In the face of a crackdown that has crippled Iran's house-church leadership, an imprisoned convert from Islam has managed to sneak a message of encouragement to Iran's Christians.
With Iran's house churches mushrooming even as the government has imprisoned or harassed most pastors into exile, a Christian held in Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj last week exhorted Iranian Christians to expect persecution but to continue proclaiming Christ.
"If you are courageous in God's way, God's grace will be with you," 31-year-old Ebrahim Firouzi stated. "Do not fear what you are doing, and raise the banner of Jesus in the name of God."
Paraphrasing encouragements by New Testament writers, Firouzi asked, "If you want to do good to others, who can harm you? ... Keep your conscience clean so that people will be ashamed if they cause you harm. If it is God's will that you should suffer, it is better to suffer for doing good."
The message comes at a particularly dark time for Christians in Iran, where the government has left only a few if any Farsi-language churches open, according to advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC), which confirmed the authenticity of the message. Christians have no other option but to hold meetings in homes, which are illegal and heavily persecuted.
"Now that the 'official' [government-allowed] churches have been closed, there is nowhere they can go to that they can freely worship the Lord, and this is something that has affected a lot of people," said Rob Duncan, MEC's region manager for Iran. "[The Persian speakers] are being forced into house churches; they have no practical alternative."
Firouzi, who is serving a five-year sentence handed down in April 2015 after being convicted of crimes commonly leveled at Christians - "actions against national security, being present at an illegal gathering and collusion with foreign entities" - encouraged prayer for the shuttered churches.
"I ask you to pray for the reopening of the churches in Iran that the government has closed by force, so that the sound of worship and the praise can be heard in the buildings again," he stated.
In the year since Firouzi's sentencing, Duncan said the leadership of the house church movement has been gutted. Many of the leaders have been imprisoned, and increasingly Iran has been forcing pastors into a form of self-enforced exile by harassing and pressuring them to leave.
"One of the big problems is most of the mature leaders have been forced out of the country," Duncan said. "There is a very big gap of people who are really mature in their faith, and people are being called to pastor their house church when they are really new in the faith. Just three or four months after accepting Christ, they are finding themselves in a position where they have to lead."
The arrival of the supposedly moderate Hassan Rouhani as president in 2013 notwithstanding, Iran continues to score high in religious persecution. In Open Doors' list of countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, Iran had a score of 83 out of 100 in the 2016 World Watch List, up from 80 the previous year, though Iran's place in the overall ranking of countries bumped back from seventh to ninth.
Various aid and rights groups affirm that the underground church is growing in Iran in spite of the crackdown. As many as 450,000 Iranians are worshipping Christ within Iran's borders, according to Open Doors, and other organizations believe the figure could be as high as 1 million in the country of 80.3 million.
A surge of moderates in parliamentary elections in February has raised hope among some that the new majority could help draw down persecution, with United Kingdom-based aid group Release International's chief executive Paul Robinson telling Premier magazine that the vote could serve as a catalyst for change.
"With Iran now voting for reform, now is the time to end the crackdown on the church and set free prisoners who are behind bars for their religious beliefs," Robinson told Premier.
Among those prisoners, Firouzi's case reflects the government hostility toward Christians. He first faced problems with authorities in January 2011, when security officials arrested him and held him for more than 150 days; he endured intense interrogation about his beliefs, how he came to faith and the leadership structure of church bodies.
Authorities later released Firouzi, but on March 7, 2013, four plain-clothes security agents came to his office, seized his computer and religious books and took him into custody. Officials told his family he was arrested in connection with an illegal Christmas gathering in which 50 Christians were briefly arrested.
Eventually authorities claimed that Firouzi was involved in setting up and running a website about Christianity, disseminating Bibles and acting against national security. A little more than a month later, he was released on bail of approximately $20,000. On July 15, 2013, a court convicted Firouzi on charges related to Internet activities and sentenced him to one year in prison, followed by two years of internal "exile" in the border town of Sarbaz.
On Aug. 21, 2013, prior to being ordered to report to prison, Firouzi was arrested in Karaj along with two other Christians, and then in October of the next year transferred to Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj.
Firouzi should have been freed from prison in January 2015, but authorities refused. On March 5, 2015 they charged him with "acting against national security, gathering, and collusion," all of which authorities said happened even though Firouzi was in prison on previous charges. Human rights activists say it is common for imprisoned Christians who refuse to sign an agreement to refrain from all Christian activities to be charged with other crimes at random to keep them incarcerated. Firouzi was sentenced in April 2015.
In his message to Iran's Christians, Firouzi said he wants his freedom but asked for prayer to be a strong example of Christ while in prison.
"We are trying to preach the gospel, and Jesus is our example; the Savior who came among us to be crucified and save us," he stated. "We sometimes have to sacrifice our freedom to live in God's love, so I can't only think about myself when there are so many believers and churches suffering persecution."
He said pursuit of his freedom must not be his only purpose.
"We need to think especially about the suffering of new believers," he stated. "If my being in prison stirs the international community to work to prevent such future persecution of new believers, then my choice is to remain in prison."