NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Dedicating his life to sharing the Gospel with Muslims in Iran was never something Hormoz Shariat, head of Iran Alive Ministries and founder of the largest Muslim convert church in the United States, thought he would do.
Born into a devout Muslim family in Iran, Shariat recalled how, as a teen, he would roam the streets of Tehran, protesting against the U.S. and shouting, “Death to America!”
“I strongly believed, at the time, that Islam was the only way,” he shared with The Christian Post during a sit-down interview. “I’ve since repented of that, and I now confidently say, ‘God bless America.”
After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Shariat moved to the U.S. to earn his Ph.D. in artificial intelligence. Around this time, he experienced a period of “spiritual questioning.”
“I asked, ‘Is God there? And if He is there, He's with Islam because Islam is taking over the world. Maybe I should pay more attention to my roots and my religion that I grew up with,” he said.
“After studying the Quran front to back, I thought, ‘This didn’t add anything to me,’” Shariat continued. “But something in me — which I now realize was the Holy Spirit — said, ‘How can you come to such a big conclusion by reading just one book? You need to study more before you decide if God is there.’”
Shariat felt compelled to pick up a Bible, although he told himself, “I’m not going to find anything new here, because the Quran is the most complete book and Islam is the best religion.”
After reading the book of Matthew, Shariat began to struggle with the person of Jesus, who he found to be “so different from the prophet that Islam teaches us.”
“I struggled for hours, for days, re-reading Matthew, trying to figure out this person of Jesus,” he said. “After a few months of struggle, somebody invited me to a church in downtown Los Angeles. That's where I heard this simple message of the Gospel, which transformed my life.”
Excited by his newfound faith, Shariat felt God calling him to share the Gospel with others: “I thought, I need to tell everyone about this Jesus,” he said.
But Shariat’s faith was about to be tested in a devastating way. Around this time, his 16-year-old brother was arrested on a minor political charge and was imprisoned for two years.
“As a new believer, I prayed, ‘God, please save him,’” Shariat said. “The Iranian government kept telling my mother they were going to release him, but one day they called her and said, ‘Come get his body. We just shot him. And by the way, you need to pay for the bullets.’ They charged her to release his body.”
The death of his brother sparked a “crisis” inside of him, Shariat admitted. “I prayed, ‘God, what happened to my prayers? I want to take vengeance.’ God said to me, ‘Vengeance is mine.’ I said, ‘OK, I won’t take revenge, but I really hate them.’ God said to me, ‘No, you are to love your enemies.’ I said, ‘OK, but I’m still angry.’ God said, ‘When you are angry, you kill that person in your heart.’ I said, ‘God, can I at least curse to feel better?’ and God said, ‘No, you can’t even do that, because with your mouth you must worship and not swear.’”
“I said, ‘What is this? There is injustice in this world, and I am not allowed to do anything,’” he continued. “That's when God spoke to me and said, ‘The best thing to do is share the Gospel. Those who killed your brother are not your enemies. They are captives in the hands of the enemy.’”
“That,” he said, “is where I got my life calling. I said, ‘OK, I'm going to start sharing the Gospel with Muslims. It's your job to save them, but I can share Gospel with them.’”
At first, Shariat experienced rejection, failure, and even received death threats. But slowly, “God started doing something among Iranian Muslims,” he said.
In 1987, he planted a church in San Jose, California. With hundreds of Muslim converts, it still remains one of the largest churches of its kind in the U.S. But Shariat felt the Lord calling him beyond the four walls of the church, and in 2001, he founded Iran Alive Ministries, which utilizes Satellite TV to reach the millions of lost and broken people in Iran and the rest of the Middle East. Today, the ministry broadcasts the Gospel 24/7 from their studio in Dallas, Texas, to Iran and across the Middle East.
“My goal was to share the Gospel with over 1 million Muslims,” he said. “By God’s grace, through media, I have passed this number multiple times.”
