and women to fill various positions. While some brethren in Iran question the ethics of Americans taking jobs in foreign countries as a basis for religious work, I cannot see the, problem. As long as one gives his employer an honest day's work, what he does on his off time is strictly his business. He would not be exploiting the government or the private corporation by doing gospel work in Iran on his off time any more than one would if he did the same in the States.
How To Contact Churches In Iran
One of the problems in Iran is a lack of publicity of the churches meeting there. As stated earlier, I spent two weeks trying to make contact with the church in Isfahan. There has been a terrible lack of publicity given to these churches in American papers and this has resulted in many American Christians in the country who have been unable to find the groups now meeting. I hope, as the result of my trip and knowledge of the work there, that I can remedy this situation. More and more Americans will be going to Iran in the months and years to come, and we need to make sure they know exactly where the brethren meet.
Since the places of meeting often change, I will list only contacts in the three localities where the brethren are now meeting. Those interested in the exact localities where the saints meet should contact me for the latest information.
Truth Magazine XXII: 22, pp. 358-360