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The Open Road in Persia

By the Rev. J. R. Richards
C.M.S. Missionary at Shiraz

London: Church Missionary Society, 1933.

Chapter III. The Task of the Church

IT is difficult if not impossible to convey to those who have never been in Persia a true idea of the nature and immensity of the task that confronts the Church of Jesus Christ in that land to-day. Yet some attempt must be made to make the position clear; prayer, if it is to be helpful, must be intelligent, and it can only be intelligent when it is based on knowledge; and the Church in Persia needs the prayer support of the Church at home.

Missionary biographies often make excellent reading; who is not stirred and thrilled by the story of Dr. Livingstone? It must not be forgotten that nearly all such books are concerned with the life stories of men and women of outstanding character who were pioneers in the work. They blazed the trail, others followed. But the difficulties of the pioneer are not those of his successors in the field. When the C.M.S. first started work in Persia no Europeans were allowed to live in Isfahan itself; their presence would pollute the city. To-day foreigners can enter even the wonderful mosques of that city. The story of the opening of medical mission work in Isfahan would make fascinating reading, but nothing could be duller than a recital of the difficulties encountered in trying to register land for a church in Shiraz. That the door is open to missionaries and the opportunity unparalleled is true, but there are difficulties which make it impossible for the Church to take full advantage of the opportunity and to enter that door.

The C.M.S. stations in Persia are widely separated, Kerman being some 420 miles south-east of Isfahan, with Yezd about midway between them. Shiraz is about 315 miles south of Isfahan with no mission station between them. If you travel from Isfahan to Shiraz you cross wide plains dotted with villages, you pass through one large town and several big villages. If you make your journey in the spring or autumn you will probably see tribe encampments on the desert stretches, or meet the tribes on the move. You may have opportunities for conversation, you may find some men who can read and they will accept tracts from you. But what have you achieved? What a difference it would make if in every one of those towns and villages there were people preaching Christ by living Him! We shall see in another chapter what one Christian can do.

Come to the mountainside above Shiraz. You will be thrilled with the beauty of the place. Below is the town huddled together on the plain, here and there are villages, on each side tower the mountains, and far away in the distance the shores of the Salt Lake gleam white in the sun. Down there in the town are 50,000 people. Only the domes of the chief shrines of the town tower up above the trees, but there are countless small mosques scattered throughout the town. Every day at noon the call to prayer comes from every side--God and Mohammed, God and Mohammed are mentioned by a thousand lips. How many of these people have been touched by mission work? How many of them have heard a word of the Gospel? Since Persia is a Moslem land with a Moslem Government, you cannot do bazaar preaching as is possible in parts of India, you are hampered at every step. You can do no more than touch the fringe of that multitude. What a difference it would make if in every quarter of this large town there were some one devoting his life to living and preaching Christ! In the centre of the town is a large Jewish colony; but not one Shiraz Jew has yet accepted Christ. Many are interested, it is true; but until it is possible to start organized work among them it is not very likely that any will come forward and make a stand for Christ. Our hospital is visited regularly by crowds from the outlying villages; they hear the Gospel, and very often are attracted to Christ. They return to their villages and nothing more is heard of them. Occasional visits to the villages do very little good; we need fellow-workers who can be set apart for village work alone.

What is true of Shiraz is true also of the other C.M.S. stations in Persia. The colporteurs of the British and Foreign Bible Society are doing magnificent work. There is hardly a village they have not visited, facing constant hardships; indifferent to danger, they have sown the seed far and wide. But there are few to reap. That is the tragedy of mission work.

Christianity is not new to Persians, they think they know all about it, but Christ is new. Their association with European countries can hardly be said to help the Persians to appreciate mission work. Nine men out of every ten believe that behind it is some deep political purpose. To become a Christian is regarded by some as equivalent to becoming a foreigner. In the past European nations have exploited Persia, and distrust of the foreigner persists as a result. The great war--the war of the Christians--appeared to many as an undeniable proof of the futility of the Christian religion. The personal lives of some Europeans have helped to bring Christianity into disrepute, though the majority of Englishmen in Persia are clean-living men, whose lives are an influence for good. But it is human to seize upon the bad and ignore the good. In the Moharram procession in one town the foreigner was caricatured, and his outstanding characteristics were his use of a sun helmet, his restlessness, and his love of whisky. A few days ago a Persian was amazed to hear that drunkenness was regarded as a vice by Europeans. He thought that all Christians got drunk as a matter of course! Christ is new to the Persian, and Christ attracts him. The task of the Church would be easier were Christianity new to the Persian, for now he is apt to be prejudiced against the religion of Christ, believing as he does that he knows all about it, since to many the words Christian and Armenian are synonymous. No amount of talking will overcome this prejudice--Christ must be lived before their eyes; a good life has an appeal that cannot be resisted. One Persian told me that he was attracted to Christ many years ago by seeing a British Army officer take off his overcoat on a bitterly cold winter day and give it to a starving beggar woman. Every English man and woman who comes to Persia for any purpose is a missionary, for or against Christ.

