Seeing the Iranian church grow - in Serbia

OM Balkans Field Leader Volker Sachse doesn’t cry easily. But in the past three or four years, he has often been moved to tears by the plight of refugees he has met in Serbia; OM has been playing a significant humanitarian role in one of the government-run camps there since the existing ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe escalated in 2015. Today however it is tears of joy which brighten Volker’s eyes, as he describes how many refugees from Iran are turning to Jesus during a world-wide move of God amongst Iranians.

“It’s a privilege for me to witness the Lord touching so many Iranians in Serbia, including in the camp where OM works,“  he shares. Commenting on OM’s statement of purpose of seeing ‘vibrant communities of Jesus followers amongst the least reached,’ Volker says that “this is exactly what I see happening in Serbia amongst the Iranians! I would like to tell the outside world about people and events which could be from the first-century church.” He proceeds to share the stories of two particular men, and then about an amazing opportunity – how OM supporters can provide vital help for a very important training event happening soon for Iranian believers from the camp where OM works.

Baptising refugees in Bulgaria - Ali’s story

Volker starts by telling of an Iranian living in Bulgaria called Ali*, who has played a strategic role in God’s move in the Balkans. Ali is now in his 50s but as a young man became a battle-scarred veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, and then pursued a life of extreme violence in the drug gangs of Teheran. When the Islamic revolution broke out, Ali fled to Bulgaria and became heavily involved in the underworld there as a major drug-dealer. Convicted of murder, he was sent to prison. There he was converted by a visiting Bulgarian pastor, and immediately began preaching to his fellow inmates, many of whom accepted Jesus as Lord.

Ali was released from prison in 2015 just as a new wave of refugees from the Middle East was entering Bulgaria from Turkey; this was a new route for them to take, due to other borders being shut, such as that between Greece and Macedonia. Ali started preaching the Gospel to every Iranian refugee he met, and many responded, even being baptised straightaway, whilst still following their refugee path towards the West, crossing illegally into Serbia.

One of Ali’s contacts in 2016 who accepted Jesus was called Farzad*. Ali gave him his first Bible, and was there to support him when Farzad was baptised by a Bulgarian pastor. “Farzad has become such a key figure in this whole story, ” says Volker. Farzad had been an artist and photographer in Teheran, and as a divorced single parent, had brought his toddler son with him to Bulgaria. Like many others, Farzad hoped to go to Germany but after leaving Bulgaria, found himself stuck in a Serbian refugee camp when the border with Croatia was closed to all migrants. It happened to be the camp near Sid where, under Volker’s direction, OM Serbia runs a community meeting tent and laundry services.

Farzad – encouraged by a dream, now networking for God’s kingdom

Volker has got to know Farzad very well over the past two years, and has seen how God has been using Farzad to win his fellow Iranians in Serbia for Christ, in much the way that He has been using Ali in Bulgaria.

In the autumn of 2016, when Farzad entered the camp in Sid, he began witnessing to the handful of other Iranians in the camp at that time, but was cautious how he did this; at that time, the presence of many strict fundamentalist Muslims in the camp from countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan  created an atmosphere which tended to inhibit Iranian believers from either openly identifying as Christians or from meeting together to pray or study the Bible.

In the last year or so however, many of the strict Muslims moved on to other camps in Serbia, whilst many Iranians have taken their place. Most of them have flown into Serbia from Iran (rather than taking a land route like Farzad did), taking advantage of the visa-free travel which exists between Iran and Serbia. Despite coming from a Muslim theocracy, many Iranians were surprisingly ‘liberal’ in style and outlook. Although there was now a more open atmosphere in the camp towards Christianity, Farzad was preoccupied by another thought: since he still entertained hopes of reaching western Europe, should he try to cross the border into Croatia somehow? He knew that 99% of all attempts resulted in failure but most people still wanted to try ‘The Game’, as they termed it. Even the Serbian government staff in the camp openly wondered why Farzad was not trying to cross the nearby border.

