Carrying His Cross to Elam

The revolutionary potential of the growing house church movement in Iran.

house_churchFor over twenty years, I have worked with a wide variety of opposition groups in Iran who are working to replace the Islamic dictatorship ruling their country with a more representative form of government.

Many courageous men and women have lost their lives for this cause, from diverse ethnic and political backgrounds. Many others have fled into exile to Europe or the United States.

Some of the regime’s victims never considered themselves part of the opposition, such as 26-year old Neda Agha-Sultan, a young woman gunned down in cold blood when she was stuck in a traffic jam caused by the 2009 anti-regime demonstrations.

The opposition comes in many flavors, from Marxist and pseudo-Marxist groups on the left, to die-hard monarchists on the right. It includes an increasing array of ethnic organizations, the most powerful of which, PJAK (the Free Life Party of Iranian Kurdistan), was added to the Treasury Department’s list of Specially-Designated Nationals as a gesture to the Iranian regime in February 2009.

Designating as international “terrorists” the most effective opposition group in Iran is just one of many gifts the Obama administration has offered Iran’s ruling mullahs, without receiving the slightest concession in exchange.

Some of these opposition groups have demonstrated an extraordinary capability to penetrate the innermost confabs of the regime, including the office of the Supreme Leader himself.

I have witnessed these penetrations first-hand. They have brought to light information of critical, and often strategic interest for the United States. I am told authoritatively that they have saved the lives of American servicemen. And they are ongoing and underexploited, even as I write these words.

Disgust with the thuggishness of the regime, as well as internal power struggles, have prompted a number of Iranian intelligence officers to break with their former bosses. I have spent man-years debriefing a wide variety of such defectors, and have never ceased to be amazed at how often the U.S. intelligence community rejects their information, at times with deadly results.

So it was in July 2001 when a counter-intelligence officer known as Hamid Reza Zakeri walked into the U.S. embassy in Baku and warned the CIA of impending attacks on America that were going to be carried out using civilian airliners and Arab pilots.

Zakeri identified the targets of the attacks – the World Trade Center towers in New York, Camp David, the Pentagon and the White House in Washington, DC – and the date they were to take place. But his information was dismissed by an arrogant Persian-speaking officer I called “CIA George” in my 2005 account of Zakeri’s defection.

Despite subsequent efforts by the CIA and by Iranian regime agents to discredit Zakeri, his information has been corroborated by multiple sources, including U.S. intelligence reports discovered by the 9/11 Commission, other defectors, and by friendly intelligence agencies.

In recent years, only one senior Iranian defector has been “taken in” by the United States. That was Revolutionary Guards Corps General Ali Reza Asgari, who defected via Turkey in late 2006 with assistance from a former colleague who was working with the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, which I chair.

General Asgari told the CIA that Iran was continuing to pursue its clandestine nuclear weapons effort, and was putting out disinformation to claim that the program had been shut down in 2003 on orders of the Supreme Leader. Unfortunately, the CIA believed the disinformation, not the defector, and in mid-2007 issued a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that was immediately discredited as a political document by the House Permanent Select Committee on intelligence and many others.

The CIA didn’t do much better with another defector, nuclear researcher Shahram Amiri, who also fled Iran with assistance from the FDI-linked “Salvation Committee” in 2010. An apparent failure by the CIA to appreciate Amiri’s concern for his family back in Iran led Amiri to return to Iran, where he has disappeared from view.

A failure to understand the culture of a closed society such as Iran continues to plague the CIA and its civilian analysts and leads to tragic mistakes, such as the Amiri case. It also leads the CIA to completely disregard the biggest threat of all to the Iranian regime: the growth of the underground church.

Of course, when the director of the CIA professes a love and appreciation of Islam, which some believe stems from his mid-1990s posting as CIA chief to Saudi Arabia, it’s understandable that the CIA would embrace the Muslim denial of apostasy and the spread of a liberating faith.

A former Iranian army officer, whose family members include several senior IRGC officers, has told me of underground house churches within the IRGC itself. His account has been corroborated by numerous other witnesses, including individuals associated with the organized Iranian church in the United States.

The powerful memoir of Marziyeh Amirzadeh and Mariyam Rostampour, two young believers who were arrested in March 2009 because the regime suspected them of evangelizing Muslims, tells of remarkable conversions.

Over a three year period, they handed out more than 20,000 Persian-language Bibles in Tehran and other cities, repeatedly passing unharmed through security roadblocks with their dangerous contraband as if under divine protection.

When they were finally thrown into Iran’s notorious Evin prison, accused as spies for promoting Christianity, they prayed with each other and with inmates in their cellblock. “We turned Evin prison into our church,” Maryam told me.

The growth of the underground house church movement was considered so dangerous by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that he repeatedly swore he would stamp it out. His goons regularly arrested pastors, including visiting Americans such as Saeed Abedini, who for the past three years has been a prisoner for Christ in Iran’s jails.

The American Center for Law and Justice has called on Americans to join together, like the prophet Daniel, in three weeks of prayer for Pastor Saeed starting on January 6, the day of Epiphany, and ending on January 27, the day Pastor Saeed was sentenced to eight years in prison for his faith.

My sources inside the house church movement believe that two million Iranian Muslims have come to Christ, with more picking up his cross every day.

More than the political opposition, I believe these men and women of faith will change the soul of the Iranian regime, just as St. Peter and St. Paul changed the soul of Rome in the time of the Emperor Nero.

In a gripping scene in the 19th century masterpiece by Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz that dramatizes their story, the Apostle Peter watches Nero parade by him on the streets of Rome in a gleaming chariot, in all his imperial array. “For a while those two men looked at each other,” Sienkiewicz writes.

“It occurred to no one in that brilliant retinue, and to no one in that immense throng, that at that moment two powers of the earth were looking at each other, one of which would vanish quickly as a bloody dream, and the other, dressed in simple garments, would seize in eternal possession the world and the city.”

Later, when St. Peter’s followers urge him to flee Nero’s praetorians, who have been rounding up Christians to feed them to the lions or wrap them in rags soaked in pitch to hang as human lanterns in Caesar’s gardens, the Lord appears to him on the outskirts of Rome. “Quo vadis, Domine?” St. Peter asks. Where are you going, Lord?

“If thou desert my people, I am going to Rome to be crucified a second time,” the Lord answered.

The more Nero persecuted these early Christians, the more their faith spread among the citizens of the city, their slaves, and throughout the empire.

While, thankfully, the Iranian regime has not yet raised its persecution of Christ’s newest followers to that level, it is not because the desire is lacking, or that evil has been chained.

My prayer for the New Year? That the faith of Pastor Saeed Abedini, and countless others like him who are prisoners of Christ, will sweep across the land of Elam, causing the evil Islamist order to fall apart, as Sienkiewicz writes, “as a cask without hoops.”

Kenneth Timmerman is author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran (Crown Forum) and other books, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his work on Iran.

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