Iranian and Afghan Muslims in Germany are converting to Christianity en masse

The Associated Press story on Muslims converting to Christianity in Germany.
The Associated Press story on Muslims converting to Christianity in Germany. (Screen grab).

GERMANY – The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) of Germany has drawn international media attention recently as a result of the large number of Iranian and Afghan converts their congregations have received into fellowship in recent years.

Over the past decade, Germany has seen an unprecedented amount of Iranian and Afghan refugees converting to Christianity. For many of these converts, Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens has been the pastor who shepherded them through the process. A recent Associated Press article features his work among refugees, beginning with a recent baptism service he conducted. “Will you break away from Satan and his evil deeds?” the pastor asks an Iranian named Mohammed Ali Zonoobi, and “Will you break away from Islam?” The candidate answers yes to these and other questions, and Dr. Martens baptizes him in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens
Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens. (Church website).

Dr. Martens is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Berlin, a congregation which has exploded in size due to the dramatic number of Iranian and Afghan converts joining the church. In two years, the church has grown from 150 members to more than 600, with more than 500 of these members being Farsi and Dari speakers. Prior to joining Trinity Lutheran, Dr. Martens served at St. Mary’s Lutheran Church, also in Berlin—a congregation that had, as of early 2014, seen congregational membership and the number of baptismal candidates of Iranian descent grow by 75%.

Dr. Martens’ work among Iranian converts was previously featured in a 2012 Christianity Today article, and he was named 2012’s “Pastor of the Year” by the German magazine ideaSpektrum for the same reason. In 2014, the United Kingdom’s The Guardian also featured his work in an article entitled “Our second mother: Iran’s converted Christians find sanctuary in Germany.”

“These refugees are taking unimaginable risks to live their Christian faith,” Dr. Martens said in the Christianity Today article at the time. “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.” Persians is another term for Iranians.

Of course, some have questioned the authenticity of these widespread conversions, suggesting a more pragmatic reason for the number of Iranians and Afghans professing faith in Christ. The Associated Press article, for example, hints that “the decision [to convert] will also greatly boost their chances of winning asylum by allowing them to claim they would face persecution if sent home.” In places like Iran and Afghanistan, converting to Christianity from Islam is a punishable offense that can lead to imprisonment, torture, or even execution.

But for Zonoobi and others like him, that threat existed long before they left Iran. Zonoobi converted to Christianity as a teenager while still living in Iran, and fled to Germany only after Christian friends began to be arrested for their faith. The total number of Christian converts in Iran is difficult to pinpoint but is widely understood to be growing. “The proselytizing from Muslim-to-Christian converts in the Diaspora as well as Christian neighbors closer to home has led to the religion taking hold throughout Iran in numbers previously unseen,” The Guardian’s 2014 report suggests. “The underground nature of the Christian conversion movement has made numbers impossible to determine accurately,” they note, but estimates of the Christian population in Iran range anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000.

Trinity Lutheran Church in Berlin. (Church website)
Trinity Lutheran Church in Berlin. (Church website).

Perhaps some Iranians and Afghans in Germany are joining Trinity Lutheran and other churches merely in an attempt to increase their chances of a successful refugee claim. But Dr. Martens has confidence in God to work through the Word and the Sacraments even then. “I know that whoever comes here will not be left unchanged,” he says in the Associated Press report. And the numbers bear his confidence out—Dr. Martens estimates that roughly 90% of those baptized have remained members of the church.

And there are plenty more waiting in the wings for their baptismal day. At least 80 more Iranians and Afghans are reportedly working towards their own baptisms at Trinity Lutheran, an event that is first preceded by three months of instruction in the Christian faith. If recent history is anything to go by, a new class of converts will be ready to take their place shortly thereafter.

The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany is a member of the International Lutheran Council, a worldwide association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.

———————

Hong Kong Lutherans celebrate 65 years of ministry

Hong-Kong-65-poster-web
A poster from the LCHKS’ 65th Anniversary Celebration Service.

