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Iran pursues campaign of arrests against Christians

19 January 2011

by Gerald Butt Middle East Correspondent

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.

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