The killing of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani by order of President Donald Trump last week sent shockwaves around the world and prompted retaliation from Iran, an Islamic republic cited by some Christian groups as having one of the highest conversion rates in the world.
Lazarus Yeghnazar, whose research suggests as many as 1 million Christians now live in Iran, has been expecting something like this for years. He believes that, if war comes, it will create a humanitarian crisis but also an open door for evangelism—“a tsunami of disaster and a tsunami of opportunity.” And the 70-year-old Iranian Christian is in a position to know.
Yeghnazar and his wife, Maggie, married in Tehran shortly before the Islamic revolution in 1979. Love for their country and the Iranian church, as well as a successful engineering business, led them to stay in their home during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.
Shortly after the war ended, the couple emigrated to the United Kingdom, where they began sending money to friends and church leaders in Iran. That effort eventually became 222 Ministries International, a church-planting and training network—still run out of Lazarus’s converted garage—that includes satellite television broadcasts and more than 50 underground churches in Iran. His brother, Sam, founded Elam Ministries, and his nephew, David, now leads that outreach to Iran.
In an interview last year, Yeghnazar predicted that Iran would open up soon and explained how Christians should prepare. In a follow-up this week, he explained how Suleimani’s death affects Iranian Christians.
How are Iranian Christians reacting to Soleimani’s death?
Now, with the drumbeats of war increasing, there is complete uncertainty and anxiety. What will happen in case of an escalation of hostilities and engagement in a war? Still, the very bitter memories of the eight-year war with Iraq remain. Iranian Christians will suffer more than any segment of society.
Christians have been suffering for the last four decades in Iran. Almost all rights and citizen’s privileges have been taken away from them. Freedom of worship, freedom of meeting together, are nonexistent. On many occasions, properties have been taken by the government, and many people were expelled from work, losing pensions, as soon as someone learns that they are Christian believers. So, in general, Christians have been pushed to a corner.
How might Iranian Christians be affected by Soleimani’s death? In other words, might this be the beginning of the “tsunami of opportunity and disaster” you predicted?
In case of a war, thousands of Christian families will become internally displaced as well as thousands will flee the country. It will be a humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, I believe that tens of thousands of ordinary Iranians will flee the country as well, arriving in Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, etc., thus creating the largest-ever evangelism opportunity. This harvest is huge and will need great collaborative work. We need to connect, pray, plan, and prepare.
Why do you think Iran will open soon?
We are carefully watching key elements within Iran. Iran is like a bus going down a hairpin-turned mountain road with no brakes. Anybody watching can see that they are going to die. Everybody wonders, “When will the driver jump out?” So, the question is: When will the Ayatollahs jump?
I have been watching this situation very carefully, and already some of the Ayatollahs are abandoning the bus. Where are they going? Some are going to Russia, where their friend, Russian president Vladimir Putin, will accept them. But they do not have many other places to go. No Sunni country, like Saudi Arabia, will accept them. Iraq? Maybe, but probably not. Malaysia maybe?
Iran is imploding due to things happening inside. I pray for peace. But the DNA of the Revolutionary Guards is agitation and confrontation. They cannot live in peace. From day one, they have been at war with the world. For example: When the roadside bombs started blowing up in Iraq, I said, “This is from Iran.” Now, it’s the war in Yemen, the war in Syria. Those wars would be over if Iran weren’t present, feeding them. Everyone is worried about Iran getting a nuclear bomb. I won’t go into whether I think it is Iran’s right as a country to have one, like many other countries. But I do ask, “What do you think a regime like that, with that kind of DNA, would do with one?”
The regime in Iran is going to provoke the West to attack. Who knows how long that will take? But when it comes, it will create a tsunami of disaster and a tsunami of opportunities. And the church is ill-prepared to meet those opportunities. That’s why we are so committed to leadership development for Iran.