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Iran - Country profile

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Parishioners at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Ispahan, Iran.

State oppression of Christians and other minorities in Iran has intensified markedly, especially arrests, torture, false imprisonment and executions, with a corresponding increase in raids on churches and confiscation of Bibles.

The consensus among leading human rights observers is that the state has mounted a crackdown on religious activity which is not in accordance with the official practice of Shia Islam, as upheld by the ruling elite led by Ayatollah Ali Khomenei.

The trigger prompting this renewed clampdown on religious liberty is widely seen to be government reaction to the June 2009 presidential elections, which sparked widespread popular unrest that was perceived as a challenge to the state's authority. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom stated that since the June 2009 elections, "religious freedom conditions have regressed to a point not seen since the early days of the Islamic Revolution" of 1979.

Law affords religious minorities little protection

Christians, Bahais, Jews and others are susceptible to mistreatment and worse because they have little or no protection in law. Although Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians are recognised by the state, in practice their situation is precarious. Catholics, however, encounter fewer difficulties than certain evangelical groups, as was discovered during an autumn 2012 Aid to the Church in Need trip to Iran, the first of its kind to the country.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide noted that in the past year "there has been an alarming rise in detentions of members of evangelical house churches", and reported the faithful suffering verbal and sometimes physical abuse. Others, the report said, experienced repeated interrogations, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and "pressure to inform on others and abandon their faith".

Threat of proselytism charges

Hanging over Christians of all descriptions is the threat of being charged with proselytism, a crime punishable by execution. The same sentence applies to apostates from Islam.

An apostasy charge was placed against Pastor Youcef Nadarkani in a case that has attracted unprecedented international attention, particularly after he was found guilty in September 2010. Following an international outcry, the charge against him was altered and, after nearly three years in prison, he was released in January 2013.

What his case demonstrated was the perils of witnessing to Christianity in Iran. All public expressions of non-Islamic faith are strictly banned, meaning for example that the publication of religious material is severely restricted. Printing firms have been forcibly closed for publishing Bibles and other non-Islamic faith literature.

Discrimination in public life

Similarly, Christians and other religious minority groups are banned from senior government or military posts. None are allowed to serve in the judiciary, security services or as principals of public schools. Applicants for public sector employment are screened for their knowledge of and adherence to Islam. Of the 290 seats reserved in the Majles (the Iranian Parliament), non-Muslims only have five seats – three for Christians, one Jewish and one Zoroastrian.

Against such a backdrop, Christians have little or no defence against a growing culture of state oppression. Reports state that at least 300 Christians have been arbitrarily arrested and detained across the country. Former President Ahmadinejad is quoted as having "called for an end to the development of Christianity in Iran".

Hopes and fears under new president

Hopes of a change under new President Hassan Rowhani, elected in June 2013, centred on his much-publicised "moderate" stance. However, his apparent commitment to reform has been called into question by Iranian observers, highlighting his hard-line religious background. They have also noted the pre-eminence of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomenei in most areas of public policy.

Observers note that the new president will be further constrained by ongoing state concerns about the growth of Christianity in Iran. Some unconfirmed reports suggest the country could be home to more than 300,000 Christians. Amid growing conflict between the main branches of Islam across the Middle East, Iran is unlikely to react positively to any suggestion that Christianity is on the rise at the centre of the Shia world. 

Persecution of Christians in Iran

May 2011: The Revolutionary Court in the northern city of Bandar Anzali tried 11 members of the Church of Iran, including Pastor Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad and Zainab Bahremend – the 62-year-old grandmother of two of the other defendants – on charges of “acting against national security.”
Source: International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, 4/5/11

May 2011: The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran called for a halt to judicial persecution of Evangelical Church members and appealed for the overturn of criminal sentences for Pastor Behrouz Sadegh-Khanjani and the death sentence for Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, saying: “It is deeply hypocritical to criticise European countries for discriminatory policies against Muslims while the Iranian government throws Christians and members of other minority religions into prison and sentences some to death.” In April 2011, the Iranian government criticised the EU and US for discrimination against religious minorities, saying: “We expect European countries to guarantee the individual and social freedoms of Muslims.”
Source: International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, 4/5/11

