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Persian Tales: The Role of Church During Refugee Crisis by Galyna Peregrin

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Essay

Persian Tales: The Role of Church During Refugee Crisis

The halls of the University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy library are filled with the sighs of learning pangs, the whispers of first love confessions, and the hushed murmurs of studying before exams. 

Khodaye man!” The foreign words pierce the air. My friend, the copybooks in front of her covered with chemistry formulas, speaks to her brother on the phone. 

Hodoema,” I say when she hangs up, failing miserably to copy her accent. She smiles and asks whether I want to know the meaning of the words. “Sure!” I reply. “‘Khodaye man,’” she says, “means ‘Oh my God’ in Persian, where ‘Khoda means God.” The beautiful sounds of the language of Ferdowsi, Saadi, and Khayyam seduced me to ask for a few more words. She smiles and says, “Yek means, one. Do, se. Two, three.”

We quickly became close friends. However, it took me five years, shifting from clueless freshman to mature graduate, to understand that my friend was a refugee, and for me to begin to grapple with what this meant for her and for my nation.

Refugees and Revelation

After I realized there were so many refugees in my country, I wanted to understand their situation better. In this search to understand, I met many Persian—Iranian, Afghani, and Tajik—refugees, and this enabled me to see today’s migrant crisis through their eyes. I quickly learned that this situation is complex, even fraught, and that there are no easy answers. 

While every part of the world has always had standards (codified or not) about how refugees are to be integrated into existing societies, the customs and laws regulating refugees in the West are unique, stemming from the West’s traditional formation within the context of Biblical Revelation. Perhaps the most commonly quoted biblical command on the matter reaches all the way back to the time of Exodus: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (Ex 23:9). 

Upon reading this, it is clear to anyone that the God of the Jews (and that of the Christians) calls men to treat refugees with mercy. Foreigners in a new land are often in difficult situations, and we are told not to mistreat them or lord any power over them, with God reminding the Jewish people that they themselves have been mistreated while foreigners. This injunction can help us understand why European law has consistently reflected the Spirit of that command, welcoming men who would later become beacons of their new countries—Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein, Victor Hugo, Enrico Fermi—as refugees.

While there is an unequivocal Scriptural mandate to be merciful to refugees, and while this mandate has clearly informed the West’s approach to refugees, the context of this mandate is crucial for understanding and applying it today. Despite the fact that the Jews were commanded to be hospitable to strangers, they were also insistently warned by God not to let foreign customs overrun their own. The Law of Moses was severely opposed to mingling casually with followers of false gods, not to mention marrying them. The notorious passion of King Solomon for his pagan wives—which helped cause the gradual destruction of the Jewish kingdom—is a stern warning for the contemporary West.

Naturally, this warning should not be interpreted today as being against marrying those from other cultures—indeed, even in King Solomon’s day Jews were allowed to marry those from other tribes, provided the foreigners converted. Instead, the lesson we should take is that we cannot allow foreign cultural mores to dominate the native traditions of the Christian West that has welcomed them in. And while European law has long recognized the reality that people may need asylum at some point for political, religious, or other reasons, our past experiences have not prepared us to deal with the refugee crises of the 21st century, with vast numbers of refugees and immigrants and a media that often simply ignores any meaningful concerns people might have about how Western nations handle immigration.

Learning about the situation of refugees, I found myself, like many people in the West, torn between the biblical command to help those who seek asylum on the one hand, and the biblical emphasis on cultural conservation and the natural desire to look out for national interests on the other. The tension grew stronger as I reflected on the reality that many refugees are bringing with them a religion that, while it holds some of the same ideals as the West’s traditional faith, is ultimately at odds with Christianity. Add to this the decades (or perhaps centuries) of weakening Christian faith in Europe, and it becomes clear that concerns about the Islamization of the continent, far from being xenophobia, are often quite reasonable. 

Ultimately, however, I have come to the conclusion that purely political or social answers can never solve the tension between the duty to welcome the refugee and the duty to protect the West’s Christian culture. Instead, I have discovered a different, more enduring, and time-tested approach. The answer comes from an effective, strategic player in both the local and international arena—the Church.

