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Christian converts under pressure to leave Iran

23 February 2024

The cover of the report

The cover of the report

CONVERTS from Islam are being put under pressure to leave Iran by the Shia regime, Christian charities concerned with religious freedom report.

The charities — Open Doors, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Middle East Concern, and Article 18 — presented their findings in a joint report, Faceless Victims: Rights violations against Christians in Iran 2024. It was lanched on Tuesday at an event at Portcullis House, Westminster.

Conversion from Shia Islam, evangelism, teaching in Sunday school, and being a member of a house church are all punishable offences under the penal code of the Islamic Republic founded in the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Churches pre-dating the revolution — namely Assyrian and Armenian churches — are officially recognised, the report says, but, “unlike other places of worship”, four Persian-language Anglican churches have remained closed since the pandemic.

Worshippers at these churches, the report says, “have been forced to congregate in private gatherings”, which are illegal.

The report analyses information from Christian networks in Iran. It says that at least 166 Iranians were arrested last year for offences relating to the practice or spreading of the Christian faith; and 21 were imprisoned for an average of two years. This compares with at least 134 arrests in 2022.

House churches, the report says, are facing “increased digital surveillance”, while more Christians are being forced to attend Islamic “re-education”.

It also says that some converts who are imprisoned and then released are “actively encouraged” to emigrate “by intelligence agents, usually after they have refused to return to Islam or to accept a job as a spy of the Ministry of Intelligence”.

The news director for Article 18, Steve Dew-Jones, told the Church Times this week: “It is common practice for jailed Christians to be told they have just two choices upon release: to recant their faith and work for the authorities as spies within house churches, or to leave the country.”

For those who decline these options, he said, “work and education options will be closed off to them; they will be monitored to ensure they don’t have any further contact with other Christians. . . It is also common for these Christians to be threatened that they and their family members may suffer an ‘accident’.”

The 40-page report gives examples of systematic abuse, including the case of a Christian who was detained arbitrarily, another who arrested without being informed of the charges against her, and another who was told that his guilty verdict had been decided before his court hearing.

The report was published in the wake of accusations, led by the former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, that churches in England had been “facilitating industrial-scale bogus asylum claims” (News, 9 February). This has been fervently denied by senior church leaders (News, 16 February).

Home Office figures suggest that, between June 2016 and 2022, more people claiming asylum in the UK were Iranian than any other nationality. In the year to June 2023, Iranian nationals were the third most common nationality to claim asylum in the UK, making 7776 applications, the Home Office reports. In 2019, the House of Bishops authorised a Persian translation of the service of holy communion for the increasing numbers of Iranians in congregations (News, 8 March 2019).

The charities behind Faceless Victims estimate that Iranian Christians make up a “significant portion” of the more than 15,000 Iranian asylum-seekers in Turkey. They argue that the Shia regime is contravening 11 articles of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a signatory, and call on Iran to release “immediately and unconditionally” all Christians “detained on charges relating to their faith and religious activities”.

The report also urges Iran to “clarify where Persian-speaking Christians may worship freely in their mother tongue, without fearing arrest and prosecution”.

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