Originally published in Christian Today
Iran goes to the polls on June 18 to elect its new president. The election has been described as fraudulent and rigged and is likely to be spurned in record numbers by Iranian voters, who consider the outcome a fait accompli.
Most of the candidates are hard-liners, which UK charity Release International warns will increase pressure on the persecuted Church, writes Andrew Boyd.
There is little doubt as to the outcome of this weekend’s presidential election in Iran. A hard-liner, almost certainly Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, will win.
Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world, warns religious persecution is increasing under Iran’s hard-line Islamist government.
If the hardliners consolidate their grip on power, Release believes their crackdown against so-called enemies of the state, including the Church, will intensify.
Release is urging Iran to permit its citizens full religious freedom and to release all prisoners of faith.
Of the more than 500 candidates who stepped forward to run for president, the finalists were whittled down to just seven by Iran’s ultra-conservative Guardian Council. Two have since dropped out, including one of the only reformers.
The hard-line Guardian Council have barred all but a few reformers or moderates from standing. And analysts believe they have already earmarked the man they want to take over as Iran’s next president – Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi. Some analysts are dubbing the poll a selection, rather than an election.
As head of the judiciary, Raisi is responsible for the continuing imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian charity worker accused of spying.
And according to The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) Raisi served on a four-man “death committee” that paved the way for the execution of up to 5 000 political prisoners in 1988, who were buried in unmarked graves. The CHRI has accused Raisi of “crimes against humanity”. He is known as the “Blood Judge”.
In all probability, this is the man who is about to become Iran’s new president, and has been tipped to take over from Iran’s ageing Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Britain’s Observer newspaper described this weekend’s election as a “cynically manipulated travesty”.
Almost a third of Iranian voters say they refuse to vote under any circumstances. The hashtag #NoWayIVote is trending in Iran. Their non-participation all but ensures the election of an ultra-conservative. Fox News reports that Iranian citizens it interviewed said they opposed US president Joe Biden’s plans to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal which they said would just strengthen the Islamist regime.
The 82-year-old Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei is widely regarded as the puppet master behind this election. Observers believe his aim is to consolidate his grip on the Iranian revolution, by giving his blessing to the candidate whom he most resembles – Raisi.
Khamenei’s stated objective is to “purify the revolution”. His broader aim is the establishment of an Islamic civilisation, which would inspire and rally the Muslim world.
He has already set out his roadmap towards that: Islamic revolution, leading to Islamic regime, then Islamic government, Islamic society, and onwards to Islamic civilisation. Observers believe he considers himself halfway to that goal.
And those analysts believe the coronation of Raisi will herald a new wave of Islamisation, with an inevitable impact on the Church in Iran.
For Iran, the unifying threat is America and all things considered American, and that, in their view, includes the Church.
Anti-American sentiment was strengthened when President Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran and stepped up sanctions.
With the economy currently buckling under US sanctions – inflation has hit 50% – hard-line views are gaining traction and commentators believe Iran is set to gravitate towards China and Russia.
The result of a hard-line victory is also likely to impact relations with Israel (regarded as another external threat), and bolster Iranian support for militant Hamas. It could also further exacerbate the proxy war between Sunni and Shia Islam in Yemen, where Shia Iran is supporting Houthi rebels against Saudi Arabia, which is Sunni.
Release is concerned that persecution will be stepped up should hardliners tighten their grip on Iranian politics.
In Iran, Pakistan, and in states in Nigeria that have adopted Sharia (Islamic law), persecution has been the inevitable consequence of uncompromising Islamist theocratic rule.
To understand why persecution is likely to intensify in Iran, we need to go back to the Islamic revolution of 1979.
In January that year, the Shah (the king) was ousted, the result of two years of growing unrest. The Shah was a moderniser, considered by his critics to be corrupt and to have sold out to the West.
The ultra-conservative ayatollahs took over and in April 1979, the country voted by referendum to become an Islamic Republic under a theocratic constitution.
The rule of Allah in the nation was to be established through God’s representatives, the ayatollahs, and implemented under a system of governance known as Sharia (Islamic law).
Islam is much more than a set of personal religious beliefs. Islam, which means submission, requires religion to have a bearing on society as a whole. Under Islam, religion and politics are inseparable.
