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.”
It was December 15th, 2011 and a group of Christians were praying at a private home Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; it was part of their weekly prayer gathering. But that particular Thursday was different because it was the day Saudi Arabian officials discovered about the underground prayer gathering. At first, the security forces seemed to be friendly; they even let the Christians finish their prayers. Then they took the twenty-nine female and six male Christians to their office. The securities promised the Christians that they would release them after brief investigation. Unfortunately, the Christians still remain behind bars.
In a recent interview with the Voice of America’s Amharic language interview, one of the female Christian prisoners recounts the ordeal they went through simply because of their faith in Christ. The prisoner said:
They (the Saudi security officials) took us to their office at 2 am in the night. We spent the night in their office. Then in the morning, they put us in a very cold room. There is a restroom within that room and it is very stinky. There are insects in the room. In the night, they took us to a waiting room at Briman jail. When we arrived, they started to insult, harass and push us around. Then they started to search us. They took off all our clothes, including our underwear. Then they inserted their fingers into our genitals. They used the same hand glove to search about ten of us. Then they threw away our clothes and gave us pajamas to wear.
The plight of our brothers and sisters has continued. When ICC called them on February 7 to inquiry about their situation, a female prisoner spoke about Saudi officials pressuring the Christian prisoners to convert to Islam. The Saudis sent a preacher who gathered the prisoners and vilified Christianity and the Bible. The preacher told the Christians to convert to Islam because “Islam is the only true religion.” Despite such pressure the Christians refused compromising on their faith.
We at ICC have continued to raise our voice on behalf of our brothers and sisters. We are asking all concerned to sign this petition on behalf of the prisoners. We are also organizing a protest rally demanding the Saudis to release the Christians. The rally will be held on February 21st at 10 am in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy located at 601 New Hampshire Ave, NW Washington D.C. If you live in Washington D.C. area, please join us! The Bible clearly tells us that we are the same body of Christ and commands us to “remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering,” Hebrew 13:3. Also pray for our imprisoned brothers and sisters. Pray for their release and that they stay encouraged in their faith.
In mid-November, ICC asked its supporters to start making emergency calls to Congress on behalf of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF. The Commission, which is perhaps the greatest voice in the U.S government speaking up for the rights of religious minorities today, was on life support. A single senator was holding up the funding for USCIRF and putting America’s reputation as the champion of human rights and religious freedom at risk. ICC sent a representative to his office, and ICC supporters made dozens of calls. Soon after, the Commission got a temporary stay of execution. However, its long term existence remains tenuous and still hangs on the decision of the same unrelenting senator – Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois.
What is USCIRF?
It is an unfortunate but well known fact in political circles that religious persecution is a very low priority for the U.S. government. Created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, over the past twelve years USCIRF has used a few dedicated professionals, unpaid commissioners, and a relatively tiny budget to investigate and report on a massive amount of religious freedom violations around the globe. The State Department also has an International Religious Freedom office, but its reporting on issues of religious persecution is compromised by political considerations that USCIRF doesn’t have to deal with. If USCIRF ceases to exist, then what little emphasis the United States did put on promoting international religious freedom will certainly be reduced.
USCIRF also makes detailed policy recommendations to the White House, Congress, and the State Department. When Secretary of State Clinton traveled to Burma, one of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians, USCIRF wrote a letter strongly encouraging the secretary to publicly address persecution. In 2010, when Muslim groups tried to pass a resolution in the U.N. to make it internationally illegal to say anything considered “offensive” about Islam, USCIRF was instrumental in campaigning against the legislation, which ultimately failed.
A World Without USCIRF?
What many don’t seem to understand is that the future of millions of people who live in constant fear of persecution is at stake. The United States wields a great deal of influence overseas, and most foreign governments will work to keep stable what is usually a valuable economic relationship with the U.S.. This in turn means that they often have to promote human rights and religious freedom to avoid uncomfortable sanctions. American influence, if used correctly, can have a profoundly positive effect on the policies of foreign governments towards religious minorities. In some cases, it can even lead to wrongfully tortured and imprisoned Christians being set free on the spot.
In a world where nearly 200 million Christians are suffering persecution at any given point, every voice that speaks up for them is important. If the United States loses USCIRF, it will lose one of the only official organizations that promotes what Americans have always considered a fundamental right — a right established in the very first sentence of the first amendment to the U.S Constitution.
How You Can Help
Please agree with us in prayer for America’s leaders, that they will seek the Lord’s guidance in their decision making, and that they will continue to make religious freedom a priority for the government of the United States by funding the U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom. You can also still make calls to Senator Durbin’s office at 202-224-2152, asking him to release his call back on H.R. 2867.
Persecution rarely makes it on camera. For most Westerners, persecution looks like an out of focus, underexposed, distant blur. Yet our persecuted brothers and sisters face it in high resolution and surround sound every day.
That’s why we launched “Persecution In Focus,” our first video contest intended to portray the reality of suffering for Christ in sharp focus, factual exposure, and unflinching zoom. We’ve called contestants to engage as many viewers as possible in a heart moving experience that opens their eyes to the persecution of their brothers and sisters around the world, calls them to prayer, and provides them with a means to help alleviate their suffering through the ministry of ICC.
Some of the notable contestants so far have written their own original song for the video, interviewed their friends before and after showing them real, graphic scenes of persecution, and dedicated their video to the Christians suffering in North Korea.
With all the submissions in, we’re now inviting you to help us decide the finalists! Just click here to view their submissions and vote for your favorite. After you vote — comment and tell us what you think! Which video is your favorite and why?
In late May, the president of the Protestant Church Association in Algeria (EPA) received the following notice: “I, Mr. Ben Amar Salma, the High Commissioner of the police in Béjaia, have informed Mr. Mustapha Krim, the President of the EPA… to close down all worship places; the places which are used now and the places which are under construction… The authorities will make sure that the order will be obeyed, otherwise severe consequences and punishments will be applied.”
This notification demanded the permanent closure of the seven Protestant churches in the Béjaia province, located 200 kilometers east of the capital Algiers. The threat came as no surprise to the EPA. Since 2006, Protestants have lived at the mercy of a strict law known as Ordinance 06-03, which has prevented them from worshipping freely or legally. The ordinance regulates the worship of non-Muslims by requiring churches to obtain government permission to hold services. Despite repeated efforts by the EPA to obtain this permission, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Religious Affairs have failed to create a clear procedure to register churches and it often takes years before approving registrations.
“We were told we are not in compliance with the 2006 decree, but we have tried to comply,” EPA President Mustapha Krim told the Algerian daily La Dépêche de Kabylie. “We have spoken with the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Interior Ministry. We have gone round-and-round with them for years, but nothing gets done.”
Similar notifications, like the one received in Béjaia, have been issued to EPA churches before. “The same thing occurred in Tizi Ouzou when several churches were ordered to close under threats that legal action would be taken against the leaders,” a church leader in Tizi Ouzou told ICC. “Our church also received this order in 2008, but because we resisted, the church continues to this day.”
In a more recent incident, a church in the village of Makouda, near Tizi Ouzou, was given 48 hours to shut its doors on April 23. The pastor presented documents to the local police department that proved his affiliation with the EPA, but the police commissioner said the documents were not sufficient proof to operate the church. Still, the church continues to meet each week.
While EPA churches continue to hold services despite being warned otherwise, they do not take the threat on the Béjaia churches lightly. “According to this decree, if one does not obey the instructions, the authorities are threatening to do the enforcement,” said Krim. “Apparently they want us to disappear from the map.”
Nonetheless, when Sunday morning services rolled around on May 29, the notification was not enough to persuade churches in Béjaia to shut their doors. “Here we are Lord to praise Thy name!” sang a hundred worshippers before Pastor Nordin stepped to the pulpit to read Psalm 23, reminding the congregation of God’s faithfulness even in hardship. “We did not understand the decision of the [governor],” a church member told La Dépêche de Kabylie. “We worship out of conviction. We are not afraid, because we did nothing wrong. We were never forced to choose Jesus, but we did so voluntarily. Whatever the circumstances, we will continue to say: we are here to praise your name Lord.”
