Iran (International Christian Concern) – In 1979, Islamic revolutionaries took over Iran, banning all Christian and western influences from the region. The people were not happy with the Shah, and extremist Muslims took advantage of the general discontent and assumed control. Iran officially became an Islamic republic.

But in the past few years, we’ve seen a surge of Christianity in Iran.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims are leaving their religion for Christianity, even with the threat of apostasy and imprisonment handing over their heads. Wonder why?

I interviewed Dr. Daniel Shayesteh for my podcast called Into the Deep to find out more about what it was like to go from being one of the Ayatollah’s right-hand men to his sworn enemies.

Daniel was born into a Muslim family in Northern Iran. He found a renewed faith in Islam during his university years and became involved in the widespread civil unrest (demonstrations and strikes) that led to the exile of the Shah (king of Iran). This opened the door for Ayatollah Khomeini to come to power leading an Islamic Fundamentalist Government.

Daniel initially closely aligned himself with Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power and became a radical Muslim leader and teacher of Islam. However, after falling out of favor with Khomeini’s political group, he escaped to Turkey where he began an amazing journey to faith in Jesus Christ. He is now leading a conversation with the Muslim world about Jesus.

His passion is to share the light of Jesus by sharing his story and helping people to find Understanding and Freedom. The goal is to communicate this message in all the languages of the Muslim world.

(you can listen to the entire interview here).

I asked him:

  • How did you rise up in the ranks of the Iranian Army?
  • How did you fall out of the good graces of the Ayatollah?
  • How did you survive?
  • Why did you convert to Christianity?
  • What do you do now?

From the bowels of the Iranian prison system to where he is today, one thing is for sure: Daniel has an incredible story to tell.

What follows is a summary of the podcast episode, with story highlights.

1) Daniel wasn’t raised in a radical Muslim family, but tradition forced him to become one.

Daniel grew up in a nominal Muslim home. In fact, most people from his area didn’t even know how to recite the Islamic prayers in Arabic. But, orthodox tradition drove him to become more radical, as it was common for a family to nominate one of their sons for Islamic training, with the hope that he would become an Imam or another high-ranking member of the Mosque.

From the age of nine, he was invited to different Islamic ceremonies to perform Islamic rituals and recite the Quran. But, aside from occasionally using the word “Jew” or “Christianity” as swear words, he didn’t really understand what radical Islam meant. In fact, he didn’t really even know who Ayatollah, the leader of Iran and his future friend-turned-enemy, was at the time.

Eventually, when he went to a university in Tehran, he started to catch on. He completed his degree just before the revolution descended on Iran.

2) Daniel started out on the side of the Shah… not the Ayatollah.

Daniel didn’t start out as a revolutionary. He was drafted into the army, on the side of the Shah at first! The Ayatollah promised that Islam would provide freedom to the people, and when the Ayatollah called for citizens to abandon their posts, Daniel did just that. He was one of the first to leave, a pivotal moment for his future. After that, he became very well-known in the area.

Once the Shah fled for his life, Ayatollah ordered people back to the army. When he went back, Daniel was well-known for his previous act of courage in defying the Shah. He quickly made friends in high places and helped start the Islamic Revolutionary Army.

3) Daniel became disillusioned with the Ayatollah when democracy failed.

“We needed to do something. We had promised people to pave the ground for democracy and do whole other things and help our people to prosper because Islam is going to give us freedom. We are free now.” – Daniel

When he finished his term in the army, he returned to Tehran following the revolution, excited to see the democratic changes that the Ayatollah had promised. It wasn’t long before he realized that the Ayatollah had been lying through his teeth the entire time.

Democracy was nowhere in sight. In Tehran, Daniel found backstabbing Mullahs bickering for power and the Ayatollah, who had promised to step back from power after the revolution, was acting like a supreme leader! They were all disappointed, and Daniel left town for home.

4) Daniel’s shame over the Ayatollah’s inaction led to his fame.

Now, we are in front of our people, we had promised them that we were going to build this country, establish democracy in the country, what we should do now, we just started really sincerely to work in our area.” – Daniel

When he returned home, he felt this pressure to build the democracy that he had originally fought for – that he had promised his family and village. He threw his strength and time into organizing a local revolutionary organization which was intended to give the poor villagers opportunity to mobilize, while also promoting Islam. This made him famous – very famous.

When the parliamentary election drew near, Daniel decided to announce his candidacy. Immediately, Ayatollahs’ cronies invited him to become their party candidate, but he rejected them three times. He was already disillusioned with the Ayatollah’s promises. He decided to announce his candidacy as an independent.

5) Daniel’s candidacy led him to death row.  

In the second year after the Revolution, he fell out of favor with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s political group.

Once he announced his candidacy, chaos struck. The mullahs and the Ayatollah had a strong backing and religious power, so they started to persecuted him. On the day of the election, Daniel was beat with a chain in the street and the election ballots were dumped into a river. People watched on while this happened.

“After that, the life became just prison for us inside the country and some were able to escape, some were killed.” – Daniel

Kidnapped by Khomeini’s Revolutionary Military, he was placed on death row awaiting execution. Daniel was caught and placed in a cell with a small toilet. He lived there for three months before he was transported to a different city and put in a room with four others, all on death row.

But Daniel still had a history of being a servant of the public, and he was well-liked, despite his political leanings. He was respected for his name. One day, a guard came into the cell and asked for Daniel. He said, “Take your stuff. You’re going home.”

Going home, in prison, meant that he would be going to “hell,” likely to be killed. He said goodbye to his prison mates, got into a car, and waited for thirty minutes while they traveled. After a brief time in a local court, during which Daniel was released on bail, he went home to be reunited with his family.

But the peace didn’t last for long. Friends came to warn him that he had to escape the country. After two attempts he finally made it to Turkey.

6) Daniel went to church for the first time after losing $30,000.

In Turkey, Daniel decided to enroll in university since he knew Turkish well. He studied different cultures and religions as a result, and he found out something that surprised him. For 32 years he had been taught that Islam was the perfect religion.

Now at this point in his life, Daniel was disillusioned with Islam politically, but he thought that it still had some value. He had been told his whole life that Christianity was inferior to Islam in every way. He was expecting to find a list of great qualities about Islam in these classes, but instead, he discovered a shocking truth:

“To my surprise, I was shocked and amazed. I was amazed because Christianity was at the top in every way. I was shocked because Islam was at the bottom of the pyramid in every way.” – Daniel

Intellectually, Daniel was there, but spiritually, he was not.

One week, his Muslim business partner stole thousands from him, he decided to visit the church that his Muslim friend, who was not a devoted Muslim, had occasionally visited. It was a dangerous trip. The church was in a radical Islamic area, covered in explicit graffiti.

But money was money, and he went to church because he wanted his money back. He thought the church may know more information. Instead, he found people playing music and singing joyfully. He was shocked. He didn’t know that you could be joyful in a religious space.

The church leaders were not able to help Daniel, but he decided to regularly start attending services in the hopes that they would come back to him with news. Over time, he began to understand more about Christianity, and eventually gave his life to Christ. This started a catalyst of events that eventually led him to becoming a Christian author and leader.

Key takeaway:

For the last forty years, headlines covering the Middle East have been dominated by wars, revolutions, and ISIS. But this raging river of bad news often obscures the amazing movements of God – the explosion of the Gospel over that same period of forty years. The Islamist Revolution of 1979 and the Ayatollah Khomeini are probably the first things that come to mind when thinking of the persecuted Church in Iran, but the Church has been growing at an amazing rate for the past four decades! Iranian evangelists are extremely bold despite the high cost of spreading the gospel in their country.

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