In light of the threat of execution hovering above an Iranian Protestant priest accused of converting from Islam, a heightened state of religious repression and persecution against Christians in Iran has recently been the focus of global media and human rights organizations around the world.
Since the Islamic revolution in Iran, the state constitution has been based on Sharia law, recognizing monotheistic religions and Zoroastrianism. Thus, religious freedom and civil equality – including parliamentary representation – are supposed to be protected by law. Reality, however, differs; and these religions, and indeed anyone propagating them, is considered an agent of Western policy and anti-Iranian by definition.
The result has been a wide-ranging policy of arrests, harassments, expulsions from places of work and education, and even death-sentences. Moslems and/or Christians who are thought to have converted from Islam are tortured, and churches are regularly raided, often ransacked, closed and their contents confiscated.
The Christian community in Iran is comprised of two older segments – Armenians (over 200,000 adherents) and Assyrians (20,000) – and a newer population of Protestants and Evangelists (totaling less than 10,000), many of whom are indeed converts. In persecuting this community, Iran regularly breaches the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a signatory.
A United Nations report on the matter from September 23, 2011, the US State Department’s report from November 17, 2010, and other reports clearly describe a rising incidence of religious persecution – in many cases based on false government pretexts of damage to state security or moral vice offenses.
The latest incident is the death sentence hanging over a protestant priest, Youssef Nadar Khani, a married father of two who is accused of having converted from Islam, in spite of there being no evidence whatsoever of his having ever been a Moslem. To pressure Khani into converting ‘back’ to Islam, he is regularly held in isolation and tortured. Iran’s public prosecutor, on October 11, 2011, denied that Khani is being held on matters of faith, but is – instead – a brothel owner previously accused of rape and blackmail, and a threat to state security.
Other incidents include the arrest on February 14 of ten Christians accused of having converted. The location and condition of these prisoners (including a 17-year old youth) are still unknown. On December 23, security forces broke into the Assemblies of God Church in western Iran and arrested congregation members, including children. The priest, Farhad Sabokroh, is still being held and denied access to his medications. In August, art student Fatemeh Nouri was arrested for crimes against state security; she had converted from Islam. Leila Mohammadi was sentenced to two years in January for fraud, cooperation with foreign agents, anti-Islamic propaganda and state security breaches, after participating in the establishment of a church. Behnam Irani, Farshid Fathi and Noorollah Qabitizade are also amongst the list of prisoners being held apparently for no other reason than their religious affiliation – the last under severe psychological pressure.
Actions against churches include prohibiting the last two officially registered churches in Teheran – the Protestant Emmanuel Church and the Evangelist St. Peter’s church – from conducting services in Farsi and on Fridays. Armenian and Assyrian church leaders have been required to provide authorities with the names of their congregation members – who are then promptly sacked from their jobs and expelled from their studies. Authorities are now demanding that churches cease employing music and distributing prayer books during services; and last December, only officially invited guests were permitted to gain access to church for holiday services.
The Christian community in Iran is being increasingly persecuted and forced underground. This stands in contrast to the declared situation based on the Iranian constitution and in breach of all international conventions to which Iran is a signatory. Unless international pressure is applied in the most forceful manner possible, this trend will continue and result in state-sponsored, publicly instigated attacks, such as we are witness to in many other predominantly Moslem countries.