HONG KONG – The Lutheran Church–Hong Kong Synod (LCHKS) celebrated 65 years of ministry at a Thanksgiving Service October 26, 2014 in Kowloon, Hong Kong. The event also marked the ordination of eight new pastors—a record number for one year in the LCHKS.

President Allan Yung of the LCHKS recently gave an interview to Lutheran Radio UK where he discussed the history and present work of the church in Hong Kong. Missionary activity from The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) began in China a century ago (an event the LCHKS celebrated last year), but missionaries were forced to leave the mainland in 1949. LCMS missionaries who evacuated to Hong Kong, a city at the time that was much smaller and poorer than it is today.

“It was still a very small place—less than half a million people,” President Yung notes. “Most of them were refugees. They were very poor. They needed material support and spiritual support—they were very hungry.” The Lutheran missionaries requested to stay and serve permanently in Hong Kong, a request that was granted. “Since then, a lot of work has been carried out,” President Yung said. “Now we are a city of seven million people.”

President Allan Yung at a 2013 service celebrating 100 years of Lutheran witness in China.
President Allan Yung at a 2013 service celebrating 100 years of Lutheran witness in China.

President Yung entered office in 1997, the same year Hong Kong was transferred to the authority of the Chinese government. While at the time some Westerners worried what impact that might have on Christian witness in Hong Kong, President Yung is happy to say that the mission of the church continues to flourish.

Today, the LCHKS has 10,500 communicants, 36 congregations, six mission stations, 40 schools, 45 social service centres, and other agencies like a seminary, counseling services, and more. In total, the church has more than 130 service units throughout Hong Kong.

That strong push towards community service brings with it an opportunity for Gospel witness. “We have 20,000 students studying in our schools,” President Yung explains, “and about 90% of them are not Christian. So we build up in all our schools a mission station, and some have become congregations already. So they are fed not only worldly knowledge but also spiritual knowledge.”

The same is true of social service projects. “We share our earthly things with people because that’s what Jesus wants,” President Yung notes. “We want to share the love of God with them. The people understand that this comes from a church, and it is very well received by the public.”

The respect the church has gained because of its education work has led in recent years to unique opportunities. The LCHKS is now starting an English school in Shenzhen, a neighbouring city in mainland China. President Yung notes that they are also working with the national church there to offer an English-language Sunday service.

These opportunities are possible because the church is careful to avoid politics. “We don’t want to get ourselves into political issues,” President Yung explains. “We just want to be involved in Gospel issues and service issues, so we can grow and move forward in Hong Kong. We want to have a good relationship with the authority in Hong Kong as well as the authority in mainland China.”

The church also has good relations with other Christians. The church works with other Christians in Hong Kong on external matters (like disaster relief, for example), but is careful to defend its confessional Lutheran identity. The LCHKS is known locally as a conservative church because of its strict adherence to biblical teachings on issues like female ordination, President Yung notes, but he clarifies that “we are a growing conservative church.” “We are most grateful to be able to say that,” President Yung continued. “We have a constant growth of about three to five percent membership a year.”

The LCHKS has a strong relationship with Christians around the world as well. The church retains close ties to the LCMS, its mother church, and further sits as a member of the International Lutheran Council.

———————

Nicaraguan church signs agreement with LCMS and LCC

Rev. Dr. Albert Collver and President Marvin Donaire sign the protocol agreement.
Rev. Dr. Albert Collver and President Marvin Donaire sign the protocol agreement.

NICARAGUA – The Iglesia Luterana Sínodo de Nicaragua (ILSN) and Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC) signed a protocol agreement with The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) on May 13 in Chinendega, Nicaragua. The agreement will allow the three churches to better coordinate their mission work together in Nicaragua, as well as in mission areas in Honduras and Costa Rica.

Representing the ILSN at the signing was its President, Rev. Marvin Donaire. Rev. Dr. Leonardo Neitzel, Executive for Missions and Social Ministry, represented Lutheran Church–Canada while the LCMS was represented by Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver III, Director of Church Relations and Regional Operations.

