The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Iran’s “morality police” has sparked that nation’s most serious unrest since 2009. Mahsa, an Iranian Kurd on a visit to family in Tehran, was detained for allegedly wearing the hijab incorrectly and days later, on 16 September, died after being hospitalised in a coma.
As news of Mahsa’s death spread, so did popular anger – especially of women frustrated by the endless restrictions and humiliations they face from state and society. In dozens of cities women removed their headscarves and threw them onto fires. Recent videos have even shown schoolgirls, bareheaded, and chanting their rejection of the Islamic Republic. As protests grew in number and intensity, authorities responded with tear gas, metal pellets and even live fire, but met growing pushback, some of it violent. Scores of demonstrators have died in their push for freedom.
Iran’s Christians, both men and women, also face severe restrictions, almost all being forced to meet in underground house churches at risk of fines and imprisonment. How should they respond?
Several live programmes on SAT-7’s Persian channel tackled this question as the channel has been coming alongside Iranian viewers distressed by the scenes on their streets. In episodes of the prayer programme Sanctuary of the Heart, SAT-7 presenters spoke to Pastors Reza Sotoudeh and Tat Stewart, both experienced ministers in the Iranian diaspora Church.
Witnesses of injustice
“We live in a world full of horrific events,” said UK-based Sotoudeh. “What happened to Mahsa is one of these. We are all witnesses of these injustices.”
But, he asked, “How should we as Christians resist the injustices we see?” Sotoudeh affirmed that prayer is “our foremost weapon” but said that was not a reason to be silent while others cry out for change.
Sotoudeh urged Christians to have “proper care and attention” when they read biblical commands to obey state authorities. He examined teaching on this subject in Romans 13, and highlighted verses 3 and 4: “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right but for those who do wrong …. Do what is right and you will be commended.”
Drawing on these verses and on 1 Peter 2, he said, “The Bible defines what kind of rulers we are to obey: rulers who don’t terrorise the innocent, and it is only people doing wrong who need to fear them.”
We must not use Romans 13 to create a licence to be silent before evil”
The pastor continued by giving examples of God’s servants who chose to disobey the authorities: Peter and John when ordered not to teach in the name of Jesus; Daniel refusing to obey the pagan laws of Babylon; the Magi ignoring Herod’s request to report the whereabouts of the Messiah.
“We must not use Romans 13 to create a licence to be silent before evil,” Sotoudeh stressed.
On the other hand, Christians should always follow the way of Christ. They are not to join in the cries of “death to this or that person”, he said, alluding to the shouts being made on the streets against Iran’s Ayatollah Khameini.
“As it says in Ephesians 6 verse 12, our battle is not with human beings who are flesh and blood; rather it is with creatures that are invisible and rule the invisible world,” he explained.
Christians are called to be bold, Sotoudeh stressed. That involves standing with fellow Iranians, whatever their ethnicities or faith. It also means being counter-cultural. “If people go out demonstrating, go with them,” he said, “But you mustn’t shout death to anyone.”
“If someone is wounded, take care of them. Leave your doors open so the wounded may come in. I don’t know your situation, [so] pray and ask God to lead you to know how you can stand with your fellow Iranians.”
“Know this, beloved,” he added, “We are praying for you and all of us are united with you in our hearts until the evil and this curse is lifted from the nation”.
Silence not an option
US-based Tat Stewart, who serves Iranian believers there and pastored a church in Tehran shortly after the Iranian revolution, echoed Sotoudeh’s comments in another episode of Sanctuary of the Heart.
“I think prayer is very important; we must pray. But we must also protest. When a Christian sees this kind of oppression and dictatorship, he cannot stay silent.”
Expanding on this, Stewart said, “If I was in Iran, I would go on the streets and I would try to make sure that in taking action I would not sin. So not beat anyone and not burn cars. I would go to speak about Jesus to people on the street and invite them to join their hands with mine that we might pray and stand together against tyranny because God does not like these injustices and He is against them.”
Before praying on the programme, Stewart was eager to give viewers a message of hope. “History is in God’s hands,” he reassured them. “Wherever there is oppression, injustice and people under pressure, the philosophy and control in place is not permanent and it has a time – and the Lord is in control of the time – which will soon come to an end.
“The Lord is just and, even if we don’t see His justice here and now, on the day of judgment the Lord will account for every injustice.”
Pastor Reza Sotoudeh joined the show again for this second programme and said he found hope even in the current situation.
“I have a kind of joy knowing that this is the beginning of the end and people are standing together, unarmed and challenging the forces of darkness,” he explained.
“I have a sense of pride in the people of Iran and, in particular, the brave women who began this movement, and the government has been unable to crush them. These are my feelings as I see and hear news from Iran.”
Note: Sanctuary of the Heart was launched this summer as an interactive prayer programme on Instagram. However, since authorities in Iran blocked this app, the programme is also being shared on other platforms.
WATCH VIDEO MESSAGES
Regular broadcasters Rozita Hovsepian and Pastor Miltan Danil also recorded special messages of solidarity and love for Iranian viewers affected by the current events. Watch below: