As the underground Church continues to grow in Muslim-majority Iran, Bible translators are putting their lives on the line to bring the Gospel into the local dialects so that their friends and neighbors can have access to the written word of God for the first time.
Through the work of the translation agency unfoldingWord, Christians in Iran and across the globe have been able to translate the Gospel themselves into more native languages.
The Christian Post interviewed a representative from unfoldingWord, Evan Thompson, who preferred to use a fake name or pseudonym for his safety.
"There are 1.45 billion people in the world who speak about 5,500 languages that do not have the whole Bible in their heart languages. ... The Church has expanded exponentially in the last 20 years. And what these folks have learned is that you can lead someone to Christ, but if they don't have a church, they don't survive on their own," Thompson said.
"You can start a church, but if that church doesn't have the Bible in its heart language, it will typically only last one generation. Iran, for example, has churches operating underground. And there are thousands of underground churches in many other parts of the world," he added.
UnfoldingWord, a nonprofit organization that has been around for roughly seven years, "works with Church leaders around the world who are seeking to establish their churches in sound doctrine, but lack access to Bible translations in the languages their people speak."
A day in the life of Iranian Bible translators
The Christian Post heard from two Iranian women risking their lives to help translate unfoldingWord's Open Bible story resources from Farsi into other Iranian dialects for evangelizing.
Both women Bible translators have chosen not to give their real names for this article to protect their identities and maintain their safety.
The first woman, using the name Miriam, said she gave her heart to Christ after coming to the realization that she is "God's child and daughter."
Miriam is part of a people group in Iran that is made up of millions of natives. She says she is often treated as a second-class citizen because of how those from other people groups view her status in her people group.
Miriam's life could be in danger if the Iranian government finds out that she follows Jesus in the Islamic Republic, which Open Doors ranks as the eighth-most hostile country for Christians.
"God is my Father. I feel deeply honored to be part of this work of bringing God's Word to my people," Miriam said.
Despite having children and knowing that her life is at risk for believing in Jesus, Miriam said she will not stop working to translate the Gospel into her heart language.
"I cannot even imagine leaving this work unfinished. I must complete this work and see the result. I want to see my beloved ones experience salvation in Christ. This is my dream; that my people can talk about God and speak His name freely without any hesitation; without any fear they can talk about God," she said.
Miriam was introduced to Christianity through a friend in college who gave her a Farsi New Testament. She had to read the Bible alone and in secret, an act that left her without much of a clear understanding of the Christian faith.
After college, Miriam married into a strict Muslim family. But, no matter how hard she tried to adapt to the strict religious practices of Islam, she could not find God as a Muslim.
Miriam said she didn't give her life entirely to Jesus until after she heard about Transform, an online class offered in Iran that covered the basic teachings of Christianity.
She watched the classes secretly through various digital platforms. And during one of the class sessions, she gave her life to Christ.
Following her conversion, Miriam's husband caught her one day watching the Transform Iran pastor on television.
Miriam could no longer hold back the truth about her faith from her husband.
"By the grace of God, he did not get angry. He said, 'I know you are a serious-minded woman, and if this is important to you, it's OK,'" Miriam recalled.
Miriam's husband began watching the class with her, and several months later, he also gave his life to Christ.
Before her husband's conversion, the Transform Iran pastor asked her if she would get involved in Bible translation because of her expertise in her heart language.
Miriam accepted the offer even if that meant risking her life to help translate the Bible into more Iranian tongues.
"We are not allowed to study our heart languages in Iranian public schools. This is a limitation for our people. I have this language specialty and experience, this expertise so that I can help my own people. People like my mother can read this book," Miriam said.
"I have a Bible in Farsi, and I can read it. But I cannot understand the more complicated concepts in it because Farsi is not my heart language. I couldn't establish a relationship with the Bible in Farsi. I'm very fluent in Farsi. I studied hard and had great teachers. Still, I cannot establish a relationship with the Bible in Farsi," she continued.
"How about other people who don't have my educational advantages? My family and friends? Having the Gospel in my heart language makes it much easier to talk to my family about Jesus. They can understand and accept Him easily."
'Jesus fed me'
Another Iranian Bible translator who is using the pseudonym Stella accepted Jesus into her heart after her husband died of cancer.
Following her husband's death, Stella was left alone to care for her young son. During that time, she relied on the peace of God as her only hope.
"God has helped me. The Name of Jesus Christ was in my life. I didn't need anybody. Jesus fed me, put clothes on me and gave me peace," she said.
Stella learned more about God through a Bible translated into Farsi. At first, she thought Christianity was a religion. But, now she understands that Christianity is a relationship.
"When I was a new believer, I was thinking that, 'OK, I'm going to just switch religions.' But, when I got to know the Holy Spirit, I understood that this is a relationship, not religion," Stella said.
Stella is currently working on a Bible translation in her heart language. Her sister-in-law became a Christian thanks to her work translating the Bible. Stella worked for five years alongside her family as they helped her review the translation of the Bible, and now she works as part of a larger Bible translating group.
"I love my mother language. I'm telling the poetry; I write the context. I write the sentence. I record it. … I know all of this is God's work for us. God wants us to do this. … I am thinking about my mom, my father, my childhood. And everyone that doesn't have it right now. I really want to bring God to my town and my people," she said.
A dire need for Bible translations
Before unfoldingWord was launched, traditional Bible translation agencies across the globe have done "marvelous work" and continue to do so, Thompson noted.
However, he said the number of Western Bible translators that Bible translation agencies can send overseas is dropping, and the demand for Bible translation is increasing rapidly.
"The group that founded unfoldingWord developed a way to address this problem. We call it church-centric Bible translation. ... It's Bible translation incorporated into the life of the Church as part of its discipleship," Thompson noted.
"Most of those unreached people have neighbors who know Christ, and they're taking the Gospel to them. And what unfoldingWord does is we equip the Church in every people group with a goal of translating the Bible in every language."
To help local churches translate the Bible, unfoldingWord provides people groups with open-source software and open-licensed biblical content that's breaking the copyright barriers to source texts.
The organization also has comprehensive translation guides to answer difficult Bible translation questions. The organization offers essential doctrinal education to protect the theological integrity of the translations.
"unfoldingWord provides training for indigenous Bible translation teams over Zoom and sometimes in neutral locations," Thompson said.
The training locations are kept secret to protect participants in certain countries where practicing Christianity is not accepted.
"Our training allows for indigenous Bible translation teams to be able to use best practices when they are translating the Bible for themselves. One of the ways that I like to say it is: 'We don't make Bible translations. We help develop Bible translators.' Because that's what the Church really needs all over the world."
Issues bringing translations to Iran
Thompson said unfoldingWord has aided Iranian natives who have translated the Bible into dozens of native languages.
However, he said there are some unfortunate limitations to the organization's ability to aid translators in Iran. He cited strict government policies prohibiting Iranians from studying their heart languages or their native tongues in public schools.
"All of these oppressive countries, like Sudan, like Iran, and some others we could name, are trying to Islamasize their whole population. And one of the ways that they do that is by forcing them to speak this one national language, and it's causing their heart languages to die out," Thompson said.
In Iran, the government recognizes Farsi as the national language. However, many natives speak other Iranian dialects more fluently.
"It's very much like anybody that comes to America from someplace else, and we put them in American schools to learn English. Unless their family makes it a point to keep their native languages ... alive in their families, by the second or third generation, the kids can't speak their native language anymore," Thompson said.
The few responsible for the many
Miriam believes God has blessed her with a huge responsibility to help translate the Bible into more Iranian languages.
"This is not just a scientific book. This is God's Word. I felt some tension. I was scared that I would not do the work well enough, but I'm very happy to make it available so that my people can establish a relationship with the Bible. That's why I got involved with this Bible translation project," she said.
When asked if she can imagine the day when the Bible is completed in even more Iranian languages, Miriam said it will take many years, and she doesn't know if she'll live long enough to see the project's conclusion.
"I want my children to experience the result of my work so that they can know Jesus through their heart language. I never thought this project would grow like this. But I've learned that it's not just about me," Miriam said.
"I need this team that has been pulled together. For safety, we have many people working on this project secretly. There may be several Christians in one Iranian family, but they cannot share their faith with each other openly," she continued.
"We need more people who can speak my heart language to continue working on this project. … I want to ask for prayer … to recruit people into the project who know our language well."