The Islamic Republic of Iran is situated between the Caspian Sea to the north and the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman to the south, and consists of a large central desert surrounded by mountains. The capital is Tehran and the official language is Persian (or Farsi), which is written with an Arabic script. Iran is rich in oil and natural gas, which supply 80% of export earnings.
Iran had cordial relations with the West under the Pahlavi monarchy, but in 1979 the Shah was deposed by a popular Islamic revolution headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, who declared Iran the world’s first Islamic republic. The revolution was the result of religious, political and popular dissatisfaction with the Shah’s programme of modernisation and Westernisation and his repression of dissent. The year after the revolution, Iraq (under President Saddam Hussein) invaded Iran. The Iran-Iraq war lasted from 1980 until 1988, when Iran accepted a ceasefire agreement with Iraq following UN negotiations.
Since the revolution, Iran has swung between more rigid and liberal interpretations of Islamic rule. Iran appeared to be entering an era of political and social transformation with the victory of the liberals in parliamentary elections in 2000. Former President Mohammad Khatami’s relatively liberal ideas put him at odds with conservatives, especially Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been the Supreme Leader since 1989.
In June 2005 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran’s ultra-conservative mayor, became president, and there followed a clampdown on “unIslamic behaviour”, with restrictions on men’s beards and women’s dress being strictly enforced by the police. President Ahmadinejad won a second term in controversial circumstances, amidst claims of fraud and vote-rigging, in the presidential election of June 2009. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed the results, which gave his ally a landslide victory. The bitterly disputed result led to the most serious unrest in Iran since the 1979 revolution, with at least 30 people killed and more than 1,000 arrested in the wave of protests that followed.
In June 2013 the self-proclaimed moderate Hassan Rouhani was elected president. One of his campaign promises was the improvement of the conditions of ethnic and religious minorities, but apart from the release of a few prisoners, there has been no improvement in the condition of Christians.
Internationally, there have been tensions between Iran and the UN, the EU and the US over its uranium enrichment programme. The West feared that the programme was directed towards developing nuclear weapons, while Iran (which has built its first atomic power station, with Russian help) said its nuclear programme was peaceful. The UN, the EU, the US and several other countries imposed harsh sanctions on Iran over the issue, although a deal to restrict uranium enrichment in November 2013 led to the lifting of some sanctions. In July 2015, an accord was reached between Iran and world powers (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the EU), which imposed curbs on the nuclear programme in return for further easing of international sanctions.
There is widespread social breakdown in Iran, and disillusionment with the regime. There are many drug addicts, street children and prostitutes, and rates of depression are high, especially in Tehran. Rapid population growth followed by rapid urbanisation has led to millions of young, jobless people in cities.
Religion in Iran
Iran is the home of Shi’a Islam, which touches the emotions much more than Sunni Islam and emphasises self-denial and martyrdom. Shi’a Islam is the state religion, followed by about 89% of Iranians. They believe that Ali (the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law) and his male descendents are the legitimate successors to the Prophet Mohammed. Ali and his son Hussein were killed by their rivals. Sunni Muslims (who make up 80% of Muslims worldwide) believe that the Prophet’s companion Abu Bakr should have been his successor. Shi’a is a contraction of Shiat Ali, meaning “partisans of Ali”. Sunni means “one who follows the Sunnah” (the Prophet’s words, practices and what he agreed with or condemned). Shi’a Muslims believe in a coming Messianic figure called the Mahdi, the future Imam who they believe will establish Islam as the global religion.
Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed in Iran, and the historic churches and other historic religious minorities such as Jews and Zoroastrians are recognised by the constitution. About 80,000 Iranian Christians belong to the historic churches, the majority being ethnic Armenians, with smaller numbers in the Assyrian and Chaldean churches. They live in relative peace, but fears of discrimination and persecution have caused many to emigrate and some Christians in these churches have reported physical abuse, imprisonment and harassment. Minority religions that are not recognised by the constitution are severely restricted and members often face harassment, arrest and torture. This applies especially to Christians from a Muslim background, to the Bahá’i and to Sufi Muslims.
