In Iran’s 1979 revolution, many Iranians believed that an Islamic-based government would offer the reforms and freedoms they had long sought under the Shah. Thirty-three years later, however, Iranians have grown disillusioned as their government has plunged them into economic stagnation and has isolated them from the international community. Though massive protests have thus far failed to grant Iranians the freedoms they desire, idleness and hardship have led many Iranians to seek answers outside of Islam. Thousands are now finding hope in the Christian faith, but not without great cost.
Religious freedom violations committed against Iranian Christians began in 2012 in the same manner that marked the end of 2011 – with mass arrests, lengthy prison terms, and potential executions. In February alone, eleven Christians were arrested; their health and circumstances unknown. Another Christian, Leila Mohammadi, was issued a two-year prison sentence for “deceiving citizens by forming house churches,” among other charges. The recent wave of arrests, beginning with a raid on the Assembly of God Church in Ahwaz in late-December, signifies that a renewed crackdown on Christians may be underway.
Christians Arrested in Church Raids
In the latest incident, Iranian security forces raided a house church meeting in a residential building in Shiraz. According to sources in Iran, ten Christian converts from Islam were detained, Bibles were confiscated, and the homes of those arrested were thoroughly searched for Christian literature.
Among those arrested were a family of three, including a 17-year-old boy and Mojtaba Hosseini, who was imprisoned once before along with eight other Christians in May 2008. The detainees have been unable to contact their families and their location remains unknown.
On the same day, Maasis Mosesian, an Armenian Christian and elder at Narmak Jama’at-e Rabbani Church in Tehran, an affiliate of the Assemblies of God church (AG), was arrested at his workplace and taken to Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj. Like those in Shiraz, Mosesian has been denied visitations with his family.
Mosesian’s arrest was not the first time members of AG churches were detained in recent months. On December 23, state security raided the AG church in Ahvaz and arrested everyone in attendance, including children.
“The authorities herded the entire congregation, including children, into two buses that had been brought specifically for this purpose,” Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported. “The majority were interrogated, threatened and eventually released. However, the church’s senior pastor, Pastor Farhad, remains in detention.”
Pastor Farhad Sabokroh along with two other church members, Naser Zamen-Defzuli and Davoud Alijani, are reportedly being held in Ahwaz’s Karoun Prison. Prior to his arrest, Pastor Farhad underwent cataract surgery, but does not have access to the medication he needs in prison. Farhad’s wife – who was also arrested and released on January 1 after submitting the deed to their house as bail – has since visited her husband in prison and is very concerned about his health.
While most churches targeted by Iranian authorities are not registered with the government and consist of Muslim converts to Christianity, the AG church in Ahwaz is officially recognized. Nevertheless, Pastor Farhad has been detained on several occasions in the past and was warned not to allow Christian converts into his congregation.
On January 18, Leila Mohammadi, was given a two-year prison sentence by the Revolutionary Court in Tehran for “collaborating with foreign-dependent groups, broad anti-Islamic propaganda, deceiving citizens by forming house churches, insulting sacred figures and acting against national security.” Mohammadi was arrested at her home on July 30, 2011 and was held for 74 days in solitary confinement at Tehran’s Evin prison before being released on bail. After the verdict was issued, sources said that Mohammadi’s attorney sent the case to Tehran Province’s high court for review.
While Mohammadi was issued the first known prison term for being a Christian by an Iranian court in 2012, many other Christians remain behind bars, serving long-term sentences following arrests in previous years.
Noorollah Qabitizade and Farshid Fathi, both arrested during Christmas and New Year’s celebrations in 2010, have now spent over a year in prison.
Qabitizade (left) is being held at Karoun prison in Ahwaz and has reportedly been under severe psychological pressure. Fathi is being held at Evin prison in Tehran and is scheduled to appear in court in the coming weeks.
Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani – arrested in 2009 for denouncing Iran’s educational practice of requiring children to read the Quran in public schools – is on death row for apostasy. In December, the Iranian judiciary decided to delay Nadarkhani’s final verdict for up to one year following aggressive international pressure. While in prison, Nadarkhani has been struck by authorities during frequent interrogations and placed in solitary confinement for extended periods of time. Nadarkhani has also reportedly been given materials aimed at discrediting the Bible and propagating Islam in hopes that Nadarkhani will renounce his Christian faith.
Behnam Irani, who belongs to the same denomination as Nadarkhani, the Church of Iran, has been in prison in Karaj since May 2011. In January 2011, a court found Irani (below) guilty of “crimes against national security” and sentenced him to one year in prison. Irani is also serving a five-year sentence that was handed down during a previous arrest in 2008. Irani has been beaten by fellow inmates in prison.
A Glimmer of Hope
The arrests and sentences mentioned indicate merely a few of the numerous Christians and other minorities – mainly from the Bahá’í faith – that are imprisoned for nothing more than their religious beliefs. Although far less severe, some churches in Iran – while unharmed by raids – face other forms of discrimination. On February 10, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security ordered Emmanuel Protestant Church and St. Peter Evangelical Church in Tehran to stop holding Farsi language services. If the churches comply, there will no longer be services offered in Farsi in any officially registered church in Tehran. The AG Church in Tehran was ordered to cease their Farsi services in October 2009.
However, despite church crackdowns, mass arrests, long-term prison sentences, and a potential execution for apostasy, Iranian Christians continue to worship in secret and share their faith somewhat openly.
“On the ground, we’re moving forward and talking to people daily. This month alone, we had over twenty people come to Christ,” an Iranian church leader, who requested anonymity, told ICC in December. “Persecution is on the rise daily and inside has become more and more volatile. People are scared of the Iranian government. They’ve filled the streets with undercover officers to entrap people who speak against the government.”
Whereas anti-Christian crackdowns appear to be used to discourage the church, some speculate that Iranian officials realize that the opposite is true. Nonetheless, officials are still intent on persecuting the church.
“The issue has little to do with perceptions of how Christianity might respond, but rather with the obligation under Islamic doctrine to put and keep [non-Muslims] in their ‘place’ within Muslim society,” Clare Lopez, a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy, told World Net Daily. “The forces of Sharia Islam are in the ascendant all over the Middle East these days and with the new-found sense of empowerment combined with what is perceived as Western complicity and weakness in the face of that situation, it is to be expected that all religious minorities, especially Christians and Jews, increasingly will feel the brutality of Islamic supremecism.”
While it appears that a renewed crackdown on Christianity is underway, the church remains undeterred. “Iranian church leaders have accepted persecution and are using it to their advantage,” an Iranian pastor told ICC. “In fact, the church is thriving under persecution.”