Tens of thousands of Iranians have downloaded the Bible in the past six months under a new initiative by Christian broadcaster SAT-7, despite intense restrictions by the Iranian government.
More than 60,000 people in Iran have downloaded the Bible in whole or in part since September 2015, when SAT-7 opened a secure chat room service.
The messaging app, Telegram, allows users to send messages anonymously and SAT-7 to offer Christian programmes and secure Bible downloads. This service is especially pertinent in Iran, where social media platforms including Facebook are blocked, and the authorities closely monitor phone calls, text messages and emails.
SAT-7 says it receives 2,000 messages a day from Iranian viewers, thanking it for providing a space for believers to talk and share their faith with one another. Many ask for prayer, or give testimonies of their faith.
"We don't have enough staff to pray for everyone. It's overwhelming," said Benjamin Parsa, audience relations manager of SAT-7 PARS. He added that 1,000 people downloaded the Bible in the first week that it was offered. "This is not a follow-up project anymore; this is a movement."
One user told the broadcaster, which has over 1.7 million viewers in Iran: "This is not just a programme or media ministry, but it is truly our CHURCH for the time being!"
Iran remains one of the most dangerous places to be a Christian, ranking ninth on persecution charity Open Door's list of countries where Christians are targeted for their faith. Converting from Islam – the state religion – to Christianity is punishable by death for men, and life imprisonment for women. Last year, more than 100 Christians were arrested or imprisoned, and a number of them physically or mentally abused.
Iran has a long history of human rights abuses and violence is rapidly escalating across the country, facilitated by laws which allow the legal persecution of minority communities such as Christians and Baha'i Muslims, who have been condemned by Iranian authorities as an "illegal cult".