Outside of Iranian borders, Persians are increasingly forsaking Islam, usually for Christianity or atheism. That’s been going for several years in places like the Netherlands and Germany, which has welcomed many thousands of immigrants from Iran.
But not everyone fleeing the mullahs is able to get to Europe. Those who can’t end up in Iran’s next door neighbor, Turkey, which is where an NPR story on their plight starts.
From a journalism perspective, here is what we are looking for: What crucial voices are missing in this important story?
In a hotel conference room in Denizli, Turkey, about 60 Iranians sing along to songs praising Jesus mixed with Iranian pop music. When the music stops, American pastor Karl Vickery preaches with the help of a Persian translator.
"I'm not famous or rich. But I know Jesus. I have Jesus," he says, with a Southern drawl. The Farsi-speaking Christian converts shout "Hallelujah!" and clap.
Vickery, who's part of a visiting delegation from Beaumont, Texas, then offers to pray for each person in the room…
Among the parishioners are Farzana, a 37-year-old hairdresser from Tehran, and her daughter Andya, 3 … She doesn't want to give her last name because she says her family in Iran might face persecution for her conversion. Her family knows she is a convert and they're scared for their own safety inside Iran.
What might she face were she sent back?
There are hundreds of thousands of Christians in Iran. Those considered part of the native Christian communities are permitted to practice their religion with restrictions, but a Muslim converting to Christianity is considered an apostate. The Iranian government jails converts, especially those who proselytize.
It is also illegal to convert from Islam in several other Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, and punishable by jail time or death.
According to Open Doors, persecution is “extreme” in Iran and it’s the 10th worst country in the world to be a Christian. We’re not talking just being fired from jobs or being denied a university education. We’re talking about torture and death. Yet, lots and lots of reports says the number of Christians is growing there.
But Turks are becoming increasingly intolerant of refugees. While the Turkish government allows freedom of religion and even protects churches in many cities, refugees are assigned to live in small conservative towns where they may face discrimination from the local population wary of evangelicals.
Despite local objections, evangelical pastors say they will continue to preach the Bible because Turkey's constitution gives them the right.
Other than visiting American preachers, one wonders who is pastoring these Iranians. The only clergy mentioned in this story have American names. One Turkish academic agrees there are conversions, but questions the motivation.
Sebnem Koser Akcapar, a sociology professor at Istanbul's Koç University who has been studying refugees and their change of faith, says she has witnessed the rise in conversions.
"The numbers of Iranian refugees converting have grown tremendously over the years. A small church consisting of 20 to 30 families has become a much bigger congregation housing 80 to 100 people on a regular Sunday," she says.
Akcapar believes only some of the refugees are genuine converts. Others are using religious persecution as a way to get to the West, which may be the only way for them to lead a normal life, she says.
Denizli, by the way in southwest Turkey that is kind of in the middle of nowhere. The closest major city is Izmir. I have to hand it to NPR that they found a Turkish-speaking correspondent who traveled to this isolated spot to interview refugee converts. And there are plenty of quotes from the converts themselves about why they chose Christianity. In Iran, you have little choice as to which religion you can be.
Is Denizli typical of what’s going on in the rest of the country?
The United Pentecostal Church in Denizli can't keep up with the demand, says the church's Turkey representative Rick Robinson, who has lived in the country for 13 years. It has churches in eight Turkish cities and refugees are calling on them to open more.
He says the church provides a spiritual outlet for refugees, not financial support, and that he welcomes anyone regardless of whether they are genuinely converting or not.
Robinson thinks many of the congregants may not be believers, at least not at first. "There might even be some who start with the help just for the refugee status and become sincere," he says matter-of-factly.
Peoples’ motivations, even in the best of circumstances, are always mixed. It’s the wise clergyman who takes people where they are, then hopes for inner transformation.
This whole refugee business has gotten quite interesting in that some countries that have given asylum to these converts will deport them if they don’t attend church. Australia is one. Even the U.S. is not allowing many Iranian converts to come here. One such group has been detained indefinitely in Austria, thanks to President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.
Back in Iran, things are pretty bad, thanks to U.S. sanctions that have devastated their economy.
Back to the new Christian refugees in western Turkey, I’m still curious as to what native Turkish Christians think of these new converts. Those voices are missing. And there’s been martyrdoms of Turkish Christians. So how safe are these new Iranian Christians there? Lots of questions. Am hoping there will be more news reports that will answer them.