A new United Nations report concludes that the persecution of Christians in Iran is at unprecedented levels. A minimum of 50 Christians are in prison, with the most famous inmate being American Pastor Saeed Abedini. Evangelical ministries see the regime as trying to suppress a rising tide of conversions to Christianity.
The report states that 35 of the 42 Christians arrested last year were guilty of forming “house churches,” where church services, Bible studies and even baptisms happen in someone’s home. The punishment for this crime against Iran’s theocracy is one to 10 years behind bars.
The U.N. report shows that the oppression under the “moderate” President Rouhani is even greater than what it was under the more vocally extreme President Ahmadinejad. That is because every Islamist believes in sharia governance, so any increase in Christian numbers will lead to an increase in arrests of Christians.
The number of Christians in Iran was miniscule before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, by some accounts numbering in the low hundreds. Amazingly, the takeover of oppressive theocrats acted like a growth hormone for the faith. By claiming to represent Islam, the mullahs made many Muslims second-guess their faith.
Now, it is relatively easy to find atheist or agnostic Iranians or those who practice a reformist, liberal interpretation of their faith compatible with secular democracy. Others turn to other faiths, most commonly evangelical Christianity.
Operation World says that evangelical Christianity is growing faster in Iran than anywhere else in the world, with an estimated annual growth of 19.6%. Todd Nettleton, Director of Media Development for Voice of the Martyrs told me that the church in Iran is “growing at an absolutely phenomenal rate.”
One of the results of this disaffection with the Iranian regime and its version of Islam is a collapse in the number of Iranians going to mosque. In 2010, Planet-Iran.com reported that Mohammad Ali-Ramin, the Deputy Minister of Islamic Guidance and Culture for Media Relations, made an astonishing admission.
“We call upon all clergy to abandon civic and politics issues, partisan matters, NGO’s and western-style organizations and return to the mosques where they can benefit from greater social clout that will ultimately elevate societal and Islamic interests. We need to be able to put our clergy to proper use, as mosque attendance has thinned out,” he said [emphasis mine].
In 2010, Supreme Leader Khamenei publicly warned about the threat posed by the “network of house churches” that “threaten the Islamic faith and deceive young Muslims.” This was the first time that such language had been used towards Iranian Christians. The regime is worried and is responding with the repression permitted by sharia governance.
Islamists (Muslims who believe in governance by sharia) argue that sharia law is tolerant because it gives Christians and Jews some rights and technically permits them to practice their faith and have houses of worship. However, the restrictions on them are designed to make their faiths unsustainable so they are ultimately a thing of the past.
To understand these discriminatory restrictions, it must be understood that Islamists reference the interpretations of authoritative Islamic scholars. One such book is Reliance of the Traveler, certified by Al-Azhar University, the highest school of Sunni learning. It is also endorsed by the U.S.-based International Institute of Islamic Thought. Although Iran is Shiite, the features of sharia governance in relation to religious minorities are fundamentally the same.
Here are some features of Sharia governance that oppress Christians with a reference to the corresponding section of Reliance of the Traveler:
O9.5(8): Religious minorities including Christians are required to pay the jizya, or a special tax, as second-class citizens. (This creates a financial and societal pressure to convert to Islam.)
O11.5(2-4): Non-Muslims must be identifiable by dress and keep to the side of the street.
O11.5(5): Non-Muslims buildings must be shorter than Muslim buildings.
O11.5(6): Christians cannot ring church bells or display crosses, recite the Torah or Gospel aloud, or have funerals or religious celebrations in public.
O11.5(7): No additional churches may be constructed.
O11.10(1): Non-Muslims may not marry a Muslim woman.
O11.10(2): Non-Muslims may not hide a foreign spy. (This and other sharia determinations against subversion are used by the Iranian regime to arrest Christians as “threats to national security.” If one is not fully supportive with the regime’s foreign policy, then that can be seen as treason. For example, nine Christians were arrested for preaching to Muslims and branded as “Christian Zionists.”)
O11.10(3): It is illegal for non-Muslims to proselytize to Muslims. If any Muslim leaves the faith, that former Muslim is to be executed.
In summary, the persecution of Christians in Iran is not solely about a weak regime trying to stay in power. There is an ideological foundation for this persecution. You can change the leadership of Iran, as happened when the presidency passed from Ahmadinejad to Rouhani, but that doesn’t necessarily change the belief system.
If Christian persecution is to end in Iran and the Muslim world, governance by sharia must end as well.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy contributed to this article.