Researchers find Christians in Iran approaching 1 million

Christians pray inside an underground church in Iran.(PHOTO: World Watch Monitor/Christian Today)

Originally published in Christianity Today

Missiologists have long spoken of the explosive growth of the church h in Iran. Now they have data to back up their claims— from secular research.

According to a new survey of 50 000 Iranians —90% residing in Iran — by GAMAAN, a Netherlands-based research group, 1.5% identified as Christian.

Extrapolating over Iran’s population of approximately 50 million literate adults (the sample surveyed) yields at least 750 000 believers. According to GAMAAN, the number of Christians in Iran is “without doubt in the order of magnitude of several hundreds of thousands and growing beyond a million”.

The traditional Armenian and Assyrian Christians in Iran number 117 700, according to the latest government statistics.

Christian experts surveyed by CT expressed little surprise. But it may make a significant difference for the Iranian church.

“With the lack of proper data, most international advocacy groups expressed a degree of doubt on how widespread the conversion phenomenon is in Iran,” said Mansour Borji, research and advocacy director for Article 18, a UK-based organisation dedicated to the protection and promotion of religious freedom in Iran.

“It is pleasing to see — for the first time — a secular organisation adding its weight to these claims.”

The research, which asked 22 questions about an individual’s “attitude toward religion,” is sponsored by the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, which Borji describes as a reputable human rights organization. And GAMAAN is run by professors associated with the respected Dutch universities of Tilburg and Utretch.

The general presumption of doubt risked influencing asylum applications by Iranians seeking resettlement in Europe or elsewhere.

“We do not regard it as remotely plausible that there are as many as 1 million people secretly practising Christianity in Iran today,” wrote a UK judge in a March ruling establishing best practice guidelines, following a case that ultimately denied asylum to an Iranian convert.

“The huge numbers of converts claimed by various evangelical missions must be viewed in light of the fact that … the more converts they can claim, the greater the incentive for co-religionists to donate.”

Yet despite the widespread scepticism, research conducted by Christian advocacy organisations has begun to produce results.

In 2005, the United Nations created the Geneva-based Universal Periodic Review to evaluate the human rights status of every nation every 4.5 years. During its review session in February, for the first time recommendations for Iran included its treatment of “Christian converts,” issued by Norway and the Netherlands.

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