Lutheran Church–Canada’s President, Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee, hailed the signing. “This agreement among [the] Missouri Synod, LCC, and ILSN is a huge encouragement to all of us who care about a faithful Lutheran presence and outreach in Central America,” he said. “When partners refrain from duplicating each other’s efforts in a given country, but instead coordinate resources and consult intentionally, the capacity of each partner is deepened greatly. I thank God for the intensified cooperation between LCMS and LCC in recent years, and hope this Nicaraguan agreement will be an inspiration to other biblical Lutheran churches to work together in many parts of the world.”

The ILSN was born out of the mission work of Lutheran Church–Canada. LCC began mission work in Nicaragua in the spring of 1998. Just over ten years later, the ILSN was officially founded. Today the church has 23 congregations, 12 pastors, 12 vicars, 36 deaconesses, and about 1,800 members. It also has four missions, two church plants in Honduras and two mission plants in Costa Rica.

While LCC enjoys altar-and-pulpit fellowship with the ILSN, the LCMS and ILSN have never officially achieved the same level of partnership at the church-level. “Eventually, the LCMS will take a similar action to the LCC,” Rev. Dr. Collver explained. “In the meantime, as a mission start of an LCMS partner church with whom the LCMS is cooperating in the mission work, the LCMS is in de facto altar and pulpit fellowship, meaning that the ILSN is regarded for fellowship purposes as if it were an LCMS mission start.”

———————-

With files from the LCMS Reporter

ILC: Confessional Unity in Service to the Mission

Chairman Jon Ehlers
Chairman Jon Ehlers

by Jon Ehlers

As part of a new initiative, the International Lutheran Council’s (ILC) website will feature regular articles from members of the ILC’s Executive Council (composed of church leaders from around the world). These articles—devotions or commentaries on world events—are designed to nurture and foster our faith in Jesus Christ. This is the inaugural article in that series.

The International Lutheran Council is composed of 35 Lutheran Churches from around the world which proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ on the basis of an unconditional commitment to the Holy Scriptures as the inspired and infallible Word of God, and the Lutheran Confessions contained in the Book of Concord as the true and faithful exposition of the Word of God.

To assist us in accomplishing these goals, the Executive Council of the ILC recently met in Brazil to continue long range planning. We also had the great pleasure of attending the Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil (Igreja Evangelica Luterana do Brasil—IELB), whose convention theme was “Our Confessional Unity in Service to the Mission.” This theme, I think, summarizes the purpose of the ILC marvelously—for ILC churches are firmly founded on the confession of Jesus Christ as our Saviour from sin.

This confession of salvation in Christ alone is revealed to us in the Bible, which is God’s inspired Word. We confess what God has revealed to us. We also hold to the Lutheran Confessions as a clear and accurate exposition of the Holy Scriptures. Being anchored solidly in the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions, our confession of faith is centred on Jesus Christ alone. ILC churches are churches which believe, teach and confess that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. For in Christ we know and understand that God is for us and that God really does love and forgive us.

This confession then serves as the basis for the mission of the ILC churches. We do not keep this wonderful Good News to ourselves, but we desire to share this message of salvation with all people. We take Jesus’ mandate seriously to go into all nations making disciples by baptising and teaching everyone about what Jesus has done for them. This mission to all people is based on the confession of faith revealed in the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions. We understand Confession and Mission as things that go hand in hand, in response to God’s love which has come to us through the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

It is our prayer that over the coming years, you will be able to find many items on this website which clearly and unashamedly confess Jesus Christ, as well as items which rejoice in and inform us of how God’s Word is reaching people around the world through the mission activities of ILC churches. Together we seek to keep these two important aspects of the Christian faith in their proper balance. So come along and join us as we share our “Confessional Unity in Service to the Mission.”

———————

Rev. Jon Ehlers is Chairman of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England. He serves on the Executive Council of the International Lutheran Council as the representative for the European world region.