Iranians seeing Turkey as promised land for evangelical Christianity and passage to West

The conversion of Iranians to evangelical Christianity is more evident in Turkey than in Iran due to the greater freedom and the presence of refugees in that country, according to a National Public Radio report (December 14). In Turkey and across the Middle East and Europe, Muslim refugees are encountering and, in some cases, converting to Christianity as they seek to emigrate to the West. This includes refugees from Iran, where conversion to anything but Islam is illegal. There are hundreds of thousands of Christians in Iran, with those considered members of the native Christian communities permitted to practice their religion with restrictions, while a Muslim converting to Christianity is considered an apostate, reports Fariba Nawa. The Iranian government jails converts, especially those who proselytize Muslims. The authorities see it as a Western plan to turn Iranians against Islam and the Islamic regime, according to converts in Turkey. The converts in Turkey can apply for asylum to a third country through the United Nations if they claim they would face religious persecution if they returned home. But Nawa finds that 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 suspicious of evangelicals.

Many foreign evangelicals left Turkey after a failed coup attempt in 2016, when American preacher Andrew Brunson was imprisoned and charged with terrorism. This prominent case was a further strain on Turkish-U.S. ties until Brunson was released in October. But Christian refugees are now returning, and the demand for more churches has increased. Sebnem Koser Akcapar, a sociology professor at Istanbul’s Koç University, 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 adds that only some of the refugees are genuine believers, with others using religious persecution as a way to emigrate to the West. But the odds are against resettlement. Only a handful of Iranians resettled in the U.S. last year; and aid workers involved with refugees say religious persecution cases among converts have become so common that the UN has become distrustful. One church group, the United Pentecostal Church in Denizli, has trouble meeting the demand. It has churches in eight Turkish cities and refugees are calling on them to open more. The pastor says the church provides a spiritual outlet for refugees, not financial support, and that many who may not be believers at first become sincere in their faith.

(National Public Radio,