False Hope for Iran

By Claire Evans

09/18/2020 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – When COVID-19 struck the Middle East, Iran felt its impact deeply. With the country’s drug issues, crum­bling infrastructure, and heavily-censored media, it was already at a disadvantage. The introduction of such a severe crisis meant that the pandemic was destined to grow uncontained.

While Iran’s official numbers regarding COVID-19 infections and deaths are star­tlingly low, no one actually believes the num­bers. Anyone familiar with the Iranian regime assumes that they are wildly undercounting.

“One (church) leader said that every day we sleep, we are afraid to wake up and hear that somebody close to us has died,” explained an Iranian ministry leader.

One unexpected benefit of the pandemic, however, was the brief pause in persecution that it provided. Indeed, while neighboring countries like Egypt and Turkey used the pan­demic to increase persecution, Iran appeared immobilized. The pandemic strained every aspect of society, and authorities had no band­width for targeting Christians.

Jails began emptying as part of Iran’s con­tainment effort. While only a small number of Christians were included, the situation was unprecedented as arrests came to an abrupt stop. Court cases against believers were delayed. Sentences against Christians were dismissed. Iran briefly entered a new era.

Iran’s New Era?

Mahrokh Ghanbari was arrested just before Christmas in 2018 and endured intense inter­rogation. She was later sentenced to prison, but served only seven months before her sen­tence was canceled by the authorities. Other believers shared similar experiences.

However, these positive changes proved short-lived. They came to an abrupt halt when Iran issued an extremely harsh criminal sen­tence against Mary Mohammadi, one that had not been seen in the country for two years.

Mary is a rare example of a Christian activ­ist living inside Iran. A young convert residing in Tehran, she frequently speaks out about Iran’s human rights abuses. Because of her activism, she has faced multiple arrests. She was last detained in January; but while her case was delayed by the pandemic, her sen­tence remained shocking. The judge issued a three-month suspended prison sentence and a directive ordering that Mary receive a flogging of 10 lashes.

Following her sentencing, Mary tweeted: “There is no evidence against me, so I ought to have been acquitted. But instead I was sen­tenced not only to imprisonment, but also flog­ging. It should be mentioned that even before the verdict was handed down, I was forced to endure all kinds of torture, none of which was sanctioned by law, and which ought to be con­sidered crimes in themselves.”

“We have refrained from appealing against the verdict because the appeal courts have turned into confirmation courts! I am proud of sympathizing with human beings in the real harsh environment of the streets. This is my conviction and the cost.”

Golden Opportunities for Ministry

Mary’s sentence shows that, at least as it relates to religious freedom, Iran’s changes are only superficial and necessitated by the pandemic.

But hope endures. Despite these realities, the pandemic has presented golden opportunities for ministry. Iranians find themselves confront­ing a broken reality made worse by the pan­demic and are hungry for answers.

As author and missionary Tom Doyle recent­ly shared on ICC’s podcast, Into the Deep, “[The Iranian Church] is the fastest growing church per capita in the world. In Iran, it’s hard to know the numbers. But this thing is not being stopped.”

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