Reaching Iranians with the message of the Gospel is no easy feat, Shariat admitted, as their efforts are often blocked by the country's government.
“Many people are afraid to contact us. Our phones are often blocked, and so is our website, so it’s hard to say exactly how many people we have reached,” he said. “But we have the names of over 37,000 people who have received Christ, and we know there are several hundred thousand who have made decisions but haven’t been able to tell us.”
Shariat shared the story of one Iranian Muslim woman who called his ministry, asking: “Do you interpret dreams?”
“I said, ‘Well, I don't claim that but tell me. Maybe I can help you,” he said.
“The woman said, ‘I'm a devout Muslim, and I do my Islamic prayer every day. But recently, I've been watching your programs and I've been doubting which way is truth. What you say is nice and Jesus is really loving and forgiving. I was confused a few nights ago and I said, ‘God, would you tell me the truth about which one is the right way?’”
That night, the woman went to bed and dreamed she was in a dark desert, lost and alone.
“I was afraid and crying out,” she said. “Suddenly, an angel appeared to me. And I said, ‘Please help me. Where should I go?’ And the angel just pointed to a direction. I looked there and I saw a cross full of light. I ran toward the cross, and a light fell on me. And I felt so much joy, so much peace that I've never experienced before.’ Can you tell me what that means?”
“It was incredible,” Shariat recalled. “I simply presented the Gospel. I said, ‘You asked God to show you which one is the way, and Jesus showed you. Would you like to receive Him? And she said, ‘Of course.’ Since then, her life has changed completely.”
Such stories are not uncommon, Shariat said, causing him to believe that God “has a special going on for Muslims right now.”
“Jesus appears to them all the time through visions, dreams, and miracles,” he said. “Sometimes I feel these days if you want to see Jesus, you have to be a Muslim. It’s almost like Jesus is looking at the rest of the world, saying, ‘Look at me. I love them. I’m healing them, I’m appearing to them. Will you love them with me?”
As part of his ministry, Shariat helps Americans by providing inside information about Iran and how it impacts the U.S. He told CP that while the media often presents Iran as a godless nation, Shariat said Christ “actually has more credibility and respect in Iran than Islam itself."
“Islam is experiencing the greatest defeat in its history in Iran today,” he stressed. “Every day, I talk to so many Muslims who are negative toward Mohammed and Islam, but are very positive about Christ and Christianity. They are drawn to the fact that Christianity is a religion of love. They are extremely open to Christianity.”
Shariat said that another misconception about many Iranians is that they “hate America.”
“I can boldly say, there's no country in the world that loves America more than Iranians do. They love everything in America: They want American fashion, music, arts, and they want American democracy. They are open to Americans talking to them, teaching them.”
Finally, Shariat said he believes that it’s not long before Iran becomes an entirely Christian nation. He cited statistics revealing that more Christians have come to Christ since the 1979 Iranian Revolution than in the previous 1,400 years combined.
“The government moving toward Ezekiel 38, trying to destroy Israel, but majority of people are moving toward Christ, according to Jeremiah 14,” he shared. “The Gospel is especially popular with young people because they have no hope. When they come to Christ, they come from darkness to light, and they have an amazing supernatural boldness and lack of fear. God is miraculously working there.”
The American Church, Shariat stressed, would do well to learn from the boldness of Iranian Christians.
“I think we can learn their passion, the commitment to the Lord they have, and the courage they have, when they go out putting their lives on the line,” he said. “Sometimes we are afraid to talk about Christ even in America. But they are not afraid to do that, even though their lives are in danger.”
Shariat asked American Christians to pray for his ministry: “We are facing the dark spirit, called in the Bible 'the Prince of Persia,' so we really need prayer,” he said. “Pray for those persecuted; pray they will have the boldness to live out their faith despite challenges.”
“Let's share the Gospel with Iranian Muslims. Let's disciple a nation together," he said. “Iran is such fertile ground. Whatever you invest, you see much return. God is radically transforming an entire nation."