Kyiv: the church and the converts

The calming sound of the rain harmonizes with a melodious hymn. The smells of tea, cookies, and perfumes mix together in the small cosy room. Five or six people are there, some standing, some sitting. The only light comes from the video projected on the wall: slides of Christian paintings overlaid with lyrics in Persian. 

These people are Christian refugees, mostly from Iran and Afghanistan, with one timid lady from Pakistan. Most of them are classified as asylum seekers; though they are here in Ukraine, they have not received the official status of refugee yet. The process of receiving this status in Ukraine is quite complicated, and the majority of asylum seekers are ultimately refused protection. This restrictive process is intended to sift out economic migrants, but in my years of learning about refugees in Ukraine, I have seen that many people who truly fear for their lives in their home countries also have their cases rejected. 

Upon meeting an Iranian man in one of the Kyiv churches, I was honoured to be invited to secret meetings of the Christian refugees. The secrecy is because they do not want to be discovered by the local agents of the regimes they fled. Moreover, some of these refugees may return home someday, willingly or by force, and if they were known to be associated with a Christian church—by pictures on social media, for example—they could suffer serious consequences. Despite the many risks, they still choose to gather to hear biblical teaching in their native tongue and worship God. 

Be hozourat amadeam.” As soon as the lyrics of the hymn appear on the screen, eyes fill with tears. “I have come to you, Irrigator, I am thirsty. My heart and soul are longing for You. Fill me up, I have emptied myself.”

These Christians have paid a high price to utter those words. But in the middle of the song, the thundering voice of Pastor Amin intrudes. At first, I find it extremely irritating that he chooses to speak while they are singing. However, Pastor Amin took a minute to briefly explain to me the reason behind it: he is explaining from a biblical perspective the doctrinal elements of the hymn. Many hymns are easy for Western Christians to understand, born and raised in a Christian culture, but many Muslim converts sometimes struggle to comprehend even the basic doctrines of their new faith. So Pastor Amin explains, to people born into the will-chaining, salvation-earning culture of Islam, the concepts of grace, mercy, and redemption through the blood of Christ – while they sing poems of praise. He speaks passionately, repeating himself again and again to rewire the broken worldview of people bound by an oppressive culture but created to be free.

Roohol ghodus—the Holy Spirit—has a special place in this ministry. Many Persians come to know Christ through visions or miracles. One refugee found Jesus by asking the God of the sky who He was—Allah, Yeshua, Buddha?—and hearing Jesus answer. Another, a man from Afghanistan, came to know Christ through a Western soldier who, despite the strict ban on proselytizing, shared the Gospel in secret. 

“Do not trust tears,” said Pastor Amin, as I asked about his methods of ministry. “Only God knows the heart, so don’t rely on people’s reaction. Some people come and cry, saying they finally found Jesus, and later they are nowhere to be found in church. Consistency is more important than tears.” In his ministry, Amin combines personal relationships with preaching. He speaks through his own experience: he is also a refugee, far from home. He has tasted the unpredictability of life. Pure theology without relationships, Amin adds, is like insufficient food that brings no real nourishment. That’s why he gathers people together, provides chai and cookies, and only then shares the Gospel explicitly.

These are refugees who have found Christ and are deeply thankful to be blessed, even temporarily, with the protection our nation affords. It is easy to see that these are people who, if granted refugee status (and perhaps even, in time, citizenship) would be great gifts to the Ukrainian nation. Indeed, they and their children may help the West to strengthen its faith in Christ and prevent the Islamization so many of us fear.

However, even in paradise it rains sometimes. As I came to admire the faith of these refugees, I started to lose my rose-coloured glasses. There is a dark side to the policy of welcoming religious refugees, one that poses challenges for pastors and policymakers alike.

Opportunists and false martyrs

“Sometimes I feel torn,” a refugee and translator tells me. “I speak to a person and find out he cheated the refugee law to be in Ukraine. He was actually safe back home, he was not a Christian! And then I come with him to an interview and have to translate word by word his lies about suffering and being tortured for Christ. What should I do?”