Then, one night in autumn 2017, Farzad had a powerful dream. The next day he sent Volker a WhatsApp message describing it: “Farzad saw a highway filled with lots of people walking to somewhere beautiful,” says Volker. “But his own feet just wouldn’t move, he was rooted to the spot. He sensed the dream was from God, telling him to stay where he was.”

This powerful realisation that God wanted him exactly where he was, led Farzad to immediately become much more bold and active in preaching and discipling , both in his native Farsi, and in English, encouraging believers of any nationality to meet together for fellowship, and was building up many Christian contacts in the Iranian diaspora world-wide, using social media. Then suddenly in early December 2017, the camp authorities announced they were moving Farzad, his son and two other single parents and their children, to a camp over 160km away, by the Romanian border. “This has had an effect like the apostles being scattered in the Book of Acts!” Volker comments, since Farzad witnesses there tirelessly to the same mix of nationalities, and through social media, to Iranians in the rest of Serbia. “Really, everybody knows him!” laughs Volker.

A special volunteer from Germany

Amongst Farzad’s network is a German man called Ramin* who was born in Iran and now pastors a Persian church in Germany linked to an organisation focused on building God’s kingdom amongst Iranians everywhere. Ramin contacted Volker, leading to Ramin joining the flow of volunteers coming to staff the OM-run community tent this year. His visit took place in August 2018, and lasted five days, leading Bible studies for Iranian believers in the tent from 9am to 6pm, as well as prayer meetings. Five people came to the first day’s Bible study, rising to twenty by the fifth day. “There was one Iranian Muslim guy who came along just to disrupt and criticise, but he gave his life to Jesus on the final day,” recalls Volker.

However there is an ongoing need to nurture these young believers towards greater maturity, in the way that Ramin started to do during his visit. “So I’m very excited by the possibility of running an intensive discipleship training course for up to eight Iranian believers over five days, which would then be repeated for a second group of eight.” says Volker. This course, at the end of this month or in November 2018, would be hosted by the Methodist Church in nearby Sid, and led by Ramin and others from the organisation he works with. The training would be aimed at  Christians with a degree of maturity, equipping them, in effect, to launch a church plant in the camp.

How you can help

OM’s practical contribution to the course is twofold: to cover the cost of transport, food and the training (calculated at 20 Euros per trainee per day) and provide the volunteers needed to ferry the trainees from their camp to the training venue and to do all the cooking. The finances will come from OM’s SafePassage fund but this is running low. Some of the volunteers might come in the shape of the OM Transit Team who will be in the area from October 20th but more servant-hearted volunteers are needed in addition.

“Would you consider coming to Serbia and help us run this amazing event?” asks Volker. “Or could you help us financially by donating to the SafePassage fund so it can meet our costs of 3000 Euros? And will you pray for this whole situation anyway? It’s essential that it is undergirded by prayer.”

The last word goes to Farzad

During Ramin’s visit to the refugee camp in August, Farzad travelled hours by bus to meet up with Volker one day. He told Volker this: “When I first became a believer, I knew that God loved me, but I couldn’t grasp that He loves everyone, even His enemies. But from my two years seeing OM in action, I know that God does love everyone…” And then he cried. “And I cried too”, says Volker.

* names changed

  • Please pray for Farzad that God leads him into a secure future – his young son especially is unsettled by their uncertain circumstances. Pray for a place to really call ‘home’, where Farzad can raise his son, with a good school and supportive local church.
  • Praise God for the openness of Iranians to the Gospel, and the increasing number of Iranian believers in the refugee camps in Serbia, who are hungry to know Jesus more and more. As OM Serbia coordinates the discipleship course planned for this autumn, pray for the finances and volunteers to fall into place.
  • Pray too for God to raise up long-term workers for OM in Serbia, that ministries can expand into other needy areas.

If you would like to support the upcoming discipleship training course financially, please visit om.org and mark donations to OM Serbia/SafePassage.

If you would like to volunteer in practical ways at either this event or in the refugee camp in Serbia, please contact your national OM office for details of Refugee Relief Serbia.

 

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