GERMANY – The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) continues to see remarkable numbers of Iranian Muslims converting to Christianity. According to a recent SELKinfo story, Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens of St. Mary’s Lutheran Church (Steglitz, Berlin) reports that the number of congregational members and applicants for baptism of Persian background at his church has recently grown by 75%. The same report notes three groups of Iranians were preparing for baptism at the time, with the first group scheduled to have been baptized December 15, 2013.
“It is a kind of miracle which we experience in Berlin right now,” explained Rev. Dr. Jobst H.M. Schöne (Bishop Emeritus of SELK) during a 2013 visit to Canada. It all began when a few Iranians showed up for service at the church one Sunday, he said. As time went on, they expressed an interest in being baptized. “We thought at the beginning,” Dr. Schöne reflects, “that’s it: two people, maybe three people, maybe four people. I tell you, it’s now more than 300.”
While the number of Iranian converts is something to rejoice over, conversion often comes with a cost. “They are sometimes suffering very much from their fellow country-men, living in an asylum home [for refugees],” Dr. Schöne explains. “All day long they are together with Muslims, and if they find out that some of them are going to become Christians, then there is a big controversy.” Moreover, many of these converts are still in the middle of refugee claims. Converting to Christianity, and then being forced to return to Iran could see them face severe persecution, even capital punishment, as converting to Christianity from Islam is a crime which carries the death sentence in Iran. Such fears have “increased the pressure placed on them when they have to prove their commitment to being Christians before German courts,” notes the SELKinfo report, “in which process they have seen themselves subjected to very arbitrary standards as Lutheran Christians.” Dr. Martens and other members of St. Mary’s often appear as witnesses on their behalf during these refugee trials.
In addition to baptismal instruction for Iranians, St. Mary’s is reaching out in a number of other ways, including through home Bible studies, confirmation classes, and youth group. The congregation also hosts regular lunches following Sunday worship. “On account of many guests,” the SELKinfo story explains, “teams of cooks prepare the food ahead of time on Saturdays, with those who take part looking after a good portion of the cost of these meals by donation.” The fellowship meals have become an even stronger opportunity for spiritual growth since November, the report continues, when Sister Martha Brauner (a deaconess of the Bethel Diaconal Community) began attending. “Sister Martha worked for over 40 years in a hospital in Afghanistan, and thus speaks Farsi,” the report notes, “which makes it possible for the new congregational members to hear about faith in Christ in their mother tongue.”
Dr. Martens and his work among Iranians was featured in a 2012 Christianity Today article entitled “The other Iranian Revolution.” He was also named 2012’s “Pastor of the Year” by ideaSpektrum (a German Christian magazine) for his work caring for Iranian converts over the previous five years. “These refugees are taking unimaginable risks to live their Christian faith,” noted Dr. Martens in the Christianity Today article. “Imagine! Of all places, God chooses eastern Germany, one of the world’s most godless regions, as the stage for a spiritual awakening among Persians.”
For more information on German Lutheran outreach to Iranians, watch the following video. It features Dr. Schöne and was recorded at Lutheran Church–Canada’s 2013 National Pastors and Deacons Conference.
(English translations of the SELKinfo report courtesy of Rev. Dr. John Stephenson.)