Survey supports claims of 1 million Christian converts in Iran

Survey supports claims of 1 million Christian converts in Iran

The doors of churches in Iran, like this one in Tehran, remain closed to converts (Photo: Google Maps/Faty Rezaiy)

For years, international Christian organisations have claimed there may be as many as one million secret Christian believers in Iran. 

Now they have some proof.

A recent survey of 50,000 Iranians by GAMAAN, a Netherlands-based research group, found that 1.5% of respondents identified as Christian.

If this figure is extrapolated across Iran’s over 80 million people, then even taking into account the approximately 300,000 “recognised” Christians of Armenian and Assyrian descent, this would suggest an additional one million converts to Christianity.

Reacting to the survey, Rev Dr Sasan Tavassoli, himself a convert, told Article18:

“There’s no surprise here for me. For quite some time I have felt that this is where we are in the growth of the Church in Iran.”

The findings certainly suggest that claims of one million Christians in Iran cannot be dismissed as swiftly as in the past. For example, last year judges ruling on the case of an Iranian claiming asylum in the UK on the grounds he had converted to Christianity said: “We do not regard it as remotely plausible that there are as many as 1 million people secretly practising Christianity in Iran today.”

The Iranian regime has itself acknowledged an increase in conversions. Last year, Iran’s Minister of Intelligence admitted converts had been “summoned to ask them why they were converting”, as it is “happening right before our eyes”.

But given that converts to Christianity are routinely harassed and arrested, previous estimations by Christian organisations have been based only on extrapolations of the small known number of conversions – largely based on contact with Christian satellite television channels.

This is the first time a secular organisation has added its weight to the argument.

Afshin Shahi, a UK-based lecturer on Middle East politics, told Article18: “I don’t think the result of the survey is surprising to any Iran observer. Over the last 40 years, the country has gone through a gigantic socio-cultural transition. The survey highlights the fact that a very large segment of the population no longer identifies with Shia Islam, which is used as the ideology of domination by the state.

“This transition is so drastic that even the state had to acknowledge it. In recent years various figures of the state have spoken about the threat of the de-Islamisation of Iranian society. They have even coined a term for it: ‘Andalusiasation’, which implies the gradual de-Islamisation of cultural structures which will eventually constitute an existential threat to the political domination of the Islamists.

“Given these contradictions between the Islamic Republic and the wider Iranian society it is not surprising that the Supreme Leader regards ‘cultural invasion’ as more dangerous than a military invasion.”  

‘Spiritual revolution’

The other findings of the survey include:

  • Only 32% identified as Shia Muslims. (The regime claims 95% of Iranians are Shiites.) 

  • Some 46.8% said they had changed from being religious to having no religion, while 5.8% said they had changed from one religious belief to another.

  • 41% said they believed members of all faiths ought to be able to propagate their views, while 42% said they were against public propagation of any religious views. Only 5% said this right ought to be afforded solely to Muslims.

  • 68% said they didn’t believe religious rulings should be enforced, even if they were the belief of the majority. 15% said they believed laws should be in accordance with religious rules regardless.

  • Some 7.7% identified as Zoroastrians, the ancient Persian religion, hinting at a general rise in nationalism. (The number of Zoroastrians recorded during the last census was just 25,000.)

Dr Tavassoli commented: “To say a spiritual revolution is happening in Iran is quite an understatement! This is a total failure of the regime’s attempt at indoctrination of the generation since the Islamic Revolution.

“I don’t think the Iran of the future will be like anything we have known in the past. Iran might soon become the France of the Middle East, as there are also signs of growing opposition to public manifestations of religion, weather it’s hijab, or legislation or even evangelisation.”

Is the research credible?

In Mr Shahi’s words, “When it comes to surveying beliefs there is no such thing as a perfect methodology. In addition to the general difficulties, the researchers had to conduct their work in a hagiocracy where religion provides the raison d’etre for the monopoly of power by the Islamic Republic. 

“In Iran, religious belief is securitised in every sense of the term. Within that environment where changing religion legally can result in capital punishment, people cannot freely express their belief if it is against the founding principles of the state. Not surprisingly, the researches had to do the survey online, which has certain advantages and disadvantages. But overall, despite all limitations this the best they could have done in this situation.”

He added: “The bitter experience of the Islamic Republic has undermined Shia Islam to an unbelievable level. As the survey indicates a lot of people have either lost their faith in religion or have converted to other beliefs, though given the underground nature of these changes, we never can be 100% sure about the numbers.”

One of the report’s authors, Pooyan Tamimi Arab, told Article18 the target population of the survey had been literate Iranians over the age of 20, accounting for around 50 million people, so the findings are only certainly representative of that percentage of the population, with a margin of error of just 5%.

He said the findings showed that Iran has undergone a general “secularisation, which does not only lead to a decline in religiosity but also pluralisation”, and added that there are “probably at the very least hundreds of thousands of Christians and maybe more than one million, but we don’t know for sure.

“To be even more precise, according to the 2016 census, there are 47 million Iranians who are above 19 and literate. 1.5% thus equals around 700,000 people, which is a very realistic number given the difficulties of measuring identifications in Iran.”

Quoting the contents of this article in part is permitted. However, no part of it may be used for any fundraising appeal, or for any publication where donations are requested.