The regime portrays evangelical Christians as part of a foreign conspiracy against Iran, accusing Christian converts on charges such as “threatening national security” and “actions against the regime”. A governor of Tehran criticised evangelical Christianity as “a cultural invasion of the enemy”. Most Christian activity is illegal, including evangelism, Bible training and publishing Christian books. As Operation World explains, “Ethnic Persians are by definition Muslim, and therefore ethnic Persian Christians are by definition apostates. This makes almost all Christian activity illegal, especially when it occurs in Persian languages.”
When Ayatollah Khomeini came to power he asked, concerning all churches associated with missionaries, “Is it not our duty to destroy all these sources of danger to Islam?” The years since the revolution have seen arbitrary arrests, the closure of churches and the confiscation and burning of Christian literature. At least seven Christian leaders have been killed, plus one executed in prison. In 2008, the Iranian parliament’s decision to approve a bill making the death sentence mandatory for apostates from Islam provoked international protest. The courts may impose the death sentence on male apostates and life imprisonment on female apostates. Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh (pictured) faced such charges in 2009 before being acquitted in May 2010.
Before the revolution evangelical churches were mostly small, with very few former-Muslim members. Following the revolution, the hostility of the regime towards evangelicals caused great interest in Christianity and enormous church growth began, with many Iranians turning from Islam to Christ. It is estimated that in 1979 there were only about 500 Iranian Christians from a Muslim background, but mission groups believe that there are now at least 370,000, and the number is growing rapidly – it is impossible to estimate accurately because of the need to worship in secret. There is high demand for Bibles but they are in very short supply and it is illegal to print and distribute them. A new translation of the complete Bible was published in September 2014. Christian satellite-TV broadcasts, websites and radio programmes in Persian have had a huge impact and can reach into remote areas.
Crackdown on Christians
The government is very concerned by the huge growth of the house church movement, viewing house churches as a threat to Islam because their members are mainly former Muslims. President Ahmadinejad approved a crackdown on evangelicals, who were instructed not to accept anyone into their churches from a Muslim background and not to hold baptisms.
Hopes rose of greater freedom for Christians when President Rouhani was elected, but apart from a few releases there has been no change, and many Christians remain in prison for their faith. The number fluctuates; sometimes all the Christians attending a house church meeting are detained at one time. In October 2016, it was estimated that more than 200 Christians had been detained since 2015; many were jailed, while others were released conditionally, pending sentencing or an appeal. It was estimated that in the month of August 2016 alone, at least 43 Christians were arrested.
The secret police often monitor churches and government officials sometimes ask members to work as spies, threatening to charge them with apostasy and to hang them. When a house church is discovered, the leaders are often arrested and tortured in an effort to track down all members of the church.
In prison, Christians suffer sleep deprivation, unsanitary conditions, illness, denial of medical treatment and sometimes prolonged beating. They also face many hours of interrogation, including torture, threats of execution and harm to family members, and pressure to recant their faith. Some Christians held in Section 209 of Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison have suffered up to 34 days in solitary confinement.
When Christians are released from prison it is often on payment of exorbitant bail, ranging from the equivalent of a few thousand euro to the deeds of a house, and they face further arrest or prosecution if they continue to meet with other Christians. Typically, they are told that they should have no visitors to their home and host no church meetings. Often the police will contact their employers and instruct them to sack the “apostate”. Those released have been forced to sign that they renounce their faith, will not participate in Christian activities and will comply with further questioning when summoned. Thereafter, they are closely monitored.
The persecution of Christians began to intensify in late 2009, when many Christians were arrested, and increased sharply during 2010. Several anti-Christian speeches were made by Iranian religious and political leaders between August and October 2010, condemning house churches as a threat to the state and instruments of foreign powers. On 19 October 2010 in Qom (the holy city for Shi’a Muslims) Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said that Iran’s enemies want to shake the country’s religious and societal values through the spread of Baha’ism and a network of house churches. There was another crackdown coming up to the presidential elections in 2013.
