Iran’s Christians Under Pressure, IOC Report Says
EVIDENCE shows that simply being a Christian in Iran is enough to warrant arrest, according to a new Country of Origin (COI) report on Christians and Christian Converts.
The release of the report coincides with growing unrest in the country, following the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody after being arrested for not wearing her hijab in the approved manner.
The Home Office uses the COI reports, which gather evidence from a wide range of reliable international sources, to assess asylum and human rights claims, and to judge whether it would be safe to send rejected asylum seekers back to their country of origin.
The basis for such a claim would be a fear of persecution or serious harm from the state because the claimant was a Christian, converted to Christianity from Islam, or actively sought to convert others to Christianity. Each case must be considered on its own merits, the document emphasizes, with the burden on the claimant to show that they would be in real danger because of their real or perceived religion.
Sources such as Article 18, Open Doors, Middle East Concern and Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) continue to report the arrest and detention of Christian converts. “Ethnic” Christians – Armenians, Assyrians and Chaldeans – are recognized by the state and are said to be less at risk, as well as “non-ethnic” Christians who converted before 1976 and up to 2005-2006.
All Christians and churches in Iran must be registered with the authorities. Only recognized Christians are allowed to attend the church and they must not proselytize. Churches are guarded by security guards to ensure that Christians of Muslim background do not attend. Private, solitary worship within the confines of the home is possible and would generally pose no real risk of persecution, the document suggests.
Iran became an Islamic republic in 1976, with Shia Islam as the official state religion. Its population is estimated at just over 79.9 million, of which 99.6% identify as Muslim and 0.3% as belonging to other religions, including Christian, Jewish or Zoroastrian. The law prohibits Muslims from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs, and the only recognized conversions are from other religions to Islam. Sharia, as interpreted by the government, views conversion from Islam as apostasy: a crime punishable by death.
Articles 499 and 500 of the penal code commonly used in the prosecution of converts have been amended to broaden the scope of prosecution against Christians, especially converts from Islam to Christianity, whom the regime defines as members of “sects” and “cults”.
Armenians are considered the largest Christian group, with “substantial” Christian populations in Tehran and Isfahan. They are required to deliver sermons in their traditional language. The 2016 census figures identified 130,158 Christians, mostly in urban areas. But UN special rapporteurs estimated the existence of 250,000 Christians in Iran as of November 2020, and the total is believed to be between 500,000 and 800,000.
Recognized Christian churches in Iran include St Luke’s and St Paul’s Anglican Churches, Isfahan; St Simon the Zealot, Shiraz; and St Paul, Tehran. CSW and other Christian organizations noted in November 2021 that these churches were “under close surveillance by authorities and not allowed to accept visitors or hire new members.”
Open Doors reported in January that only four Persian-speaking Protestant congregations remained in the country. They are prohibited from accepting converts from Islam to Christianity, are not allowed to accept visitors, and cannot accept new members. All other Persian-speaking churches have been forcibly closed in recent years.
The second and largest group of converts are those who converted after 2006 as a result of Christian missionary activities targeting the Iranian population from abroad through satellite television, the Internet and social media. An undated report by Elam Ministries said more Iranians had become Christians in the past 20 years than in the previous 13 centuries combined: a figure some put at over a million.
House churches in Iran – in which women play a key role – are said to have spread due to church closures and a lack of state licenses to build new churches, or because access to official churches was restricted to Armenian and Assyrian Christians. Houses are changed regularly to avoid detection.
The Iranian government’s response to a letter from UN special rapporteurs in November 2020, highlighting the reported persecution of members of the Christian minority in Iran, including converts from Islam, has been to describe converts as “promoting undercover Christianity,” “communicating with Evangelical Zionism,” and “holding illegal and secret meetings to deceive citizens.”
CSW reports that any gathering of Christians, including birthday or engagement parties, is treated as potential house church activity and subject to raids. On social networks, keywords such as “church”, “Jesus”, “Christian” and “baptism” alert electronic surveillance. Sharing Christian messages can be construed as proselytizing, especially when written in Persian.
Article 18 and others have found questioning after arrest to be abusive, often involving solitary confinement. Emotional and psychological abuse during interrogations were frequently reported, along with sexual harassment and physical assault.
Human rights NGOs reported poor prison conditions and ill-treatment of prisoners belonging to religious minorities, including beatings, sexual abuse, degradation specifically targeting their religious beliefs and the refusal of medical care. The authorities denied the prisoners access to a lawyer and sentenced them on the basis of “confessions” obtained under torture.
A 2017 Landinfo report on prosecutions of Christians noted, “It seems almost common for arrested converts to be asked to sign a statement promising to refrain from further Christian activity. Members who have not played a prominent role will normally be released shortly if they agree to sign such a statement. Arrested converts who refuse to sign risk further imprisonment.
The director of the Anglo-Iranian Women’s Association in the UK, Laila Jazayeri, remarked this week on the number of street protests in Iran following the arrest and death of Mahsa Amini. Demonstrations have been reported in more than 170 cities across Iran’s 31 provinces. At least 400 protesters were killed and over 20,000 were arrested.
“Women and young people are on the front line of all protests,” she said. “The sheer determination and bravery to oppose the regime’s brutal repression has led to a remarkably high fighting spirit in stark contrast to a submissive and passive attitude.
“Mahsa’s murder provided the initial spark for the eruption of 40 years of condensed anger. The people want the entire ruthless regime gone. They want an end to executions, repression, widespread poverty and corruption”.
She continued: “In Iran, prisons are slaughterhouses. In the absence of the media, behind closed doors and far from human principles, political prisoners are physically and mentally tortured and sexually assaulted. Despite all this, [President] Khamenei is unable to stop the uprising.