Not So Merry Christmas in Iran
This year, as Christians around the world were preparing for Christmas, the news of Pastor Farshid Fathi’s release from an Iranian prison was spread across media outlets. It offered a glimmer of hope for a safer and more tolerant holiday season in Iran. Unfortunately, in the days since this news, reports of violent and disruptive arrests of Christian converts across Iran have begun to surface, extinguishing the optimism that many had embraced.
According to Mohabat News, on December 23rd, plain-clothed security agents in Isfahan stormed into the private home of Maysam Hojatti’s family, slapped him in the face, took down and destroyed the family Christmas tree, confiscated prayer books and personal computers, and forcibly arrested Hojatti in the presence of his horrified elderly parents. Before they left, they threatened the family, admonishing them not to say a word about this arrest.
In Shiraz, on Christmas Day a group of converts had congregated in private for worship and celebration. According to a report from the HRANA news agency, a group of plain-clothed armed security agents interrupted the convening, insulted the guests, destroyed and confiscated their personal belongings and arrested at least eight individuals.
Iran has 80 million people living in its borders including an estimated 370,000 Christians. Many have had a multi-generational presence in the region prior to the rise of Islam. Despite a decline in the population since the Islamic Revolution, Christian conversion been on the rise across the country. Reports suggest that the faith has been growing at a brisk rate of 20% per year.
Iran historically has been a pluralistic society. For thousands of years, Persian civilization exhibited extraordinary tolerance. Nonetheless, the country’s post-revolution constitution considers Christians to be second-class citizens. Thus Christians are allowed to practice their religion; however conversion to Christianity (and out of Shia Islam, in general) is considered apostasy. As such, it is illegal and converts are subject to severe punishment. In early 2011, after detaining 60+ Christians in Tehran for involvement in organizing home-based churches, local governor Morteza Tamadon described them as “extremists [that] penetrate the body of Islam like corrupt and deviant people” and likened them to the Taliban.”
This treatment of minorities is a serious reality that often isn’t covered in the Western media. Most Christian converts or those eager to learn about Christianity attend underground churches or religious gatherings in private homes. Security agents frequent target such gatherings, especially during major Christian holidays.
According to a recent UN human rights report, at least 90 Christians are currently imprisoned for participation in house churches. Those detained have reported physical and psychological abuse while in jail. Many have been threatened with execution.
There are many cases of Christians held simply for their beliefs. The recently released Pastor Fathi who endured five years in prison, suffered from whippings and was denied medical attention during his incarceration. Pastor Behnam Irani, another jailed Christian minister, recently was granted a temporary release to visit with his family — but still faces a 12-year term for the crime of setting up a house church. Pastor Saeed Abedini, an American citizen who has held in Evin Prison since September 2012, remains in jail for his religious beliefs
Despite these high-profile cases of Christians detained for their beliefs, many other arrests and similar cases of mistreatment go unreported. Family members keep quiet because they fear retaliation. Fellow congregants stay silent because of intimidation and the threat of increased pressure on the community.
As we look ahead to the new year, let us hope that it will be a time when those unjustly imprisoned are freed and when Christians and other religious minorities in Iran are able to exercise their faith without fear of persecution.
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