In February 2012 the Ministry of Intelligence and Security ordered the last two officially-registered churches holding Friday services in Farsi in Tehran to discontinue them. The Farsi services are permitted on Sundays, but most Iranians have Fridays off and are not free to attend on Sunday. These Armenian and Assyrian churches generally hold their services in the Armenian and Assyrian languages, unlike the house churches, which use Farsi. This is another example of the government trying to limit the spread of Christianity amongst Farsi speakers and prevent access to corporate worship for Christians from a Muslim background.
United Nations Special Rapporteur
Dr Ahmed Shaheed has been the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran since 2011. He has not been permitted to visit Iran. In September 2012 he said, “Targeting of new converts is what’s really at issue at the present time. Those who convert from, say, Islam to Christianity are targeted for persecution and those who proselytise or evangelise are targeted for persecution.” He added that churches were being pressurised to send lists of their congregations to the authorities.
Dr Shaheed said that even officially tolerated religious minorities such as Sunni Muslims, Christians from the historic churches, Jews, Zoroastrians and Dervishes (Sufi ascetics) face serious restrictions regarding their rights and are subjected to numerous limitations of religious freedom including discrimination and persecution. His report detailed how human rights activists in Iran face beatings with batons, mock hangings, rape and threats that family members will be raped or killed.
UK All Party Parliamentary Groups’ Report
A report titled “The Persecution of Christians in Iran“, produced by the Christians in Parliament All Party Parliamentary Group and the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, was launched on 10 March 2015. It estimated that 92 Christians were in prison at the end of 2014, while a further 18 spent time in prison that year. The report concluded that Iran’s Christians and other persecuted religious minorities are faring no better under the supposedly moderate Rouhani government than they did under his presidential predecessor.
(BBC, Compass Direct News, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Elam, FCNN, Middle East Concern, Mohabat News, Open Doors, Operation World, Reuters, World Watch Monitor)
Church in Chains in Action
Church in Chains has long been involved in supporting Christians in Iran by speaking up on their behalf. The murder of a number of pastors in the early 1990’s led to a public memorial service being held outside the Iranian Embassy in Dublin.
Church in Chains campaigned extensively for Youcef Nadarkhani (pictured) – a Christian sentenced to death in 2010 – who was eventually released in September 2012.
Church in Chains, in association with a partner organisation, has channelled aid to the families of persecuted Christians and has supplied literature and resources to Christians in Iran.
During 2013, Church in Chains supported the printing of over 7,000 Farsi New Testaments by our partner organisation, Elam Ministries. Despite a government ban, the New Testaments were distributed by Iranian Christians and were warmly received by many Iranian people eager to read about the Lord Jesus.
On 19 March 2015, a Church in Chains delegation visited the Iranian Embassy in Dublin, where Joanna Tuffy TD presented a petition highlighting the persecution of Christians in Iran to the Ambassador, Mr Javad Kachouiean. The petition, signed by 20 members of the Oireachtas, appealed for the release of three Christian leaders (Saeed Abedini, Farshid Fathi and Behnam Irani) and Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, a human rights lawyer who has represented Christians.
On Tuesday 1 August, house-church member Maryam Naghash Zargaran was released from Evin Prison in Tehran after serving a four-year sentence.
In a recent escalation of persecution against Christians in Iran, Judge Ahmadzadeh, head of the 26th Branch of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, has handed heavy sentences of at least ten years in prison to twelve Christians.
A Christian from Iran and three from Azerbaijan have been found guilty of “missionary activities” and “actions against national security” in Iran and sentenced to ten years in prison.
A pastor and three converts to Christianity have been given long prison sentences by Judge Ahmadzadeh, head of the 26th Branch of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran who issued his verdict on 3 and 4 July.
In early July, four members of the Church of Iran in the northern city of Rasht learned that each had been sentenced to ten years in prison.