Cover Story

Battle within

"Battle within" Continued...

Issue: "Crackdown," July 18, 2009

"They may disarm one and put the power in the hands of five, which is the same and against freedom," said Daniel Shayesteh, a former Shiite and member of Khomeini's Islamic Fundamentalist Revolutionary Movement. Shayesteh converted to Christianity 20 years ago and now is a Missionary Alliance evangelist who lives in Australia. Shayesteh believes that real change will occur only when the supreme leader, or leaders, no longer can confirm and control the president.

When Khamenei was selected to succeed Khomeini, many senior clerics did not accept him, citing a lack of religious credentials and theological training to become a grand ayatollah. Tavassoli: "It's like somebody having a B.A. from a no-name college and overnight becoming a Ph.D. from Harvard."

Twenty years later, Khamenei has broadened his power base-and nursed an inferiority complex-by isolating clerics who are not his absolute allies and gathering acolytes like Ahmadinejad, who, according to Tavassoli, "could not say the things he says unless they were approved by the supreme leader."

And while Ahmadinejad may lack theological training, he is driven by ideology and believes he has his own divine calling: to hasten the coming of the 12th Imam, the so-called "hidden imam." According to legend, this imam, known as the Mahdi, disappeared in the ninth century in Qom. Many Shiites believe his return is imminent-a kind of messiah figure who will lead an apocalyptic battle between good and evil to establish global Islamic rule. The Iranian president is resolute enough to have spent millions on building projects for the Mahdi,including a widened major boulevard in Tehran to prepare the way.

The Mahdi's return is also a reason Ahmadinejad has increased persecution of Christians since taking office in 2005. The 12th Imam is supposed to bring Jesus from heaven, as a follower who will pray to him and convert all Christians to Islam. During Ahmadinejad's first term the Islamic center at Qom formed a Committee on Minorities to "culturally oppose"religious minorities. They include Zoroastrians, Christians, Baha'is, Sufis, Wahabbis, and New Mystics.

Estimates of Iran's Christian population range from 700,000 to 1 million out of a country of 70 million mostly Shiite Muslims. According to Open Doors, more than 100,000 Iranian Christians are so-called "secret believers" who meet in rapidly growing numbers of house churches. Most generally avoid political engagement.

"As long as the sovereignty is in the hand of the supreme leader, no matter who comes [to power] Christians will always be under threat," said Shayesteh. "The country is ruled by Islamic [Sharia] law, and therefore non-Muslims, including Christians, must be dealt according to the Islamic law."

Despite Mousavi's sudden popularity, he is remembered as anti-Jew and anti-Christian when he served as prime minister in the 1980s. Shayesteh told WORLD by email that it's not clear to most Christians whether Mousavi now favors "a softer approach" toward non-Muslims. And Christians have reason to be wary of exposing themselves to further action: In 2008, at least 50 Christians, mostly Muslim converts, were arrested, interrogated, tortured, intimidated, and some even killed, according to Open Doors.

Tavassoli said he believes, "Every Christian should speak up in defense of human rights and stopping the violence." And several Iranian pastors I interviewed said they believe whatever the outcome of the current crisis it can be a win-win situation for Christians: More freedom means more freedom to worship, and more oppression leads more Iranians to Christ. The number of Iranians with interest in the gospel "clearly jumped" 10 years ago after university protests, said Hormoz Shariat, who broadcasts a daily show to Tehran and pastors the Iranian Christian Church in San Jose, Calif., the largest Iranian Christian church outside of Tehran.

For existing protesters, the demonstrations are akin to sacred experiences. A man named Alireza from a Tehran suburb told a Wall Street Journal reporter he and his family went to downtown Tehran to join the throngs marching on Azadi [Freedom] Square. As they arrived, "cars were blowing their horns and people were flashing the victory sign," and about 20 militia men with long beards and batons waited on motorbikes. One of them told Alireza to throw away his green ribbon, a sign of support for Mousavi. When Alireza refused he was attacked by the militia and beaten before his wife and daughter pulled him away.

Arriving at the square, "what I saw there was the most magnificent scene I have ever witnessed in my life," said Alireza. The square can accommodate half a million people and was full. As smoke rose in the distance and gunshots could be heard, "the huge numbers of people were marching hand-in-hand peacefully. There were no slogans being shouted. Hands were held up in victory signs with green ribbons. People carried placards that read, 'Silence.' Young and old, men and women, rich and poor were marching cheerfully. It was an amazing show of solidarity. I was so proud."

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