(For Christians grappling to understand the attitude of these zealous hard-liners, consider the Pharisees described in the New Testament, who were seeking to establish God’s kingdom on earth by the rule of law.)
Iran has a population of 84.9million. Up to 95% are Shia Muslim, while Sunni Muslims account for 5 –10%.
Minority faiths include Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Baha’i. Christians include those in traditional Armenian and Assyrian/Chaldean churches, as well as newer Protestant and evangelical communities.
Iran is an Islamic republic and Shia Islam is the official religion. Freedom for all other faiths is limited, despite constitutional guarantees of religious liberty. This authoritarian theocracy has inevitably resulted in the state-sponsored persecution of the Church.
As Iran has become progressively more hard-line in its approach, the Church has been swept up in the crackdown against political opponents. Individual Christians are often accused of “undermining national security” and have found themselves cast in the role of enemy of the state.
Religious activity beyond the state’s control is regarded as an attempt to undermine the Islamic republic. Muslims who abandon Islam to change their faith are anathema, and seeking to convert them is illegal.
This is the logic behind the persecution of Muslim converts, and the present-day crackdown on the Church in Iran.
The hard-line view in Iran is that all ethnic Persians are Muslims. Converting from Islam is an act of betrayal, not just against the faith, but against the state. Conversion – apostasy – is punishable by death for men, or life imprisonment for women, although the death sentence is rarely carried out. Evangelising Muslims is illegal and arrest and imprisonment is common.
The constitution continues to recognise Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians as protected minorities. But in practice, the Christian faith is tolerated only within clear confines.
Armenian and Assyrian Christians are allowed to practise their faith, but services must be in their own language and restricted to their own ethnic groups. All Christian activity in Farsi, the most widely spoken language in Iran, is illegal.
A partner of Release International says: “The overall goal is to eliminate the Persian-speaking church and only allow Christian minority groups to operate.”
To limit the spread of the Christian faith, the authorities have closed many churches, driving congregations underground.
Most Christians in Iran now meet in private homes. Meetings are closely monitored by the Revolutionary Guard, especially the activities of Christian leaders.
Religious repression has been increasing since 2010 when Ayatollah Khamenei branded house churches a threat to national security. Persecution intensified again in 2015, driving many Christian leaders out of the country.
Prominent figures such as pastors often come under the scrutiny of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Many have had to leave.
A Release partner describes a “forced exodus of the Christian community”, adding, “Hundreds are fleeing. If they stay their lives will be in danger.”
Converts who remain in Iran face pressure from the state and from their families.
Says a Release partner: “If a Muslim is baptised as a Christian he or she can end up in prison for a year, while the person who performs the baptism can be jailed for four to five years.”
A number of Iranian Christians suffer from severe ill-health in detention, due to lack of medical treatment and beatings from prison staff and other inmates.
Members of religious minorities, including Christian converts, face discrimination in employment and restricted access to education and freedom to practise their faith.
The Bishop of Truro’s persecution review on behalf of the UK Foreign Office described the situation facing Christians in Iran as having reached “an alarming stage”.
Hate speech was on the rise and “arrest, detention and imprisonment” were common. The Truro Review, to which Release International contributed, reported that church and Christian properties have also been confiscated.
Persecution case studies
In the face of a ban on any Christian activity in the common language – Farsi – many Protestant pastors have been forced to hold services in secret in private homes.
Throughout Church history, meeting in homes has been a factor in the growth of Christianity. As has persecution, which concentrates the mind and refines the Church.
For going underground, in defiance of the state, some Christian leaders have been executed or assassinated. They include Rev Hossein Soodmand, who was hanged in his cell in 1990 and buried in an unmarked grave, evangelist Mehdi Dibaj and Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr, who were both murdered in 1994.
The charges against Christians reveal the mindset of the Iranian authorities, who regard them as enemies of the state.
Among the Christians who have fled the country is pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz. The authorities closed down his Assyrian church for holding services in Farsi.
Pastor Bet-Tamraz had already endured 65 days in solitary confinement for his faith. He was sentenced to a further 10 years for telling Muslims about Jesus.
At the age of 66, he believed if he were sent back to an Iranian jail the harsh conditions would probably kill him. So before beginning his sentence he fled the country to join the Iranian diaspora.
Naser Navard Gol-Tapeh
Christian Naser Navard Gol-Tapeh was arrested in 2016 when 30 intelligence agents raided an engagement party in Karaj, near Tehran.
