IRAN'S BORDER with Armenia – A groundbreaking cultural shift is underway across Iran. Months of protests against the regime have been brutally repressed by police, leaving more than 500 dead. Hundreds of girls schools have seen their students hospitalized in a wave of poisonings. All the fear and uncertainty have left many looking for an escape.
Thousands are fleeing north to one of the only free and democratic countries in the region: Armenia.
There are a lot of global geopolitical conflicts that are represented in this remote border crossing. Russia does a lot of trade with Iran, and a lot of the weapons that end up in Ukraine may come through this area. Then you have Azerbaijan which wants this corridor in order to reach Turkey and the West.
And right in the middle of it all, you have the tiny country of Armenia, which is functioning as a safe spot for Christians and other Iranians who are fleeing persecution inside their country.
Pastor Jacob Pursley of Gateway Missions told us, "Right here you see this river, it's called the Arax River. And the Arax River is basically the border between Armenia and Iran. And if you go a little farther to the west, it's the border also from Turkey and Armenia."
We met up with Pursley at the only border crossing between Iran and Armenia. "This is the only border crossing for Iranians coming in, they can come into Armenia only at this spot," he said.
"It's illegal in Iran to proselytize. So as a Christian, you're not able to go to Iran legally to share the Christian faith. And you're not even allowed to have a Persian Bible. It's illegal to have the Bible in the Persian language. So what we have found is that the Persians come to Christian Armenia and they're coming to look for what Christianity is. To find a church, find a Bible, ask questions. And because this is the only border crossing and that they're able to, we find that thousands pass every single day."
He says many of these border crossers are quite receptive to the gospel.
"Those that are coming from Iran are so excited to meet a Christian and to listen," Pursley said. "And in fact, we have seen many, I mean hundreds have come to faith in Jesus Christ. It's just they need to hear, they need to have someone that is a preacher or an evangelist to teach them and show them that, and they're so eager to read a Bible as well as they're not allowed to have those."
But the journey can be full of risk. One bus full of Iranians recently caught fire while ascending the treacherous mountain road en route to Armenia's capital, Yerevan. Fortunately, there were no injuries. Even still, the greater concern to those coming here is that even after leaving Iran, their family and friends back home may be in danger.
Ghazali, an Iranian woman living in Armenia, told us, "I, myself, you know, was beaten four years ago in Shiraz University because of hijab, because I took off my scarf."
"In Iran, women are suffering a lot because there are a lot of rapes, a lot of harassment, and it is normal! No one understands that. It is, it is harassment, it is rape. No one understands. They say it's, it is normal. You are a woman, so you must obey," she explained.
As the conflict in Iran persists, Jacob and his team are bracing for an increased number of refugees seeking shelter here. And while Armenia faces its own ongoing problems with Azerbaijan, more Russians and Ukrainians are arriving in the country, fleeing that ongoing conflict. And no matter where they hail from, Jacob and his team welcome all with open arms.
"Pray that the Lord would send his lost sheep from Iran to Armenia so that they would find Him, the Good Shepherd of the sheep, and that He would send these people to our church and to churches like us that are doing these outreaches," Pursley said.
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