By Marjan Keypour Greenblatt
February 19, 2019
As the Islamic Republic marked its 40th anniversary, Iranian religious minorities are experiencing continual persecution. Hundreds of Gonabadi Dervishes, Sunnis, Christians and Baha’is are incarcerated for their religious beliefs. While the pressures on religious minorities have been persistent since the beginning of the Iranian revolution, 2018 has emerged as a particularly heinous year in the persecution of minorities. The year was punctuated by an escalation of harassment and arrests of Christian converts.
As Christians were preparing for Christmas celebrations in December, Iran’s Mehr News Agency reported that 142 men and women belonging to Christian convert communities were arrested in a seemingly coordinated sequence targeting various cities across the country. Experts who closely monitor the condition of religious minorities in Iran usually anticipate an uptick in arrests around momentous religious occasions. But the recent spate of arrests proved one of the most severe crackdowns in recent years, certainly the largest sweep in the last decade, and is symptomatic of the increasing pressure on converts to Christianity in Iran.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocratic state based on Shi’a Islam. As a Shi’ite majority country, Iran has an estimated 5 to 9% Sunni minority, and only less than 1 percent of the 82 million population is registered as something other than belonging to the Muslim Faith. Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) by the United States since 1999 under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) for its severe violations of religious freedom. In their most recent report, Open Doors revealed that Iran has risen to the top 10 nations in the persecution of Christians. Perhaps as a consequence, as of 2018, only around 300,000 Christians are estimated to be living in Iran.
Arguably, one of the most troubling aspects of Iran’s treatment of religious minorities is its institutional nature. The Islamic Republic of Iran makes a clear distinction between state-recognized religious minorities and others. Iran’s constitution recognizes Sunni Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Armenian and Assyrian/Chaldean Christians as “official religious groups” and a second-class order of citizenship. Although all religious minorities face some form of systematic discrimination and oppression, members of the state-recognized minorities are granted autonomy in personal matters such as marriage, divorce, or inheritance rights. Whereas Baha’is, Mandeans, and certain groups of Muslims do not have any recognized status, leaving them vulnerable to arbitrary decision in the criminal justice system.
Even within the “recognized” category of Christianity, there is a distinct legal division for different sects. While Armenian and Assyrian/Chaldean Churches are considered to be ancient and local religious traditions, Protestant and Evangelical Churches are seen as foreign influences. Thus, Protestant and Evangelical Churches are not recognized by the state, and do not have the same rights as other Christian denominations. The critical distinction, from the perspective of the Iranian government, is conversion.
Although Iran has ratified the Article 18 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which safeguards the “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion“ and “freedom to change his religion or belief, apostasy is a criminal offence. Missionary activity and proselytizing are forbidden, and it is illegal to possess Bibles in Persian. As such, life of a converted Christian in Iran is risky and dangerous. There are significant pressures on members of Protestant and Evangelical churches. They are driven to practice their faith in underground churches congregating at the members’ houses. Pastors attend to their congregations at great personal risk.
Because Evangelical and Protestant Churches are perceived to be of foreign origin, converts to these religions are regarded with even greater suspicion. Christianity is seen as a threat to the regime, and leaving the Shi’a faith is equated to being an opponent of the regime. Converts are sometimes labeled as “Zionist Christians” amplifying the threat of an enhanced punishment, in Iran, where the state of Israel is deemed as the greatest enemy, the accusations can extend to espionage and treason charges. Even with these strict legal constraints, reports show that conversion to Christianity in Iran has increased significantly over the last decade.
The increased pressures on Evangelical and Protestant Christians is one of the ways of intimidating the members of the church, and preventing Shi’ite Muslims from leaving the faith.
The pattern of the recent crackdown follows earlier examples. Over the last decade, there is a systematic, periodical policy of intimidation enacted through the arrests of Christian converts around their religious holidays, particularly just before Christmas and Easter.
Over the last few years, the regime targeted pastors at higher levels up in the church hierarchy. Arrested pastors are usually detained for long periods of time. This targeting and arrests of pastors are detrimental to the religion, as house churches cease to operate in the absence of their pastors. Moreover, family members of Christian converts and pastors suffer systematic attacks.
The most deplorable irony of the state of worship in Iran is its authoritative nature. In a country where the name of God is the ubiquitous emblem on every flag, monument, and document, the intrinsic choice of worship is denied from the citizens and instead, dictated by the authorities. In a society where officials ritually praise the mercy and compassion of God before any public statement but display no compassion for the worship of other fellow citizens, one wonders what ultimately matters most: compassion of God, rule of the law or power of man?