He and three others were held in solitary confinement for two months and subjected to intense interrogation. They were denied legal counsel.
All four were charged with “illegal gathering, collusion and evangelism”. The others, who were Azeri nationals, later skipped bail and fled Iran.
The Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran charged Gol-Tapeh with “acting against national security through the formation and establishment of an illegal church organisation in his home”.
They sentenced him to 10 years in prison. He lost his subsequent appeal.
In January 2018 he was incarcerated in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. There he was denied medical treatment for a painful gum infection. His family feared he could lose all his teeth.
Mohammed Reza Omidi
Christian convert Mohammed Reza Omidi was given 80 lashes for taking communion wine. This followed the completion of a two-year sentence for participating in a house church.
The authorities raided the underground church and charged Omidi with “acting against national security” by “propagating house churches and promoting Zionist Christianity”.
He was ordered to serve a further two years in internal exile in Iran, more than 1 000km from home.
Other Christians have also been flogged for taking communion wine.
Drinking alcohol is not illegal for Christians in Iran, but is forbidden for Muslims. The charges brought against Christian converts reflect the state position that once a Muslim, always a Muslim. And the sentence reflects the state’s hard-line refusal to recognise the right of Muslims to change their religion.
Christianity in Iran predates Islam. The Christian presence in Iran dates back to the Day of Pentecost, where the book of Acts describes Medes, Persians and Parthians among those gathered in Jerusalem. They heard the Christian message from Peter and took the Gospel back to their own nations, including what was to become modern-day Iran.
The churches they established grew into the Armenian, Assyrian and Catholic churches of today. The Church of Saint Mary in the northwest of Iran is said to be the second oldest in Christendom. More contemporary Protestant expressions include Pentecostal and Assemblies of God churches.
Christians have suffered successive waves of persecution in Iran, though not originally under Islam, which afforded them some protection. The first wave of persecution came in the 3rd century, followed by others in the 5th and 14th centuries.
Many Christians were massacred by Ottoman troops during the First World War. In parts of Iran, the Christian population dwindled from pockets of almost 50% to just one or 2%.
There is much debate about the number of Christians in Iran today. According to official Iranian government figures, Christians number just over a quarter of a million. But a recent survey by GAMAAN, a secular Dutch organisation, estimated as many as 1.5% of the population now identify as Christian.
A number of Christian ministries also estimate there are now more than a million Christians in Iran.
Persecution has failed to prevent the spread of Christianity and, in turn, the spread of the Christian faith has led to increased persecution. Despite that persecution, or perhaps because of it, the church in Iran is growing rapidly.
According to a partner of Release International: “Persecution is on the increase because the authorities are aware of the growth in the number of converts and house churches – and are determined to stem this.”
Release partner Lazarus Yeghnazar of 222 Ministries says: “In the last 40 years, amid severe persecution of the church, only matched in ferocity by the Emperor Nero, more Muslims in Iran have come to love and surrender to Christ than the combined number in the last 14 centuries.”
There are growing accounts of Iranian Muslims having dreams and visions of Christ and turning to the Christian faith.
Mike Thomas of 222 Ministries says: “The number of stories I have heard of people having dreams and visions about Jesus is incredible. Many have had physical encounters with Christ. It’s extraordinary what is going on there.”
Digital technology is also fuelling church growth in Iran. Advances in IT have made available high-quality teaching materials from abroad. “Twenty years ago that was impossible,” says a Release partner, “but today the church has some amazing tools at its disposal.”
Initiatives include social media and TV programmes broadcast into Iran in Farsi, as well as online prayer rooms and virtual churches.
Before the Iranian Revolution some estimate there were only a few hundred Christians in the country from a Muslim background. Today, it is commonplace to hear reports of revival taking place in Iran, and beyond the borders of Iran to where the Iranian diaspora have fled.
Release International has been supporting the families of Christian prisoners in Iran, training house churches and supplying Christian literature.
Its CEO, Paul Robinson, is urging full freedom of religion in Iran.
“The Christians Release supports are loyal citizens who pray for those in authority and want the best for Iran,” he said.
“The Iranian authorities should respect their citizens’ desire for religious freedom, allow them to choose their own faith, and release all prisoners of faith.”