THE Iranian authorities are carrying out a campaign of arrests against converts to Christianity and Christian evangelists. The government has not issued figures, but diplomats believe that as many as 70 Iranian Christians have been detained over the past month. Some of those charged with apostasy face the death sentence.
Under the Iranian constitution, Christians and Jews, along with Zoroastrians, are protected minorities, and established Christian communities, such as the Roman Catholics and the Armenians, are free to worship in churches. But the current govern-ment in Iran, which is strongly influenced by the Revolutionary Guards, views with suspicion the work of evangelists and those converted by them.
The official Iranian News Agency quoted the Governor of Tehran, Morteza Tamadon, as saying that such Christians were “hardline missionaries” who had “inserted themselves into Iran like a parasite”.
Another accusation directed against evangelists and converts, a European diplomat in Tehran said, is that “they are working as undercover agents for the West, and that their prayer meetings, held in private houses, are a cover for hatching plots directed at the regime. As Iran comes under increasing pressure over its nuclear programme, official paranoia is increasing.”
Towards the end of last year, the Iranian government said that investigators had located several hundred Christian groups operating outside the umbrella of the established Churches. This statement was taken by many Iranians as a sign that a crackdown would follow.
The Religious Liberty Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance called for an immediate end to the campaign of arrests. Its executive director, Godfrey Yogarajah, said: “The growing authoritarianism in Iran only shows that the regime’s popularity is falling drastically, which is making the government highly insecure and unnerved.”
The US State Department said in a report last November that the Iranian government’s respect for religious freedom was continuing to deteriorate. Official “rhetoric and actions” were creating “a threatening atmosphere for nearly all non-Shiite religious groups”. Evangelical Christians were among those coming under particular pressure.
The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI), which is based in New York, says that an Evangelical priest, the Revd Youcef Nadarkhani, and his wife — both converts — were arrested in June last year. They were charged with apostasy, organising secret meetings, and seeking to convert Muslims to Christianity. Pastor Nadarkhani was sentenced to death, and his wife was sent to prison for life. An appeal against the death sentence has been lodged with the Supreme Court in Iran.
The couple led a congregation of about 400 in the northern city of Rasht. The ICHRI insists that there is nothing in the Iranian penal code covering apostasy, and so it is “the low point of any judicial system to sentence a person to death outside of its own legal framework”.
Another convert priest, the Revd Behrouz Sadegh-Khanjani, faces charges similar to those against Pastor Nadarkhani.
In December last year, Amnesty International reported that two female converts to Christianity had been released from Evin Prison, in Tehran, after being acquitted of “acting against state security”. But they continue to face other charges relating to their conversion.