Signals of change
Protests in Iran have met censorship and brutality, but Christian broadcasters use daily media to spark lasting reformation
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It’s noon in Dallas and 8:30 in the evening in Tehran when Hormoz Shariat, founder of satellite television’s Iran Alive Ministries, steps to the camera to begin the station’s daily live satellite broadcast. The 62-year-old Iranian-American pastor, wearing rimless glasses and a suit and tie, strikes a friendly posture whether he is preaching to a large studio audience or seated in comfortable chairs with his co-hosts. But he takes the one-hour live show very seriously: With a prime-time slot beamed from Texas into the Islamic republic, Iran Alive’s Christian programming has an estimated audience of 6 million people.
That’s nearly 8 percent of Iran’s population of 80 million, the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslims. Whether Iran has 2 million Christians—an estimate Shariat believes is not inflated—or closer to 500,000, as some experts claim, “that’s a lot of Muslims watching us,” he concedes. In addition to Iran Alive, the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) has Persian-language programming in the Middle East, and Cyprus-based SAT-7 PARS also carries round-the-clock Persian-language Christian shows.
The reach of Christian programming in Iran dwarfs other broadcasts and has taken on added importance after protesters launched widespread demonstrations against the government in late December that plunged the country into political crisis. Voice of America’s Persian service via television and web, for example, reaches about 1 million Iranians daily, though its numbers have grown during the crisis.
With communication for both insiders and outsiders proving key to assessing what’s happening and to preserving individual rights, Shariat and other Christian programmers have a unique window on Iran and a long-standing affinity for those who face persecution and harassment there, whether for their politics or their religion.
“Inside Iran church buildings have been closed, house churches get into trouble, and the majority of Iran’s Christians have no church they can physically attend,” said Shariat. “We are their church.”
Alongside Iran Alive’s 24/7 programming are 24/7 phone-in lines and website chat spaces where staff members receive prayer requests and other information from mostly Iranian viewers. In the past six months, Shariat said, calls focusing on the economic situation have dramatically increased, as prices for milk, bread, cheese, and eggs skyrocketed. Many said they had cut meat consumption to once a month, or not at all. One viewer called to ask for financial help, saying she and her husband were so desperate they had considered selling their infant to human traffickers.
IRANIANS EXPECTED THEIR ECONOMIC WOES TO EASE following the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and several world powers, including the United States. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action called for the lifting of economic sanctions against the regime in exchange for Iran limiting uranium enrichment at its two nuclear facilities to nonmilitary purposes and making the facilities subject to international inspections.
With the lifting of sanctions, middle- and lower-class Iranians watched inflation and their own costs of living continue to climb, along with unemployment. Yet government jobs and luxury items proliferated among the country’s ruling clergy class.
“There are more Maseratis on the streets of Tehran than in Beverly Hills,” said Shariat, “and the ones driving them are children of the country’s mullahs.”
A 2017 spike in prices coincided with defaults by investment firms. The first call to protest came from an accountant at a saffron import company in the northeastern city of Mashhad who learned his savings disappeared when an investment firm went bankrupt. “We lost all our fortune and no one cares,” the accountant told The Wall Street Journal.
The gathering discontent coincided with President Hassan Rouhani’s decision to release to the public his proposed government budget, an unusual move some believe Rouhani, a so-called moderate, possibly hoped would embarrass the country’s ruling ayatollahs. The budget showed millions of dollars going to Islamic religious foundations and clerics’ offices, while cash subsidies to the poor were cut. Additionally, it showed the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps receiving $8 billion—a huge sum in a country weary of Iran’s military incursions in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.
The purpose of the Revolutionary Guard, directly controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is to defend the Islamic regime from internal and external threats. Its Basij militia, essentially a domestic paramilitary force, brutally cracked down on 2009 demonstrations. The Quds Force has played a strategic role in propping Iraqi and Syrian militaries in their fights against ISIS. At the same time, the Revolutionary Guard is Iran’s primary link to terrorist proxies—Hamas in Sinai and Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria—and in charge of exporting Iran’s Islamic ideology, and its jihadist revolution, worldwide.
