An interview with our Vineyard lead for the region.
Tell us a little about the region.
The three countries that form the Vineyard Persian Partnership are the ancient Persian kingdom, and share similar culture and close language. But they have had very different histories recently: Tajikistan was a very poor Soviet state that became independent in the early ‘90s; Afghanistan is well documented with a series of civil wars and invasions for many decades; and Iran has been much wealthier, but is also a very hard-line Islamic state. Most people in Tajikistan and Afghanistan would love to leave the country and come to the West due to poverty and corruption. Churches have considerable freedom in the cities of Tajikistan, but the countryside is much more conservative Islam. It is illegal to be a Christian in Iran and Afghanistan.
It is estimated that there was only one Muslim Background Believer in Tajikistan in 1990. Now there are over 10,000 believers and many churches led by Muslim-background believers. The churches tend to be small and isolated, and the harvest is much slower than in the other Persian lands.
How long have you been involved in this part of the world and what has that entailed?
In 1996 our Vineyard Kids chose a new project to support, not realising it was a Vineyard Church plant! The chosen team were working in Tajikistan during a 6-year civil war. We started by praying & sending funds, and then in 2002 took the first of 9 ministry trips to the country. We discovered that other Vineyards from the US were also supporting the two teams there, and so the Vineyard Tajikistan Partnership was formed. This changed to cover the region in 2016, when we realised there were teams working in the other countries that were not supported by a Partnership. Due to security, we can’t give names or locations.
What is it like to be a believer in this region?
In Afghanistan and Iran, believers have to be very careful or they will face arrest, prison or death. Using the Disciple Making Model, they meet secretly in small numbers in their homes, and have often not met any other believers outside their group. Despite the dangers, the number of believers is growing rapidly, and gradually spreading to the different people groups. There are 31 unreached people groups in Tajikistan, 68 in Afghanistan and 84 in Iran. Isolation from other believers and fear of arrest are constant companions for believers. Many that we’ve met have spent time in prison. It’s a bit different in Tajikistan, where there is officially freedom of religion, but churches are closely monitored. The strict religion laws can be used against churches, but are usually there to protect against fundamental Islam, which is a great fear to the government.
Where do you see as the greatest needs?
In Afghanistan there is very little work or food since the Taliban took over. They don’t have experience in how to run the country and international assets have been frozen – this hurts the poorest people. With another winter of -20C daytime temperatures, it is a terrible time for the poor and refugees. Practical help can be given, but prayer is the thing that will bring change.
How have believers/the church seen God provide?
An Afghan believer, just after the Taliban takeover, went into hiding. He returned to his home weekly to tend to his crops, but was afraid to stay long. After a while his cousin told him he was being watched, but the Taliban police were afraid to arrest him because of all the ‘big men’ in his house, which he knew was ‘empty’. This gave him the opportunity to witness to his cousin. The death toll during Covid was very high, but unreported because these are ‘face cultures’ where failure brings shame. One believer was very ill in hospital with Covid and things were not looking good for him. One night he sensed someone sit on his bed but no one was there. He then felt a hand on his chest. When he woke the next morning, he was completely well and left the hospital.
How should we be praying for the church in this region?
The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Please pray for:
- The teams working in these countries, for protection, encouragement and fruitful ministry.
- Financial provision for God’s people, and the creation of jobs.
- Eyes to be open to the emptiness of Islam, but not causing people to turn to indifference instead, but to Jesus. More dreams and visions, and spiritual hunger.
- Persians who have been refugees in the West and come to faith in Jesus, will have a vision to return to their countries to help in the harvest.