If the Persian thinks he knows Christianity, he thinks he knows Christ too, and is amazed when he finds that Christ is new to him. One of the chief difficulties in dealing with a Moslem is that he has his own conception of God and of Christ. Moslems and Baha'is claim that they have accepted Jesus and they hail Him as a Prophet; but the Cross is still a stumbling block to them, and the title Son of God an outrage. There are intellectual difficulties to overcome. We are often told that some of the Koran passages set forth a lofty conception of God--but is that true? Grand in conception they may be, but do they speak to the human heart as does the one word "Father"? The Moslem has no real sense of sin, nor can he conceive of salvation except in terms of salvation from hell. He believes in the one God (no stricter monotheist exists), but that God is not personal as the Christian understands the meaning of that term, and he has no sense of the value of finite individuality. He believes in revelation, but that revelation is objective, and the channels of that revelation, the prophets, are essentially sinless; the ordinary man cannot commune with God, nor can he be anything but a sinner.

The common folk still hear of the love of God in Jesus Christ with gladness, and they provide the majority of converts; but the thinking man needs a new mind before he can appreciate Jesus and claim Him as his Lord. To win the thinking and intelligent and satisfy them at their highest and their best is no mean task, but Christ needs Paul as well as Peter. If Baha'ism is a danger to the Church in Persia it is because it attracts thinking men by its plausibility, and then repels them by its lifelessness. Such men, only too often, lose all faith in God and all interest in religion, and though they may be ready to enter into discussion on religion they are prejudiced from the start, and behind their every argument is the determination not to be fooled again. If such men could be won before they lose their faith in God the life of the Church would be considerably enriched. We can learn much from the Baha'is in some directions; they certainly are thorough in their methods. They produce a type of literature which is calculated to attract the more thoughtful among the people, whereas until recently good Christian literature did not exist. Simple tracts we have in plenty, but even to-day it is often difficult to know what literature to offer to thinking men. The Baha'i sets forth a reasoned statement of his faith and, shallow as his reasoning may be, he at least makes his position as clear as he can. New knowledge is spreading, and ideas are changing, and men are coming to realize that Islam and the teachings of Mohammed cannot be harmonized with modern knowledge. Baha'ism has shown them that, but Baha'ism levels the same charge against Christianity.

If the Church is to succeed it must give of its best in the way of literature. The Inter-Mission Literature Committee has done much to improve the quality and increase the amount of Christian literature, but much remains to be done. If the Church is to give of its best in literature it is essential that men and women of literary ability should be set apart for this work. We should remember that the Persian is a lover of literature, a lover of beautiful language, for there is much of the poet in every Persian. It is the wonderful rhythm of the Koran that captivates him rather than its teaching; it appeals to the poet in him. It is not enough that we should set apart missionaries of ability to engage in literary work, we need to draw the most capable men and women from our schools to Jesus Christ and to set literary work before them as a definite vocation. How strongly good literature appeals is clear from the way in which even non-Christians are enthusiastic about good Christian hymns written by Persian Christians. The future of the Church in Persia largely depends on whether the Church at home is awake to its responsibilities and prepared to give of her best in prayer, men, and money.

In the last chapter it was stated that all propaganda against Islam and "Persianism," if we may coin a word to translate "Iraniyat," is forbidden. Since that order was published missionary work has been hindered in many ways. In the north some of the American missionaries have been asked to leave towns they were visiting. Some of the B.C.M.S. missionaries have met with similar opposition, while one travelling evangelist was hindered wherever he went. In this case much depends on the local officials and the way in which they interpret the order. Some missionaries were even forbidden to preach the Gospel as that was construed to be anti-Islamic propaganda. It is not uncommon to have detectives present at evangelistic meetings; in some cases they have visited missionaries in their homes and subjected them to clumsy cross examination, and as a general rule it becomes clear that missionaries are suspected of political activities. Here, again, is a difficulty that will not easily be overcome. Christianity is still regarded as the religion of the European, and in a day when the spirit of nationalism is strong such an outlook cannot be ignored. The Church must become Persian in sympathy, in spirit, and in character if Persia is to be won for Christ. It must associate itself with every movement for the improvement of social conditions. It must encourage its members to be loyal to the throne in all things that are in harmony with the teachings of Christ. If Persian Christians show by their lives that they are truly desirous of serving their king and country and are ready to sacrifice self for the common good the task of the Church will become much easier.