At the end of the day, authorities had not interfered and services proceeded as normal. Further indication that the situation was improving soon followed when Minister of Interior Dahou Ould Kablia stated at a June 2 press conference in Algiers that the Protestant Church of Béjaia will be “allowed to continue their activities until they receive the necessary authorization,” Algerian news agency Tout sur l’Algérie reported.
While Christians in Béjaia remain unsure about whether they will be allowed to freely worship in the future, one thing is certain – they will not close quietly. “Pastors and church officials… opted for resistance by continuing to worship instead of obeying the order to close their doors,” said a representative of the EPA. “They continued to meet and celebrate their religion despite the threats. If the authorities decide to close places of worship, Christians will gather in homes or cell group meeting in the open air, which is already being done in some communities. But, we believe the situation will improve.”
The inability to register church buildings has caused many Algerian Christian communities to worship underground, either in the homes of congregants or in the secluded countryside. One community living in a remote village nestled in the beautiful Kabylie mountainside gathered in a shabby garage, their third location that year, when ICC visited them in 2010. They were preparing to move again because the landlord received complaints from neighbors who insisted that Christian worship should not be overheard in a Muslim community. Before designating the garage as a house of worship, the congregants held gatherings near a river on the outskirts of town each week when the weather permitted. Please keep this congregation, the churches in Béjaia, and the EPA in your prayers.
A Christian couple, Eunice and Owen Johns, made headlines in UK, showing how Christians are becoming increasingly marginalized in that part of the world. The couple applied to be foster parents for children between the ages of five and ten, but their application required them to sign a document which would force them to promote homosexuality, which they refused to sign. This is only one example of the kind of discrimination that Christians in the UK are facing.
Andrea Minichiello Williams is at the forefront of the fight for the rights of Christians in the UK, advocating on behalf of discriminated Christians. She is the director of Christian Concern for our Nation and the Christian Legal Centre—organizations that work on behalf of Christians, defending their values.
In the following interview with ICC, Andrea shows how Christians are facing discrimination in the UK, and how they may face greater persecution in the years to come:
As a lawyer Andrea has encountered several cases of persecution against Christians. She tells us of some examples:
I am representing people currently losing their jobs as a result of standing for Jesus. Some people are being arrested for preaching on the street, for preaching with regard to homosexuality. We have dealt with those cases too. Some parents have been arrested for corporal punishment for chastisement in their homes. If this is not going to be reversed, at some point people will be put in jails, or probably even worse. We don’t know what is going to happen with the concerted rise of Islam in this country and whether or not Christians will actually be persecuted.
She calls for people to wake up before it is too late. But she also sees how the Lord will use persecution to purify his church:
In some ways, the church is a bit lukewarm in our nation, which is sad. I never wish it but at least if the church is persecuted, the church would wake up. We are still asleep in United Kingdom. People are not noticing the persecution. It is not persecution like Nigeria [with killing of Christians], but it is the beginning of it. The sort of people who stand today against anti-Christian laws are the people who will stand tomorrow.
So what motivates her to continue to speak on behalf of Christians in UK? She says:
We have great and beautiful heritage. We have a nation that flourished under God. Our system, our nation, and part of being British itself is really about being Christian. Christianity is where we find our true identity, but we have abandoned that. Jesus Christ and His values are not only good for me and for you but also they are good for the community. They are good news for towns; they are good news for cities; they are good news for our nation. Why would we let go of that?
What can the church in the US learn from the state of the church in the UK, and act accordingly? Her answer was:
Firstly, the church must love Jesus and speak clearly of His ways, speak clearly of His precepts, and not flinch but have courage. Secondly, it doesn’t take long to dismantle a culture. Religious freedom for Christians was dismantled in the UK during the Blair/Brown administration (1997-2007), so ten years was all it took. The human rights language & the equality language are used in order to create a politically correct ideology—secular liberal humanism—which then cut out Christianity.