After the accountant from Mashhad sent a group message via Telegram, an encrypted smartphone app, protests that began in the city on Dec. 28 quickly spread elsewhere. In under a week, tens of thousands of Iranians clogged streets in more than 80 cities, including Tehran, and nearly every one of the country’s 31 provinces. Their shouts of “Death to Rouhani!” morphed into “Death to Khamenei!” in a country where criticizing the ayatollahs can be a capital crime. Police hauled water cannons to disperse the crowds, and Basij militiamen arrived on motorcycles to beat them, but the protesters remained indignant, ripping down and burning banners dedicated to Khamenei as they shut down streets.
In Tehran, police arrested 200 protesters in one day. The authorities blocked internet access and social media sites, depriving millions of Iranians of the one place where they could escape repression, their one means of connection with one another and the outside world (see sidebar).
Local residents made a cottage industry out of bypassing the censorship—posting raw footage online via VPNs, or virtual private networks, accessed through India and elsewhere. Even with Telegram and other messaging apps cut off, Iranians used VPNs to access them. News portals outside the country also solicited man-on-the-street reports via Telegram, then posted them on Instagram or elsewhere, keeping word of the uprisings alive. One video, posted Jan. 1, showed security forces firing directly on protesters in the city of Esfahán, killing five demonstrators. Long after international coverage subsided, Iranians were posting clips showing wall-to-wall protesters in some cities late into the night, defiantly raising placards and chanting.
AS IRAN’S WIDESPREAD PROTESTS in years continued, in Dallas the Iran Alive team decided to add additional programming, including another live broadcast at 10:00 each night. They knew they risked censorship, too, with jamming towers in Tehran often breaking up satellite TV signals. But steady viewer feedback confirmed the shows were getting through.
Broadcasters have learned to rerun programs outside of prime times, when jammers are down, and they bypass filters for online streaming by sending out new links to programs every day. The late-night segments, said Shariat, were a way to review the events of the day in Iran and air lessons in how Christians could respond. “Most do not know their role because they are new Christians,” he explained. “We want to guide them in how to look at these events from God’s perspective.”
The January programs emphasized suffering with those who suffer and bringing Christian hope. They did not warn Christians away from protesting, but did counsel them not to participate in calls of “Death to …” government officials. The shows haven’t shied away from showing the brutality in the streets. More than 4,000 people were arrested (though hundreds were reportedly released in mid-January) and at least 20 were killed, including three who died in prisons. “Arrest in Iran means no family is contacted, no charges are brought, no report is made of whether they are alive or not,” said Shariat.
With footage of those protesting outside Evin Prison, the notorious political detention center in Tehran, broadcasters on-air prayed by name for those who had been arrested, and for families whose loved ones had disappeared.
Born in Tehran, Shariat was a Muslim who trained as a research scientist, immigrated to the United States after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and studied for his Ph.D. in computer engineering at the University of Southern California. Back under Iran’s new Islamic republic, authorities arrested his brother Hamraz on a political charge, and in 1983 executed him by firing squad. Shariat began reading the Bible after his brother’s death, searching for another way than Islam. A Guatemalan janitor who barely spoke English invited him and his wife to church, and the two became Christians.
In 1987 Shariat started a church in San Jose, Calif., and 10 years later began doing televangelism with a 30-minute local cable show. His focus always was on Muslims, he said, and it was only a matter of time before the pastor turned his attention again to Iran and the idea of a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week satellite channel broadcasting in Farsi. The 9/11 attacks made the idea more urgent, and in late 2001 he launched Iran Alive, gradually building to round-the-clock programming beamed to Iran and the Middle East. The channel also reaches the United States, Canada, and Europe.
Christian broadcasting is one of three leading ways Iran in the last decade has become host to the fastest-growing evangelical Christian population in the world, said David Yeghnazar, executive director of Elam Ministries, a U.S.- and U.K.-based outreach mission to Iranians started by his father, Sam.