There will always be people hostile to missionary work ready to grasp at every opportunity to hinder that work, and mission hospitals have had their share of difficulties. Not long ago a missionary doctor working on the staff of a C.M.S. hospital was charged with being responsible for the death of a man who had at one time been his patient. The case dragged on for over a year before it was finally settled and the doctor acquitted. Some time previous to that event another doctor working in a C.M.S. hospital was subjected to a cross examination at the office of the public prosecutor, but in that case the matter did not go before the courts. The most flimsy case can be made to appear strong because the judges have no knowledge of technical matters such as those which must be considered in any medical case, and where expert advice is needed the judges are handicapped by the lack of really well-qualified doctors, and by the fact that only too often professional jealousy makes the evidence of such men as can be consulted of very little use. Missionary doctors know that should a patient die they are liable to be prosecuted. In some hospitals the doctors demand a certificate from the relatives of patients needing severe operations that if an operation should prove of no avail and the patient dies, the hospital will not be held responsible for his death. It will be obvious that no doctor can give of his or her best in such circumstances. Not long ago I was at the house of a Persian doctor. He told me some of the difficulties that he had to face in his work. Among the patients attending his dispensary was a boy with a gangrenous hand. The thumb had altogether mortified and would soon fall off of its own accord; meanwhile the gangrene was spreading upwards. He dared not amputate the thumb for fear of the wrath of the family!

Another hindrance has come, as we have seen, from the Trade Monopoly Act. Though essential drugs can be imported, provided the necessary permits are obtained, the endless delays which ensue before anything can be done in Persia are very trying, to say the least. In her efforts to copy the West, Persia has been signally successful where "red tape" is concerned!

Yet medical missions are breaking down the barriers of prejudice and hostility. The Christians in a certain village were undergoing persecution from their Moslem neighbours. It so happened that two medical missionaries had arranged to spend their holiday camping above that village. When they went out I accompanied them, but returned the same day. As we approached the village a man whose child had been a patient at the Shiraz Hospital came to meet us, and he and I walked up the village street together. The attitude of the villagers was obviously hostile, and groups of men standing here and there abused and cursed that man for walking with me. How different was the reception given to those two medical missionaries; their progress was slow, for every few yards they were met and welcomed by people who had reason to be grateful to them for their services in the hospital. Theirs was a triumphal entry.

During the last few years educational missionaries have never been free from worry. When I first came to Persia in 1927 an attempt was being made to compel mission schools to adopt the government programme in its entirety, and teach the Koran and Moslem Law. A compromise was arranged whereby it was not obligatory to teach these subjects in Christian schools, though any pupil wishing to sit for a government examination had to include them in his preparation. The general teaching of the Bible in school hours was forbidden, but a limited use of it as a text-book for ethics was allowed.

None can deny that there are many good government schools for boys in Persia to-day, but mission schools have still a purpose to serve. Young Persia is certificate-mad, and the schools are rapidly becoming institutions whose sole purpose is to enable youths to get certificates. This exaggerated respect for paper qualifications constitutes a real danger, for it tends to blind people to the true purpose of education--the formation of character. But more of this in a later chapter; for the present all that need be said is that the attitude of the Government is in no sense an indication of the attitude of the people in general. Governments may frown, or when in better mood may smile tolerantly; whatever the official attitude be, parents recognize the value of the Christian schools and send their children to them.

Thus mission work goes on, regarded with suspicion in many quarters, misunderstood by many, feared by many, and yet welcomed by many. Our doctors are always liable to malicious prosecution, yet they do their work quietly, winning the gratitude and esteem of many. The attitude of local newspapers is evidence enough of the chequered career of both hospitals and schools. Tirades against both hospitals and schools have appeared from time to time, only to be followed in what seemed an absurdly short time by articles of an appreciative character. Difficulties there are, but encouragement is not lacking, and the work is well worth while.

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