When we think of persecution, we don’t usually think of the UK or Europe. But this interview with Andrea shows us the challenges that our brothers and sisters are facing in the UK. It is time for the body of Christ in the United States to pray for and to support their brothers and sisters in the UK and all of Europe.
Perhaps you have friends like I do who ask, “Why should I care about Christian persecution?” Below is my attempt at an answer for the skeptic, for the unconvinced…
The closing months of 2010 confirmed what has become increasingly evident to those who follow religious persecution: Christians have emerged as the single most persecuted religious group in the world. With an estimated 300 million Christians suffering violence or government discrimination, we begin to get a different picture of the world’s most widespread religion. No longer can Western countries afford to view Christians as troublesome missionaries and meddlers in foreign affairs. Instead, we must recognize that Christians are actually the “canary in the coal mine” of human rights.
When early coal mines did not have proper ventilation, they came up with a very effective, low-tech solution to prevent miners from dying of methane gas: bringing a canary into the mine. Because of its highly sensitive metabolism, the canary would quickly die from increasing amounts of methane gas. The sudden silence of the canaries’ songs would act as an early warning system to alert the miners to dangerous conditions so they could evacuate.
The persecution of Christians – usually the weakest minority in countries of concern – can often indicate the rise of oppression and a diminishing of human rights over all. Let’s look at the year 2010 in review to see what we can learn along these lines:
Iraq – In Iraq, Christians have been targeted specifically, and very little is done for their protection. The massive flight of Christians from this country and lack of security for them should have been seen as an early-warning sign that something was very wrong with the overall system.
Malaysia – This country enforced the world’s only religious affirmative action government program that benefits the majority over the minority, guaranteeing Muslims jobs and education over Christians.
Indonesia – Christians have been killed, and many churches have been shut down by local governments, particularly in the Bekasi region. The country also witnessed a steep increase in violence against Christians that was certainly connected to hard-line Islamists calling for violence against the Christian population.
Afghanistan – Christians were imprisoned for conversion, a charge punishable by death. Two Christians remain in jail. This reflects the growing momentum supporting hard-line Islamists and the increasing authority the Taliban is able to wield over Kabul. Christians became a pawn in the political chess game.
Egypt – Coptic Christian women have been abducted and forced to convert to Islam, their cases ignored and often met with aggression and humiliation by the police. A recent suicide bombing of an Alexandria church killed 21. It was in direct response to a call from Al Qaeda declaring all Christians in the Middle East as targets. Egypt has long been a country of double standards, hiding behind the glittering tourist image it presents to the West while it all but forces millions of its citizens (underclass Christians) to make their living sifting through garbage heaps.
India – Perhaps the most “diverse” country in the world, there has been precious little tolerance for Christians. 2010 witnessed hundreds of attacks against Christians, including government programs assuring jobs for underclass Hindus and Buddhists but not for Christians.
Another secondary problem Christians encounter is reverse-discrimination. Because non-Western countries view Christianity as a Western influence, they often allow anti-Christian activity to continue unabated, at times even encouraging it. Further, Christians in the West have become so politically correct and religiously sensitive that precious little is really done on behalf of foreign Christians. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom and The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission are rare exceptions to this. However, a cursory look at the actual power these commissions wield shows what little value our government places on religious freedom.
Instead of relegating religious freedom to an afterthought, we would greatly improve the integrity of our foreign relations by taking a microscope to religious freedom – viewing the freedoms granted to minority Christian populations as an indicator of the health and strength of their human rights record.
The idea that “the measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens” is a timeless standard. In the West we are eager to reprimand ourselves over any prejudice against minorities, yet we don’t show near the same vigilance when considering the treatment of Christians.
In sum, we ignore the signals at our own danger. Not just as Christians, but also as logical and observant citizens. We are not seeking to export American ideals; these persecuted Christian communities have been in existence since long before America existed. The right to freedom of thought and belief is universal and the foundation of both democracy and peaceful societies.