Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Renewed crackdown on Christians in Iran underway

IRAN ALIVE Serves Fastest Growing Christian Populations

Britain is an increasingly impoverished society: spiritually and financially. Still, anyone born here has won the historic lottery relatively speaking. It is easy for us to forget that harsh persecution, especially of a religious type, is the global norm, not the exception.

Nowhere better demonstrates this than Iran. Once a western-allied kingdom with an increasing respect for free thought and religious minorities, many of which predate the arrival of Islam- since its 1979 Islamic Revolution it has been under the tight grip of a succession of Ayatollahs and crackpot presidents. 

Article 18, a British charity that aims to defend and promote religious freedom in Iran, reported that a renewed crackdown on Christianity was underway, with 69 Christians arrested in recent weeks. 

Converts from Islam are the main targets, and under current Iranian law, apostasy from the state faith is considered a capital offence, although punishment is left up to the judge. 

Several human rights charities I pursued in the hope of sourcing anonymous testimonies from local Christians were unable to aid me in doing so due to spiralling security concerns. 

Article 18 News Director Steve Dew-Jones told me that while the fresh crackdown is concerning, it is unsurprising:  “Having seen very few arrests so far in 2023, the new wave of arrests certainly marks a clear uptick and apparent new directive from the Iranian authorities.

“However, such waves are not unheard of – we have seen them before in the summer of 2020 and at Christmas 2018, for example – but of course, it is concerning, and every arrest represents an individual whose life has now suddenly been turned upside down.”

‘Designed To Intimidate’

Kiri Kankhwende, Press and Public Affairs Team Leader spokesperson for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a human rights organisation which specialises in religious freedom, revealed that such incidents are “sadly not uncommon in Iran”. 

“There is an ongoing campaign, spanning several years, targeting Christian activities in the country – particularly with regards to proselytising, acquiring and distributing Christian material in Farsi and evangelism. The main targets are converts from Islam and home-church leaders.

“The motives are difficult to discern and sometimes related to lack of coordination or competition between different state security agencies. 

“What is certain is that these actions are designed to intimidate congregations and send a strong and clear message to potential converts that if they become Christians, their lives will be very difficult. 

“Sometimes these incidents are related to Iran’s relationships and negotiations with the international community regarding issues such as the nuclear deal and sanctions. Iran specialises in ‘hostage diplomacy’ and Christians are a vulnerable minority.”

Perhaps this is the most terrifying thing. One can be put to death without ever knowing the true reason why.

Two-Thousand Years of Christian History 

Christians have been resident in Iran since biblical times, and the faith remains the second-largest non-Muslim minority religion in the country. Christians are thought to number around 1 million Christians, including some 21,380 Catholics, although accurate figures are impossible to obtain.

Some denominations are recognised by the Iranian constitution such as the Chaldean and the Armenian denominations. These denominations have certain rights such as freedom to worship within their own churches but not in Iran’s national language Farsi.

The state conducts a campaign of harassment against these denominations, conducting waves of arrests of worshippers, who often gather in homes, on security charges and demanding exorbitant bail amounts designed to bankrupt congregations and individuals. 

According to Dew-Jones, all the arrestees were converts from Islam, apart from one Iranian-Armenian couple, although A18 is unsure about the denominations of the group.

“Iran’s officially recognised churches of Armenian and Assyrian Christians are afforded some freedom to worship – the same is true of the few Anglican and Catholic Churches,” Dew-Jones explains.

“However, this is predicated on the assumption that they do not or are not perceived to be attempting to convert Muslims or allow converts into their congregations.

“It is conversion that is the real issue, as it is seen as an affront to the very heart of the Islamic Republic and all that it stands for.”

Kankhwende said she does not believe the wave of arrests is related to the recent wave of protests in the country. “The campaign against Christianity started decades ago and is likely to continue regardless of any protests,” she says.

The demonstrations, which led to a brief burst of interest in the West, began following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman arrested by Iran’s morality police in Tehran on 13 September 2022. It was alleged that she had violated strict rules requiring women to cover their hair when in public. Three days later, Amini died in hospital after falling into a coma hours after her arrest.

Echoing Kankhwende, Dew-Jones said that while “the arrests aren’t likely to be directly related to the protests, they can be seen in the wider context of a renewed crackdown on civil liberties – as seen in the renewed efforts of the morality police – after a quieter period since the height of the protests last autumn.”

Ancient Past, Uncertain Future 

“Under the current regime,” Dew-Jones explains, “it is difficult to see any change in prospects for Christians – so this means that those recognised as Christians will be able to live out their faith under the current restrictions and those who are unrecognised – like all converts – will have no opportunity to freely practise their faith and must instead either choose to worship alone or with others in private homes in ‘house-churches’, similar to those used in underground Chinese churches.

“But these are at constant risk of being raided and members charged with acting against national security or propaganda against the state.

“Under a different regime, a different future could be possible. The remarkable growth of the Iranian Church despite persecution means that the Church could really flourish in a free Iran, and many Iranians – Christians and non-Christians alike – long for that freedom to practice the religion of their choosing in peace.”

A spokesperson for the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office told me that while they do not publicly comment on possible sanctions designations, “promoting freedom of religion is one of the UK’s long standing human rights priorities. We continue to raise human rights issues with the Iranian regime”.

While this is obviously not the case when it comes to the UK’s frequent brown-nosing of Saudi Arabia in the hope they will tilt toward the West, it does seem that we are willing to be a tad more abrasive in our response to the latter.

“Since September 2022, the UK has designated over 80 Iranian officials and entities for human rights violations, including Iran’s Prosecutor General and a number of Revolutionary Court judges,” the spokesperson explained.

This month it has become clear, once again, that Tehran is keen to export its hate abroad. The Jewish Chronicle reported that senior commanders from Iran’s feared Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps used London student groups to pipe extremist antisemitic propaganda and to call for violence in Britain. Nor does the FCDO’s claims of stringentness seem accurate given that they still refuse to acknowledge that the IRGC is ostensibly a terror group.

Dew-Jones said Article 18 “calls on the international community to make sure that human rights and religious freedom in Iran is central to any negotiations”. 

“We also urge the UK government to proscribe the IRGC, which is responsible for many raids on Christians, and to offer a new safe legal route for the many Christians who flee Iran to seek asylum elsewhere.”

Amid the fog of international relations, the war on Iranian Christians has long been clear, and Britain has neither the moral or political resources to aid their cause.

“I think that there is not a solution that I as a human can provide,” one exiled Iranian Christian told me.

“I think only God can have a solution, because I think this is a spiritual battle, a spiritual war. There are two sides, and I decided that I would like to join the side of the light, so I think that I, as a human being, I cannot really provide a solution, but God holds the solution in His hands.”