The Islamic Republic of Iran comprises a large central desert surrounded by mountains, and is rich in oil and natural gas. It is the home of Shia Islam and is a theocracy in which the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is more powerful than the elected president.

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 until 1988, when Iran accepted a ceasefire agreement with Iraq following UN negotiations.

Since the revolution, Iran has swung between more rigid and relatively liberal interpretations of Islamic rule. In 2005, the ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president and there followed a clampdown on “unIslamic behaviour”. President Ahmadinejad won a second term in 2009 amid claims of fraud and vote-rigging, and the bitterly disputed result led to the most serious unrest since the revolution, with at least thirty people killed and more than 1,000 arrested at the protests that followed.

In June 2013, the self-proclaimed moderate Hassan Rouhani was elected president. One of his campaign promises was to improve the conditions of ethnic and religious minorities, but there has been no improvement for Christians.

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 the capital, Tehran. Rapid population growth followed by rapid urbanisation has led to millions of young, jobless people in cities. The Iranian government has been widely condemned for its many human rights abuses.

Internationally, there have been tensions between Iran and the UN, the EU and the US over its uranium enrichment programme. Iran said its nuclear programme was peaceful but the West feared it was directed towards developing nuclear weapons and imposed 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 easing of sanctions.

Christians in Iran

Religious freedom is guaranteed in the constitution and the historic churches (ethnic Armenian and Assyrian) enjoy relative freedom – about 80,000 Iranian Christians belong to the historic churches. They hold their services in the Armenian and Assyrian languages rather than Farsi (Persian).

However, the government is increasingly concerned by the continuing growth of the “underground” house church movement, which is composed almost entirely of former Muslims and uses Farsi, the language spoken by the general populace. Church leaders have described the phenomenal growth as “revival” and the distribution of over 1.5 million New Testaments has led to government warnings about the influence of the “red book”. Security police are constantly trying to find and close house churches; leaders are often arrested and tortured in an effort to track down all members.

The regime portrays evangelical Christians as part of a foreign conspiracy against Iran, and Christian converts are often charged with “threatening national security” and “actions against the regime“. It is estimated that in 1979 there were only about 500 Iranian Christian converts, but mission groups believe that there are now over 700,000, although it is impossible to estimate accurately because of the need to meet in secret.

Over 250 Christians were arrested in Iran in 2016 and 2017 and some church leaders were given heavy prison sentences of between ten and 15 years. 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.

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 and they are often forced to sign that they renounce their faith and will not participate in Christian activities. Thereafter, they are closely monitored. Often police contact their employers and instruct them to sack the “apostate”.

Bahá’is are also severely persecuted in Iran, routinely suffering discrimination in education and employment, and many have been imprisoned.

What is Shia Islam?

Shia Islam is the state religion of Iran, followed by about 89% of Iranians. It touches the emotions much more than Sunni Islam and emphasises self-denial and martyrdom. Shia Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law Ali and his male descendents are the legitimate successors to the Prophet Mohammed – Shia is a contraction of Shiat Ali, meaning “partisans of Ali”. Shia Muslims believe in a coming Messianic figure called the Mahdi, the future imam who they believe will establish Islam as the global religion.

Sunni Muslims (who make up 80% of Muslims worldwide) believe that the Prophet’s companion Abu Bakr should have been his successor. Sunni means “one who follows the Sunnah” (the Prophet’s words, practices and what he agreed with or condemned).

(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 spoken up on behalf of Christians in Iran for many years. It has sent aid to support families of persecuted Christians and has sponsored the provision of literature and other resources to Christians in Iran, including thousands of Farsi New Testaments.

In October 2018, Church in Chains wrote to the Iranian Embassy in Dublin appealing for better treatment for Christian prisoner Ebrahim Firouzi.

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 twenty 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 represented Christians.

Church in Chains campaigned extensively for Youcef Nadarkhani (pictured), a Christian sentenced to death in 2010. He was released in September 2012, but was returned to prison in July 2018 to begin serving a ten-year sentence.

In the early 1990s, the murder of a number of pastors led to Church in Chains holding a public memorial service outside the Iranian Embassy in Dublin.