Iranian Christians in Jerusalem - what do they think of Israel?

With Iran in the midst of an unprecedented outpouring of anger against the regime, it was uncommon to have Iranians in Israel.

 THOUSANDS OF Christian evangelists in town for the Feast of the Tabernacles march in support of Israel, in Jerusalem, October 13. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
THOUSANDS OF Christian evangelists in town for the Feast of the Tabernacles march in support of Israel, in Jerusalem, October 13.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“Our heart, our people, we love Israel and your people,” says Saeid Miryaghoobi, a musician and music producer.

For Miryaghoobi, this is a major shift from where he grew up in Iran. “I know for so many years that maybe our government regime said that we have to say ‘Death to Israel’ but this is not our heart; this is not what we believe,” he says, sitting in the center of Jerusalem, in early September.

“I know for so many years that maybe our government regime said that we have to say ‘Death to Israel’ but this is not our heart; this is not what we believe.”

Saeid Miryaghoobi

Miryaghoobi was born in 1989 in Arak and now lives in Vancouver, having been able to flee from the oppressive regime in Tehran to live in the West. Iran today is being rocked by protests. On October 15, the infamous Evin prison in Iran was reported to be on fire, and protesters feared that prisoners were being massacred. The prison fire comes after weeks of protests throughout Iran. The protests followed the killing of a woman in morality police custody, having been accused of not wearing her head covering correctly. With Iran in the midst of an unprecedented outpouring of anger against the regime, it was uncommon to have Miryaghoobi and another Iranian, Peyman Mojtahedi, in Israel.

In Israel with the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem, Miryaghoobi and Mojtahedi came as part of a large number of Christian pilgrims from 70 nations that arrived for Sukkot for the Feast of Tabernacles celebration from October 9-16. Both men were born Muslim and became Christians, making their journey from Iran via the West to Sukkot here, a very unique experience on a spiritual, religious and practical level.

The musical performances at the feast featured a wide variety of local and international worship artists, including singers and musicians from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Fiji, Finland, Germany, Ivory Coast, Norway, South Africa, the US, and the two Iranian-born singers, who performed specially written songs in Persian and Hebrew.

 TAKING TO the streets in Tehran (L) to protest the death of Mahsa Amini in Iranian morality police custody, late September. (credit: AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES) TAKING TO the streets in Tehran (L) to protest the death of Mahsa Amini in Iranian morality police custody, late September. (credit: AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Mojtahedi was born in Tehran in 1987. For both of them, it is their first time in Israel. Miryaghoobi faced a long wait at security when he arrived. It’s not every day that someone born in Iran arrives in Israel. One of the hosts noted the issue was resolved eventually. Among other things, the group “explained why we were here and doing Christian songs and loving Israel.”

Iranian Christians coming to Israel

I asked the two men if they felt concerned about coming to Israel. After all, this is a country that the regime they grew up under sees as an enemy entity. Mojtahedi said he didn’t. “We love Israel and Jewish people. I had no concerns. I knew it would be a good trip and a joyful trip for the three days. I’m here, and everywhere I go people are very nice.” His colleague, Miryaghoobi, agreed. “Our heart, our people, we love Israel.” Mojtahedi describes a feeling of “brotherhood between Israeli Jewish and Persian people, and that is beautiful for us.”

Both men are musicians. Miryaghoobi plays eight instruments; among his concentrations is the piano. Mojtahedi plays guitar and the piano. As part of their work in the Christian community, particularly among Iranian Christians, they produce videos and worship music. Some of this music is used in the underground churches that exist in Iran. Both men are active in Iranian Christian communities, and both of them went through Turkey to reach the West. Mojtahedi has lived in Turkey for seven years and has now lived in Orange County and Dallas. He speaks almost fluent English.

For Mojtahedi, the journey away from Iran began many years ago. His family converted from Islam to Christianity. They then moved to Turkey and spent time among Iranians who live in Turkey, of which there are many thousands. His colleague, Miryaghoobi, also lived in Turkey as a refugee and, after seven years, went to Vancouver.

