London: Iranians in Diaspora Trip - Lessons from the Ancient and the Modern

by Tracie Stewart, for the team

In 1979 I was a young teenager. I vividly remember the televised images of the Iranian Revolution and Ted Koppel’s nightly report, “America Held Hostage,” with its count of days. Our media often portrays Iran as a violent, backward place frozen in time. What an incredible experience our team had today as we visited the British Museum and encountered artifacts from Iranian history. I knew of Cyrus and his celebrated role in returning the Jewish people to their homeland after the exile. But I had no idea of the beauty, power and sophistication of his empire. It had seemed just a short stop between Babylon and Greece on our way to the Romans.

In fact the Persian Empire was the first world empire and stretched all the way from northern India to Egypt and into Europe. This civilization connected over forty percent of the world’s population. And it was succeeded by other empires – the Seleucid, the Parthian, and Sasanian – who successfully ruled Iran and its surrounding areas for almost 1,000 years. As seen by the example of Cyrus’s treatment of the Jews, these empires respected the people within their borders and the region prospered. Due to their superior cavalry forces and the skill of their archers, the Parthian Empire became Rome’s arch enemy and successfully prevented the Roman Empire from expanding any further to the east.

At the British Museum our team was able to see treasures from around the ancient world. The artifacts from Iran more than held their own. There were artistic reliefs of gold, jewelry, cosmetic containers, seals for administration, belt buckles, cut glass vessels, and imposing reliefs such as a lion attacking a bull. I was struck by the delicate beauty of the golden arm bracelets that featured the heads of griffins, the practicality of the distinctive pottery with long spouts, the humor and emotions in the reliefs and other art, the impressive glasswares, and the skill and wealth that went into creating a tiny perfectly detailed golden chariot. Perhaps most moving of all to our group of Christians was the Cyrus Cylinder written after he conquered Babylon which proclaims that the king will repair destroyed shrines and return displaced people.

In our time in London, we have learned how much this artistic, cultured, beautiful, tolerant heritage is alive and well in modern day Iranians. In contrast to the nightmares often seen in our western media that inspire fear and distrust, among our Iranian Christian friends there is such love, joy, peace, and hope. They want to once again see a kingdom in Iran – the Kingdom of God. As we learned yesterday, there is great openness to the gospel in Iran despite persecution. And in this time of diaspora there are new opportunities to spread the love of God especially to Muslims.

At the British Museum our team encountered many distinctive cultures. But consistent in all of them was a search for meaning and a quest for a relationship with the divine. It was especially moving to see artifacts that showed a civilization’s encounter with the Gospel. I was in the Celtic Britain section wondering at the life my distant ancestors – a life that seemed full of weapons and pagan deities. Then another team member called me over to see a lovely mosaic. It was the earliest depiction of Christ on the British Isles. He was very human yet regal and calm, and his eyes looked kind and compassionate. An encounter with the Risen Lord breaks into the harshest and most hopeless of human circumstances and transforms everything.

In London this week our team is gaining a glimpse of how Iranians are being transformed by Christ and are seeking to spread his love and light to transform others and their nation. The compassion of these Iranian Christians has resulted in the Iranian church now being the fastest growing church in terms of percentage of population in the world today. In the film we saw yesterday, A Cry from Iran (available through Amazon), we heard that ISLAM stands for “I Sincerely Love All Muslims.” May that be the cry of the American Church as we partner with our Iranian brothers and sisters in Christ and as we pray that the radical love and peace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit may pour out and build the Kingdom of God in Iran.

Blessings from the team in London.

Tracie Stewart
First Presbyterian Church, Greenville, SC