By Morteza Esmailpour
Had President Hassan Rouhani fulfilled his campaign promises, 2017 could have been a year of hope, change and prosperity. Instead, the country continues to be plagued with political oppression, economic meltdown, social injustice and religious persecution.
The mistreatment of religious minorities particularly those who have converted to Christianity has gained worldwide attention in recent years. Many house churches have been closed and worshipers arrested by security forces.
It is unclear how many Christian converts are currently in jail in Iran. In recent weeks, the authorities have reportedly shut down many shops and businesses owned by Christian converts. Reports by human rights groups do not reflect the true extent of abuses committed against Christian communities in Iran. Although Article 13 of the Constitution recognizes Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity, the authorities routinely harass Christian converts and evangelical Christians. The Islamic Republic considers evangelical Christianity a “corrupt and perverted” movement.
Karen is a Christian convert who has been granted asylum by Turkey. She told Kayhan London: “We worshiped in our house church. We kept to ourselves and didn’t bother anybody. The security agents came to the house one night, stood us up against the wall and photographed each person. They confiscated our books, tapes and other belongings before taking us to an unknown location. They forced us to promise that we would never congregate again and that we were Muslims and not Christians. They detained the owner of the house for three days. I get very anxious anytime I think of that day.”
In 2010, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah, Ali Khamenei, described house churches as a “tool which the enemies of the Islamic Republic use to undermine religion in our society.” Conservative news outlets with close ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps [IRGC] and to the security agencies consider house churches illegal and part of the “Zionist propaganda machine.”
The former Iranian Ambassador to the Vatican, Ali Akbar Naseri, said in 2011 that evangelical Christianity had a “political dimension.” He argued that evangelicalism was not in line with the Vatican’s official policy. The Vatican, however, promotes the idea of sharing the Gospel with the entire world. It is clear that the Iranian authorities are worried about the spread of Christianity in the country. The Ministry of Intelligence also deems house churches a “threat to youths.”
Right-wing conservative clerics consider Muslims who convert to other religions as “apostates,” a sin punishable by death. The owners of buildings that offer house churches to worshipers are routinely arrested by security agents.
Mohammad Hassan Yousef Pourseyfi, a former prisoner of conscience and Christian human rights activist, told Kayhan London: “Christian converts face two problems in Iran. The Islamic Republic doesn’t recognize Christian converts despite Article 13 of the constitution which acknowledges the civil rights of the religious minorities. People should be free to choose their religion. This idea is, however, unacceptable to some people in the country. In my view, conversion to Christianity is a response to this institutionalized intolerance. Pressure from human rights organizations has forced the authorities to abandon the death penalty for the so-called apostates, but Christian converts are still given long prison sentences. Inadequate religious teaching is the second problem facing Christian converts who receive their information almost entirely from house churches and cable networks.”
Pourseyfi added: “Christian converts are mistreated and suffer discrimination in jail. They are not afforded the same basic rights as other prisoners. They are convicted and given lengthy prison sentences on false charges of trying to undermine the Islamic Republic. First-time offenders are fined and jailed. And so-called repeat offenders are badly treated by the authorities.” Pourseyfi himself spent four years at Rajaei Shahr [Gohardasht] Prison.
The authorities are not concerned about those Christians who worship in the privacy of their homes, but about the evangelicals who promote the religion and seek out potential converts. Many Christian converts have been able to obtain asylum in foreign countries in the past few years. “There are currently close to two million potential and actual Christian converts living in Iran, many of whom are trying to leave the country. The authorities are clearly concerned about the popularity and spread of Christianity in Iran,” Pourseyfi said.
The authorities have systematically harassed the Christian community in Iran for many years now. They have shut down Farsi language classes at the Armenian Episcopal Church of Tehran. They have also demanded that the church provide the Intelligence Ministry with the list of its congregation, including individual national numbers. They have also banned Bible classes at the Jamaat-e Rabbani Center in Tehran. Non-Christian Farsi-speaking visitors are banned from entering the Holy Virgin Church in Isfahan.
Many Christians are denied due process following their arrests. They are not properly arraigned. Those who are charged with political crimes are not allowed to contact their families or hire a lawyer. Many are slapped with heavy fines. They are physically and psychologically abused and denied proper medical care.