July 2011: The Barnabas Fund said that Iranian authorities had been issuing anti-Christian propaganda via state media: “False and insulting stories about Christians have also appeared in government media. One article, published on Youth Online alleged that women evangelists were entering stores, using shopping as a pretext to fall into conversation with staff, and then suggesting sexual liaisons and insulting Islam.”
Source: CNS News, 26/8/11

August 2011: 6,500 pocket Bibles being transported between two cities in the north-western province were seized. Parliamentary advisor Majid Abhari stated that Christian missionaries sought to deceive Iranians, particularly young people: “They have begun a huge campaign by spending huge sums and false propaganda for deviating the public. …The important point in this issue – that should be considered by intelligence, judicial and religious agencies – is that all religions are strengthening their power to confront Islam, otherwise what does this huge number of Bibles mean?”
Source: CNS News, 26/8/11; US Commission on International Religious Freedom 2012 Annual Report

December 2011: Iranian authorities raided an Assemblies of God Church in Ahvaz, south-west Iran, arresting all those in the congregation. The majority were released within days, but Pastor Farhad Sabokroh, and another church member were only released on bail after serving two months in prison. No charges were filed.
Source: US Commission on International Religious Freedom 2012 Annual Report

February 2012: Christian convert Masoud Delijani was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for “having faith in Christianity”, “holding illegal house church gatherings”, “evangelising Muslims” and an unspecified action against Iran’s national security. Not allowed to defend himself he spent 114 days in custody, mainly in solitary confinement, before being released after his family paid the equivalent of £62,500 in bail. He was detained again two weeks later.
Source: BosNews Life, 29/2/12

February 2012: Retired nurse and sister-in-law of the former Anglican Bishop, 78-year-old Mrs Hakimpour, a Church member of St Luke, Esfahan, was arrested at home in the early hours and only released three days later. The Rev Hekmat Salimi of St Paul’s Church was also arrested and his home raided by local government agents. Books, a computer and other personal belongings were confiscated. No reason was given for either arrest.
Source: Farsi Christian News Network, 3/3/12 

March 2013: Pastor Youcef Nadarkhan was arrested in 2009 for questioning the ‘unconstitutional’ Muslim monopoly of religious education of young people. The court ruled that he had abandoned his Islamic faith and in 2010 he was found guilty of apostasy and unlawfully sentenced to death. The Supreme Court ordered a retrial and he was offered annulment if he converted to Islam. He refused. His case was referred to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei and the charges were altered – effectively charging him with crimes against national security. In September 2012 he was acquitted of apostasy but found guilty of proselytising Muslims. However, as he had already served his prison term, he was set free. He was re-arrested on Christmas Day but released in early January. 

April 2013: Following sentencing for charges related to his religious beliefs, Pastor Saeed Abedini, who holds Iranian and US nationality, was told by officials at Evin Prison:“ ‘Deny your faith in Jesus Christ and return to Islam or else you will not be released from prison. We will make sure you are kept here even after your eight-year sentence is finished.’ The pastor has suffered from internal bleeding as a result of beatings and torture.
Source: Christian Today, 15/4/13; Jordan Sekulow and Matthew Clark, “Pastor Saeed Abedini’s Holy Week struggle”, Washington Post, 26/03/13

June 2013: Christian commentators reacted positively to media comments from Presidential candidate Hassan Rohani pledging to uphold civil liberties, stating that he was committed to “upholding justice across the country and civil rights” and that “What I wish for is for moderation to return to the country. This is my only wish. Extremism pains me greatly. We have seen many blows as a result of extremism.”
Source: Hassan Rohani, interview with reformist daily newspaper Sharq, 12/6/13

Last updated: 14/10/2013

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Country statistics

Population72 million
ReligionsMuslim 98.5%
Other 1.5%
Christian Population200,000

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