Some asylum seekers exploit the laws that protect religious refugees. One elderly man I met at a Persian church, I found out, was not actually a refugee; he was quite wealthy back home and lived abroad as a refugee to escape the punishment for crimes he had committed. Another woman asked me about Christianity, and I gladly shared my faith; later, she confessed that she used what she learned from me to persuade migration officers that she was a Christian refugee. 

But the most appalling revelation was how many asylum seekers misuse the sacrament of holy baptism. Pastor Amin explained that many asylum seekers who ask to be baptized do not believe in Christ; rather, they want a baptismal certificate as ‘evidence’ to boost their immigration cases. This was one of the main reasons he chose not to register his church. Churches with official status can write certificates of baptism that can serve as evidence in the refugees’ cases to receive asylum status. By not registering with the government, Pastor Amin hopes to attract people who are sincerely interested in the Gospel, and not in a piece of paper. 

False conversion claims are all the more offensive considering the horrific reality of persecution of Christians in Persian countries. In Afghanistan, the Taliban kidnaps, kills and persecutes Christians, making it one of the most dangerous places for them to live, according to Open Doors. In Iran, the regime punishes its citizens for possessing a Bible or for meeting in home churches, threatening them with imprisonment, lashes, and lives of limited opportunities. 

There is a famous Iranian martyr known to all Iranian Christians: Rev Haik Hovsepian. He was murdered in 1994 for refusing to surrender a list of church members, as well as for violating the ban on Christians preaching in Persian. Along with him, Pastors Mehdi Dibaj and Tateos Michaelia also lost their lives. On August 1, 1994, The New York Times called the actions of the regime “the fiercest campaign since the 1979 revolution” against Iranian Christians. The situation for Christians has not improved in the intervening decades. The regime has persecuted Christians Reza Zaeemi, Farhad Mohebbi, Sasan Khosravi, Habib Heydari, Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Ebrahim Firouzim, and many others. Countless more Christians are currently serving sentences for “Propaganda against the Islamic Republic by promoting evangelical Christianity” and other pseudo-crimes, according to the human rights organisation Article 18. Throughout Iran and other Persian countries, more than a million Christians live in fear for their lives and the future of their children. 

As I learned about the horrors these Christian refugees sought to escape, I came to wonder: how could anyone dare to claim falsely that they were persecuted for Christ? 

It is understandable that these people would desire the whole package of human rights, peace, and stability they didn’t have—or build—at home. But the notion of twisting your identity, hiding Islamic or secular views, and pretending to be persecuted for Christ is a desecration of Christianity and an insult to those who have really undergone this kind of oppression. So how should Christians respond to these false martyrs in their midst? 

When I asked Kenneth Kühn, Director of Elam Ministries in Europe and a Danish citizen, about this, he answered that when Persians come to church, they usually have mixed motives, which include both staying in Europe and learning about Jesus. Mr. Kühn’s job is to help European churches that have an influx of Persian refugees, equipping them to understand the Eastern mentality and habits, and to build a strategy of sharing the Gospel. However, the main aim of the Elam ministry is to serve the growing church in Iran and the surrounding region. In his ministry of facilitating churches in Europe, he has come across cases of refugees who regretted lying to authorities. He says,

Some [refugees] started their case by lying. They said [things like,] ‘I am a persecuted Christian. I became a Christian in Iran…’ And then they go to the Church because they know they need to learn a doctrine in order to testify in the interviews…. But in the course of that, because they meet real sincere Christians who disciple them, they become born again. And they go to authorities and say: ‘I want to confess that I lied. I wasn’t a Christian when I came, I didn’t know what Christianity is, I just wanted asylum. But I started going to church and I met Jesus! A Christian can’t lie, I need to tell you, I’m sorry, whatever the cost is I want to be honest, and today—I want to believe in Jesus.’ And then—May God bless them—they have asylum, and they [become] active in church.

When I asked whether the UN and national government officials have any ways of knowing when a refugee is lying about believing in Christ, Kenneth said that interviewers tend to become very good at listening to conversion stories. They will ask asylum seekers doctrinal questions, but more or so they will say: “How have you experienced Jesus?” And they will not take an easy answer. So, even if some opportunists have rehearsed what they will say, it is harder to fake the testimony today than it was in years past. 

