It was Islamophobic to Armenia

From Islam to Christianity

About Iranian religious refugees in Germany

From Marie Wildermann

Iranian refugees are accepted into German Christian communities. (AP)

Thousands of Iranians have fled to Germany in recent years. An estimated 150,000 Persians now live here, more than in any other country in Europe. Marie Wildermann asked around in Berlin congregations why Iranians are interested in Christianity.

A Persian community in Berlin-Neukölln. A simple room with a light wooden floor. About 60 white wooden chairs stand in a semicircle around the altar, the small community room is occupied down to the last seat. Men are clearly in the majority in this small church community, all of them Iranian refugees, former Muslims who have become Christians. One of them is Mehran, for him this community in the middle of Berlin-Neukölln is a place where he can relax and draw strength.

"I come here twice a week. Thursday for Bible study and Sunday for church service. It is very good for me to hear the sermons."

Mehran has been in Germany for almost a year. The 39-year-old is a sporty guy, wears jeans and fashionable glasses. In Tehran he had a sporting goods store and worked as a ski instructor. He was well-off, owned an apartment, two cars, played tennis in his free time and went to the Armenian church in Tehran every week with his friend, an Armenian Christian, even though it is forbidden for Muslims.

"I was very impressed by the way my Armenian friends live, their friendliness, their Christian life."

But Muslims who are interested in Christianity live dangerously in Iran. They are forbidden to visit Armenian churches, and informers and secret police monitor who goes in and out.

Along with Chaldeans and Assyrians, the Armenian Christians belong to the religious minorities in Iran that are officially recognized. The Islamic dictatorship of Ahmadinejad is outwardly tolerant, but the reality is different. Islam is the state religion, and religious minorities are systematically discriminated against in the areas of work and education. Many Armenians have emigrated in the last few decades, only around 250,000 ethnic Christians still live in Iran today.

Armenian clergymen are not allowed to hold their services in the national language Farsi and they are not allowed to allow Muslims into their churches.

Nevertheless, Mehran went to the Armenian church service with his friend for years. He was married to a Muslim woman from a strictly Muslim family. The marriage was not going well. When his wife betrayed him to the authorities, it had dramatic consequences for Mehran.

"One morning, as I always got up normally, my neighbor came up to me and said: The religious police were with you, your wife told them that you had changed your religion. You have to get out of here quickly."

Under normal circumstances, Mehran could have litigated his wife over divorce, real estate, and money. In a dictatorship, however, any private quarrel that makes the difference between life and death can turn into betrayal.

It is clear to Mehran that he is now on the blacklist of the secret police. He packs a few things and leaves the country on the same day. That was almost exactly a year ago.

"I didn't want anything to do with Islam. That's not my thing. In the domestic church I found what I was always looking for, what gives me stability and inner peace. I went to these meetings because it was my soul Did well, we prayed, we talked about the Bible. I didn't even think about the police coming to arrest people. "

Reza is also a refugee from Tehran, he too goes to the Persian-speaking Christian community in Berlin-Neukölln. Reza has been in Germany for a year and 8 months, and he too had to leave the country in a hurry. The 40-year-old was a member of an underground house church in Tehran. He says that they met in different places and on different days of the week. Still, informers have tracked down the underground community

"The secret police checked the house where we wanted to meet on the appointed day. 7, 8 people always came to these meetings. I was on my way to the house church and saw from a distance that the police had surrounded the house. Von I could see across the street that they were arresting my friend. "

Reza can do nothing more than get himself to safety, he goes into hiding in Tehran for a few weeks before he can leave the country.

After a dramatic escape, Mehran and Reza managed to escape arrest, two of several thousand who are forced into exile every year. Many do not manage to escape. Those who are detained sometimes sit in jail for years in hair-raising conditions. They are supposed to return to Islam under torture. Nevertheless - and this is the amazing thing - the spread of the Christian faith in Iran is exploding. Nobody can say exactly how many Muslims in Iran have become Christians in the meantime. The estimates are between 50,000 and 500,000 secret converts.

When Mehran speaks about Islam, he becomes very emotional and changes to Persian, or Farsi, his mother tongue.

"What kind of religion is that that calls for people to be killed? They praise God and behead people? What kind of religion is that that calls for such a thing? In Germany everyone is allowed to read the Koran. This is an honor for this country, that there is this freedom here. And that people are free to say what they want to say. "

Like Mehran, many Iranians have come to know Islam as a system of political oppression that works with control, fear, and violence. Islam has become implausible for them, while they have found freedom in the Christian faith. They paid a heavy price for this freedom. Mehran:

"I had a family, a home, a job, I've lost all of that, now I have to queue for food in an asylum seekers home and live under conditions that are not comparable to what I've had. Still, I am glad that I live and grateful that I am allowed to be in this country. "

Iranian refugees come to Germany every day. Many of them as religious refugees. But that they had to leave Iran because of religious persecution - they have to be able to credibly prove this to the asylum authorities in Germany. And with that begins a completely different fight that can sometimes last for years.

"The problem then often lies in the question of whether one believes that the person concerned has really credibly turned away from Islam and turned to Christianity,"

says lawyer Heiko Habbe from the Jesuit refugee service in Berlin and reminds us that there are no official documents about the refugee's change of religion.

Since many Iranian refugees in Germany want to be baptized as soon as possible, the asylum authorities are skeptical. An asylum seeker's certificate of baptism is not enough for them to be recognized in the asylum procedure. They therefore often ask the refugees religious questions. Gottfried Martens, pastor of a Lutheran congregation in Berlin-Zehlendorf, explains how problematic this is.

"Now it is common knowledge that Baptists reject formulated creeds, but that everyone speaks their personal creed. The judge said: Anyone who cannot memorize the apostolic creed is not a Christian, and then rejected the application for asylum in court. And these are precisely these completely arbitrary decisions that each judge can determine for himself what constitutes a Christian. And of course that is a scandal. "

Occasionally, Martens is called in as a witness or expert witness on matters of faith in such proceedings.

“The decisive question is always: Can you testify that these people are serious about the Christian faith?

There are now over 80 Iranian converts in his community, and the number is increasing every week. In other cities in Germany where many Persians live, something similar can be observed. Iranian Muslims are also converting to Christianity in Leipzig, Hamburg, Hanover and Mülheim an der Ruhr. Pastor Martens assumes that there will be many more in the next few years.

"But that is something that is still far too little perceived here in Germany, what a revival is taking place in Iran at the moment."

It is above all the well-educated Iranian middle class who are interested in Christianity. It is downright absurd that these religious refugees in Germany, even after being recognized as refugees, have so many difficulties finding a suitable job themselves. Because it is precisely these specialists who are now desperately looking for.