24 April 2023
Melbourne’s Iranian Anglican congregation has added two new lay ministers, in what pastor the Reverend Kaveh Hassanzadeh says is a big step for Iranian Christians in Australia.
The two newest lay ministers at Emmanuel Iranian Church in Dandenong are former refugees who fled Iran and converted to Christianity.
For Elham Gharaee Shirazi and Paul Afshar, the journey to lay ministry has been complicated.
Both were born in Iran and grew up outside the church.
Mrs Gharaee Shirazi fled the theocratic Islamic republic and arrived in Australia as a refugee in 2012.
A friend invited her to attend a service at Emmanuel Iranian a year after she arrived. She said she hadn’t attended church before, but something about the music and the strong sense of community made her keep coming back to the parish.
“One of the worship songs touched my heart, and it began from there,” she said.
Mrs Gharaee Shirazi said after a few months she got more involved in church life, helping with youth ministry.
She said she felt a calling to pursue theological studies five years ago driven by a desire to better serve the people in her community.
Mr Afshar also fled Iran, where his Marxist political beliefs had made life difficult for him and his family.
He was an avid reader, but when a friend gave him a copy of the Bible, he only skimmed it.
It wasn’t until years later, having fled to Turkey after Iranian authorities threatened to jail his daughter in 2010, that his faith was shaped.
As a refugee in Turkey, Mr Afshar said he attended church services because he felt welcomed and encouraged by the pastors during a difficult time in his life. But he said his Marxist beliefs made him critical of many of the pastor’s teachings.
This attitude created a turning point in his relationship with his faith.
Mr Afshar attended a Bible study group where he asked several questions and challenged the pastor who was leading the group.
He said the pastor recognised in him a talent for engaging with the content of the Bible and encouraged him to teach the gospel to others.
At first he refused, but when his pastor compared his situation to the prophet Jeremiah, Mr Afshar said he felt as if God had strengthened his heart.
Mr Afshar had been a poet and song writer for many years. He said his work had always been secular, but after this he felt called to write songs for God.
Both Mrs Gharaee Shirazi and Mr Afshar received their licences last year.
Mr Hassanzadeh said he was excited for Mrs Gharaee Shirazi and Mr Afshar.
He said the church needed more leaders and it was important to invest in people by supporting them and training them.
Mr Hassanzadeh said the licensing of two new lay ministers was a big step for Emmanuel Iranian, but that he was hopeful this was just the beginning.
Mrs Gharaee Shirazi said becoming a lay minister meant she had new responsibilities to her community.
“My role at the church as a servant of God has become more official,” she said.
Mr Afshar said receiving his licence felt like an affirmation of his faith.
“Getting this licence, it’s like a sign that approves my calling to serve,” he said.
*Interview translations performed by Kaveh Hassanzadeh