Besides television, Bible distribution and one-to-one evangelism contribute to growth that Yeghnazar says continues to be “dramatic” despite the obstacles against it. Iran regularly jails Christian converts and church leaders and in recent years has moved against not only unofficial underground churches but those officially recognized by the government, including Armenian and Orthodox sites. Even though Bibles are banned, Elam has printed and distributed in Iran 2 million New Testaments. “This is a very courageous church that’s been willing to take the risk of sharing their faith, evangelizing and telling people about Jesus,” Yeghnazar said.
Yeghnazar, who was born in Tehran, added: “The people have suffered under an Islamic regime for nearly 40 years, and they have seen the true face of their religion. Many have become deeply disillusioned and are hungry for spiritual truth and looking for alternatives.”
SEVERAL FACTORS MADE THIS ROUND OF DEMONSTRATIONS difficult to sustain. The movement had no clear demands and no prominent leadership. And thanks to a government crackdown and internet shutdown, it had little room to continue and expand. Iranians, particularly in Tehran, have seen previous uprisings end in brutality and are perhaps more cautious about joining protest movements. Plus, the region is wary of using the street to bring change: Arab Spring protests mostly have led to harsher governments and more restrictions, and the protests launched in Syria helped to spark a seven-year civil war that has killed nearly half a million residents.
But just because the demonstrations may not have gone anywhere doesn’t mean they are useless. “We are gaining in maturity,” said Shariat. “We are learning the political game in Iran doesn’t work anymore. Bringing moderates in, as with Rouhani, doesn’t work. People are aware it doesn’t matter if you have a moderate in office; the regime is the same.”
The regime, many believe, may be weakening as its clerics age. Khamenei, who has been supreme leader since 1989, is 78 years old. President Rouhani, widely believed to have helped bring on protests, may be on his way out, and Khamenei appears weakened as well. Democracy, though, is far from the obvious next step, and one likely scenario will be a police state run by the Revolutionary Guards.
Organized opposition in Iran and among its millions of exiles is a reality that endures, and the widespread movement of the past month has disappeared only on the surface. “It will continue in the hearts of the people,” said Shariat. “The divide between the government and the people is larger than ever, and it is not going away. People are still hurting.”
Despite 40 years of harsh Islamic rule in Iran, Shariat believes Islam in Iran already is defeated: “I strongly feel it will never be an Islamic nation again. The rejection of Islamic rule by the people of Iran is so wide and deep, and it is not going away.”
A call to Silicon Valley
At the height of street protests in Iran in 2009, a 27-year-old U.S. State Department official named Jared Cohen took a bold step toward preserving Iranians’ rights: He emailed Twitter. The social networking website was only 3 years old but was revolutionizing the way democracy activists carried out an uprising. When Cohen learned that Twitter planned to take its site down for scheduled maintenance, he asked the company to delay for the sake of Iranian protesters.
With 2018 protests the biggest since 2009, Iran has 48 million smartphone users out of a population of 80 million. Social media apps and ways to access them have proliferated, but so have authoritarians’ means of shutting them down. Already YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are banned officially, but during the recent demonstrations authorities also moved quickly to block Telegram, a messaging app, and Instagram, the photo-sharing app. They slowed internet service or cut it off intermittently, forcing Iranians to hunt down virtual private networks often located in other countries.
Experts say U.S. technology companies and Washington could do more to aid protest movements. In Iran some U.S. companies have curtailed their services over fear of violating U.S. sanctions, and the Treasury Department hasn’t issued clear guidance in some cases. According to a Jan. 12 report in Wired magazine, Google has blocked Iranian access to its App Engine, a service needed to run encrypted messaging apps like Signal.
Writing in The Washington Post, analyst Michael Singh said, “Tech execs should take their cue from Cohen but go further, seeking to provide platforms outside Iran for dissidents to speak out and supply accurate information to those inside Iran about both the protests and the costs of the regime’s policies.” –M.B.
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