Christians in Iran under pressure, COI report says

Author: Pat Ashworth

Publication Date: 14/10/2022

Source: Church Times

EVIDENCE shows that simply being a Christian in Iran is enough to warrant arrest, a new Country of Origin (COI) report on Christians and Christian converts says.

The publication of the report coincides with increasing unrest in the country, after 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 COI reports, which gather evidence from a wide range of trusted international sources, to assess asylum- and human-rights applications, and to judge whether it would be safe to return failed asylum-seekers to their country of origin.

The basis of such a claim would be fear of persecution or serious harm by the state because the claimant was a Christian, had converted to Christianity from Islam, or had actively sought to convert others to Christianity. Each case must be considered on its own merits, the document emphasises, with the onus on the claimant to show that they would be at real risk on account of their actual or perceived religion.

Sources including 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 recognised by the state, and are reported to be at less risk, along with “non-ethnic” Christians who converted before 1976, and up to 2005-06.

All Christians and churches in Iran must be registered with the authorities. Only recognised Christians are permitted to attend church, and they must not proselytise. Churches are monitored by security officials to ensure that Christians of a Muslim background do not attend. Private and solitary worship within the confines of the home is possible, and would not, in general, entail a 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 whom 99.6 per cent identify as Muslim, and 0.3 per cent as other religions, including Christian, Jewish, or Zoroastrian. The law prohibits Muslims’ changing or renouncing their religious beliefs, and the only recognised conversions that are from other religions to Islam. Sharia law, as interpreted by the government, considers conversion from Islam to be apostasy: a crime punishable by death.

Articles 499 and 500 of the penal code routinely used in the prosecution of converts have been amended to widen the scope for prosecuting Christians, especially converts from Islam to Christianity, whom the regime defines as members of “sects” and “cults”.

Armenians are noted to be 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 in November 2020, and the total is thought to be between 500,000 and 800,000.

Iran’s recognised Christian churches include the Anglican churches St Luke’s and St Paul’s, Isfahan; St Simon the Zealot, Shiraz; and St Paul’s, Tehran. CSW and other Christian organisations noted in November 2021 that these churches were “kept under tight surveillance by the authorities and not allowed to accept visitors or take on any new members”.

Open Doors reported in January that only four Protestant Persian-speaking congregations remained in the country. They are prohibited from accepting converts from Islam to Christianity, are not allowed to accept visitors, and cannot take on any new members. All other Persian-speaking churches have been forcibly closed in recent years.

The second and largest group of converts are found to be those who converted after 2006 as a result of Christian missionary activities aimed at the population of Iran from abroad by means of satellite TV, the internet, and social media. An undated report by Elam Ministries said that more Iranians had become Christians in the past 20 years than in the previous 13 centuries put together: a figure that some put at more than one million.

House churches in Iran — in which women play a key part — are reported to have spread because of church closures and a lack of state licences to build new churches, or because access to official churches has been restricted to Armenian and Assyrian Christians. The houses are changed regularly to avoid detection.

The response of the Iranian government 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, was to describe the converts as “promoting Christianity under cover”, “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 being raided. On social media, keywords such as “church”, “Jesus”, “Christian”, and “baptism” alert electronic surveillance. Sharing Christian messages can be interpreted as proselytisation, especially when written in Persian.

Article 18 and others found interrogation after arrest to be abusive, often involving solitary confinement. Emotional and psychological abuse during interrogation has been commonly reported, as well as sexual harassment and physical assault.

Human-rights NGOs reported poor prison conditions and mistreatment of religious-minority prisoners, including beatings, sexual abuse, degradation specifically targeting their religious beliefs, and denial of medical treatment. Authorities denied prisoners access to lawyers, and convicted them on the basis of “confessions” obtained under torture.

A 2017 Landinfo report on prosecutions of Christians noted: “It seems almost a routine that arrested converts are asked to sign a declaration promising to refrain from further Christian activity. Members who have not had 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 Association of Anglo-Iranian Women in the UK, Laila Jazayeri, this week remarked on the number of street protests in Iran after the arrest and death of Mahsa Amini. Protests have been reported in more than 170 cities in all 31 provinces of Iran. At least 400 protesters have been killed, and more than 20,000 have been arrested.

“The women and the youths are at the forefront of all protests,” she said. “The sheer determination and bravery to stand up to the regime’s brutal suppression has led to a remarkably high fighting spirit in stark contrast to a submissive and passive attitude.

“The murder of Mahsa provided the initial spark for the eruption of 40 years of condensed anger. The people want the entirety of the ruthless regime to go. They want an end to executions, suppression, widespread poverty, and corruption.”

She continued: “In Iran, prisons are slaughterhouses. In the absence of the media, behind closed doors and far away from human principles, political prisoners are physically and mentally tortured and sexually assaulted. Despite all these, [President] Khamenei is unable to stop the uprising.”


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