It’s rare to meet Muslims who have become Christians, but both men say there are many Iranians who have embraced Christianity. Iran is a large and diverse country and has local Christian communities that are historic. It also has Christian minorities, such as Armenians, who have moved there over the centuries. However, these historic churches are different than the protestant evangelical denominations that these men describe. They call their community Muslim Background Believers (MBB), referring to a unique group of people who have embraced Christianity. While Miryaghoobi became Christian in Turkey, his father embraced the faith first, and then his mother and sisters. Mojtahedi’s family converted in Iran.

OUTSIDE OF Iran, we tend to think of the country as a theocratic regime whose power must surely reach into the houses of every Iranian. However, Mojtahedi says that it is possible for Iranians to quietly embrace Christianity, despite the regime’s theocratic nature. He was raised as a Muslim and under the strictures of the regime. That meant learning Quran as a young boy and reciting it in front of people as a teen. But reading religious texts is not the same as having a feeling for them. “I didn’t know what I was reading. I didn’t know Arabic but because of Islam, the government puts Islam everywhere, from kindergarten to other schools. The mentality is that if you want to talk to God, you must know Arabic. The regime forces Islam into everything. When you are in that pressure and see those characters and see Islamic characters, you start to wonder if this is the God I want to worship,” he says.

Mojtahedi’s family converted as a group. They were exposed to Christianity through a repairman who came to their house to help fix a satellite dish, he says. The man was an evangelist and shared his faith. “The repairman gave us the gospel. You find the gospel otherwise only in libraries with the censored version.” He describes a path to his new faith that involved a change of heart. Today he says that groups are sending bibles by the thousands into Iran.

Miryaghoobi’s father passed away in Turkey. “He was a music teacher and he taught me many instruments,” he says. He describes music as a part of his faith as well because he says that the regime in Tehran frowned upon music as a forbidden, or haram, element. “As a believer in Jesus, I went to Turkey and accepted Jesus. The persecution [in Iran] is against musicians or against hijab issues. The government is killing people like Mahsa Amini, and now people are protesting,” he says.

In Turkey, both men, who didn’t know each other while in Turkey, found a more free society than in Iran. While Ankara’s government has roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, it apparently doesn’t give Iranians a difficult time and doesn’t persecute Iranian Christians. In Turkey, one of the men was able to play music.

Both men keep track of what is happening in Iran. I asked them how they think the protests this year are different than past mass protests, such as those in 2009. “These protests are different than in 2009. All the people know they don’t need the regime. They know what the facts are. People are so tired [of the regime],” says Miryaghoobi

Mojtahedi agrees. “These protests are more important because they want their rights. I don’t remember about the past protests, [but today] they don’t want an Islamic republic... they want the right to be free as a Persian in religion and in every area. Iranians know what’s going on with the government. I saw so many pictures where they wrote ‘We don’t want Islam’... that is the slogan; they know what is going on... they know when you bring religion into politics and try to put that in every aspect of the country [it doesn’t work].”

“These protests are more important because they want their rights. I don’t remember about the past protests, [but today] they don’t want an Islamic republic... they want the right to be free as a Persian in religion and in every area. Iranians know what’s going on with the government. I saw so many pictures where they wrote ‘We don’t want Islam’... that is the slogan; they know what is going on... they know when you bring religion into politics and try to put that in every aspect of the country [it doesn’t work].”

Peyman Mojtahedi

The protests face an uphill struggle. It doesn’t have a unified leadership, and protests are treated differently in different regions. For instance, Amini, the woman whose death sparked the protests, was Kurdish. There are also Azeris, Baloch, Arabs and other minorities in Iran. They don’t always agree on how a future Iran should be administered. Both of the men say that they use social media to connect with Iranians. Both men say they feel safe in the West.

They see a special connection between their faith and Israel, as well as between Iranians and Jews. “History shows that Jews and Persians were friends, and this is our heart,” says Mojtahedi. ■