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‘Iran’s Christians fare no better under Rouhani’

13 March 2015


Leader: President Rouhani arrives to attend a meeting of the Assembly of Experts, in Tehran, on Tuesday

Leader: President Rouhani arrives to attend a meeting of the Assembly of Experts, in Tehran, on Tuesday

THERE has been no substantive change in Iran's human-rights record since the election of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency in mid-2013, and Christians continue to be arbitrarily arrested and interrogated, a parliamentary report published this week says.

The hope had been that the defeat of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was considered hard-line in outlook, would herald an easier time for Iranian Christians.

But a joint report by two all-party groups, Christians in Parliament and the Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, concludes that Christians and other persecuted religious minorities in Iran are faring no better "under the supposedly moderate Rouhani than they did under his presidential predecessor".

Despite Mr Rouhani's pre-election promises of increased religious freedom, Christians still encounter "relentless and severe persecution".

The report is based on evidence gathered from Iranian witnesses during hearings in Parliament, and written submissions by human-rights experts, including the UN Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed. David Yeghnazar, of Elam Ministries, who gave evidence last December, said: "For every person who chooses to become a Christian in Iran, you live with the knowledge that the government is against you. And that has continued to play out under Rouhani."

The inquiry also heard that, after release from detention or prison, Christians often continue to be harassed. Sara Akhavan Fard said that for a year after she was freed "we could see police around our home. . . I think that they really wanted to show us that they are still checking us."

During the Ahmadinejad presidency, many churches were shut down, and the inquiry heard from Morad Mokhtari, of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, that "since Rouhani got to power, at least two official Protestant churches in Tehran have been banned from holding any religious services in the Persian language." Witnesses also testified that raids on private homes of Christians and subsequent arrests were widespread.

The various pressures and threats, the all-party report says, are prompting many Christian families to flee Iran to avoid serving unjust prison sentences. Those who leave voluntarily "save Iran the high costs of housing Christians in prisons for many years, and, crucially, it saves Iran from further international outcry. The inquiry heard that the government wants to see the Christian community remove itself from the country, for there are simply too many of them."

The report asks the UK Government to "use appropriate channels to urge the Islamic Republic of Iran to uphold its obligations under international law to protect the human rights of all of its citizens, including the right to freedom of religion or belief".

The MPs also want the Government "to ensure that any upgrade of diplomatic relations" is "contingent on a significant improvement in the protection of religious freedom for all Iranian citizens".

Baroness Berridge, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion, said: "I feel privileged, but also heavy-hearted, to have co-chaired this important inquiry." She was "particularly concerned about the harsh treatment of those who convert to Christianity from Islam. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes clear that every person has the right to freedom of religion or belief, including the right to convert: to change one's faith or beliefs.

Last October, four MPs were denied entry to Iran, where the cross-party group had hoped to begin "positive and respectful dialogue with the Iranian authorities on matters relating to human rights in general, and freedom of religion in particular".

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