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Persecuted Christians flee Iran, find hope and homes in Germany

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Girl looks at Christmas tree as she and her mother walk past Christmas decorations in central Tehran. (Reuters)

Iranian-born Muslims who converted to Christianity are breathing new spiritual life into communities across Germany, where they are fleeing to in increasing numbers to escape persecution back home.

Men and women, who have been sentenced to the lash or worse for apostasy - converting from Islam - are forming a thriving community of Christian ex-pats in German cities and towns. The Iranian immigrants seek asylum, or simply pay up to $30,000 to enter the country illegally with a fake passport, a new name and plans to start their lives over in new churches.

“Nothing illustrates the contrast between the Muslim world and the West than Christians fleeing Iranian persecution."

- Richard Landes, Center of Millennial Studies at Boston University.

“The growing number of Iranian Christians fleeing their homeland to come to Germany should alarm us that Iran's regime is getting more and more radicalized and repressive - on a daily basis,” Saba Farzan, a German-Iranian expert on human rights, told FoxNews.com.

A telling example of Iran’s heavy-handed crackdown on Christians is the case of a 40-something Iranian woman named Afsaneh. A spiritual display brought down the full force of Tehran's hard-line regime.

“I was so excited about Christmas that I put up a tree in my home and work," Afsaneh told The Guardian

However, she along with her cousin would pay a steep price for their embrace of the Christian faith in the Sharia-dominated Islamic Republic. Iranian authorities imprisoned both converts and imposed more than 70 lashes on Afsaneh and her cousin for merely practicing Christianity.

After securing refuge in Germany, Afsaneh said she resents her homeland's lack of freedom. 

“I want Iran to have respect for my perspective, about what religion I choose,” she said. “Not just to tell me that I have to be a Muslim.”

The number of Iranian Christians fleeing to Germany has grown to nearly 4,500 in 2012 from less than 1,000 four years earlier, according to The Guardian. Although Germany is not the only destination for Iranian Christians fleeing from persecution, its strong economy make it more desirable than other choices, such as The Netherlands, Sweden and Austria.

Iranian immigrants have helped double the size of the congregation at House of God's Help church in Berlin, church deaconess Rosemarie Götz told the Christian Broadcasting Network

"It came like an unexpected summer rain," Götz said. "Suddenly new people started coming every week and asked to be baptized."

The flight from Iran underscores the divide between the Muslim and secular worlds, said Richard Landes, an associate professor of history and director and co-founder of the Center of Millennial Studies at Boston University.

“Nothing illustrates the contrast between the Muslim world and the West than Christians fleeing Iranian persecution," Landes said. "On the one hand, the Iranians, poster-boys for a medieval religiosity that feels it only has honor by degrading and demeaning other religions; on the other, the West, whose ‘secular’ public sphere is actually welcoming to those seeking religious freedom.”

Hamid, a 37-year-old Iranian, fled the Islamic Republic year ago and is seeking asylum in Deininghausen, Germany. His case has garnered media attention because the German authorities want to send him back to Italy—his first country of origin into the European Union. The Free Evangelical Community in Deininghausen is working to secure him asylum.

His troubles in Iran began when authorities found a bible in his desk. Fearing he and his family were at great risk, Hamid, his wife Maryam and their five-year-old son, Ayra, paid a smuggler nearly $25,000 to flee Iran.

Hamid told the German paper Ruhr Nachrichten that his family secretly converted from Islam to Christianity “because the idea of the grace of charity is more pronounced”  in the Christian faith.

"We must do everything in our power to help those endangered refugees by granting them asylum and at the same time by changing the situation on the ground," Farzan, director of political studies at Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy, told FoxNews.com. "Not through continued fruitless talks, but through tougher policies against one of the worst human rights violators this world has seen. Only once the Iranian dictatorship learns that viciously oppressing religious groups has a price, Iranian Christians and many other religious minorities will be safe in their native country.”

With the help of Sadegh Sepehri, an Iranian minister based in Berlin and affiliated with the American Presbyterian mission agency, a burgeoning Iranian Christian community has found life free from religious persecution. He has baptized hundreds of Iranians, according to a report in The Guardian. The report noted that Iranian converts to Christianity in the East German city of Leipzig at St Luke’s Church now form one-third of the congregation.

According to a recent UN report by Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, at least  49 Christians were being held in Iranian jails of January, 2014. In 2013, Iran’s regime arrested at least 42 Christians, of whom 35 were convicted for peaceful religious activities in house churches.

But amid the Iranians seeking religious asylum are emigrants who some believe could be using religion as pretext for escaping Iran. Church groups have rallied around Iranian Christians, helping to support them while they go through the application process. For some, an accepted application means the end of their relationship with the church.

“There were occasions where we were very deeply disappointed,” the Rev. Hugo Gevers, who works with Iranian converts in Leipzig at St Luke’s Church, told The Guardian. “We were supporting them for years, they had the court case and a positive answer and the same day they separated from us.”

Benjamin Weinthal reports on human rights in the Middle East and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @BenWeinthal