Unfortunately, as Mr. Kühn explains, some churches, especially liberal ones, have started to deliberately teach people how to fake conversion stories. They see it as a “love for the neighbor” command—meaning the Muslim neighbour—and instruct asylum seekers what to say to earn asylum. However, Mr. Kühn adds, the authorities have started to act more carefully in these conditions. Even atheist interviewers from the UN or governmental authorities find themselves in a situation where they need to know the Bible to do their work well.

Istanbul’s church and ministering to refugees 

While researching the complexities surrounding immigrants and refugees, I travelled to Istanbul and visited the Persian Christian church of the Elam ministry. The meetings take place in the Armenian Evangelical church Gedik Pasa, which was built in 1850. Because it was Christmas time, the sermon was about the Three Magi, and the preacher’s message felt close to home for many people present. Like the Magi, who jumped into the abyss of the unknown by following the Bethlehem Star, many of the listeners followed the Gospel into the yet unclear future. 

Hoping to hear their stories, I stay a bit longer after the service to meet new people. One such man is Yohana, born in Qom, one of the most religious cities in Iran. He shares how close he was to committing suicide, and how only by finding Jesus did he find a desire to live. Another man, Omid, tells how more than 20 years ago his father was approached by a bold missionary who offered him a Bible on the streets of Tehran. If Omid’s father had chosen to report that meeting to authorities, the missionary could have been arrested, and even tortured and killed. But he gave the Bible to his son. Later, while working as an architect, Omid received the task to build a mosque, but due to his changed beliefs and behaviour, he was found not to be a diligent Muslim, which sparked suspicions. He had to flee Iran and continue the legacy of that bold preacher who approached his father—by living for Christ and sharing the truth, no matter what it costs him. 

Despite such testimonies, later I found out about occasional cases of cheating the asylum system and the unbiblical behaviour of a few superficial members. While the ministers of the community did their best to write and record worship songs, preach the Gospel, connect with and disciple people, the reality is that some of those who attend services, just like anywhere, are spiritually immature, needing guidance and discipline, and some even reproof of their double-lives. And these challenges only underline the importance of ministry and churches to Persian refugees, as many genuine Christian converts like Omid, Yohana, Amin, and others find themselves between two worlds. On the one hand, there is the old and tiresome but familiar world of certain Eastern regimes–and on another, exciting, pure terra nova of perplexed West. And the biblical church, like a lighthouse, can show a path for them to thread through this ideological confusion.

How then should we live?

Despite Turkey, Ukraine, and Denmark being very different countries, the peculiarities of refugee situations concerning converts are similar. While genuine Christians try to adapt to their new cultures and learn new habits, opportunists drag the destructive habits of the cultures they left behind with them. While the former apply for the status of refugee and try to explain themselves as sincerely as possible, the latter misuse the European law, consequently barring the way for those who genuinely need protection. 

Is there a proper way to differentiate between true refugees and opportunists? It is still a hard question to answer. But one thing can be said for sure: it is never a loss when the Church gets actively involved in a refugee’s life. While the system can be cheated, God cannot. And while the authorities are looking for the perfect answers, the Church knows what to do. As Jesus exhorted His disciples in the Great Commission—Go, therefore, and teach all nations—the call remains the same for His 21st-century followers. 

The Great Commission is not just about sharing the Gospel, but calling for a strategic application of Jesus’s teaching in current challenges. As pastor Amin declines baptism to counterfeit Christians; as the biblical churches openly convict liberal ones for teaching Muslims lies; as the pure Gospel compels opportunists to confess that they have misused the European law; the Church has a vital part in helping Europe in the current refugee crisis. For even when the law doesn’t have the answer, civilizations rise and fall, systems shake, and alliances are torn apart, the Word of Khodaye man, the invocation of God, transcends it all. The Gospel, which was able to transform many nations of the world through of grace, mercy, dignity, and freedom, could do the same today, if not more, by transforming the lives of Persian refugees in Europe. 

One at a time.

The author’s name, as well as some names in this essay, have been changed for their safety. 

The events described in the Kyiv church were recorded before the full-scale invasion by Russia in Ukraine. Since 24th February 2022, many citizens, along with the members of the Persian church had to flee. Some of them settled in safer regions until the war ends.

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