Reverend Behnam Irani describes himself as a member of the “Church of Iran”. As a Christian convert and ex-Muslim, he was arrested and threatened countless times and faced six years in prison for his peaceful work spreading the gospel inside Iran. Having since left for good in 2016, he told IranWire about the strife his fellow Christians suffer in the country for expressing their faith.
Since the Islamic Republic was founded Christian priests often have been the targets of attacks and assassinations. The Reverend Behnam Irani personally knew of at least four killed in the 1990s “chain murders” – a memory he will never shake.
“When we talk about chain murders,” he says, “most people recall the brutal killings of intellectuals and writers. But the killings of Reverend Haik Hovsepian in Tehran, Reverend Mehdi Dibaj in Isfahan and Reverend Tateos Michaeilian in Tehran were also part of the project to wipe out the Islamic Republic's opposition. Reverend Michaelian was specifically on the Ministry of Intelligence’s list. There are signs for the rest of the priests to confirm the same."
Then, he sadly mentions the name of a fourth priest: Mohammad Bagher Yousefi. “Reverend Yousefi was repeatedly summoned and threatened with arrest by the Ministry. One autumn morning, he went out to pray.
“That evening, his family were informed that his hanging body had been found in the forests of Sari [in Mazandaran province]. The government declared his death to be a suicide, but his wife always believed that he had been killed.
“Reverend Yousefi’s wife was under intense pressure to endorse the government's scenario of his having argued with her before he left home, and his having committed suicide due to marital dissatisfaction. They even produced a ‘note’ on the same topic: a piece of evidence his wife never accepted.”
The Elimination of Prominent Converts
According to Rev. Irani, the Iranian regime’s confrontation with Persian-speaking Christians occurred in several distinct phases. “At first the government tried physical eradication. The assassination of church leaders seemed to be an effective way to intimidate Christian converts and frighten this growing community. This trend continued until the mid-2000s."
Following these actions, the fledgling Christian community in Iran sought safer places to gather and hold religious services. "We Persian-speaking Christians could not go to the Armenian and Assyrian churches,” he says, “because they were also under great pressure. On the other hand, sermons in Persian were not held in Assyrian and Armenian churches, so those of us who had the opportunity to evangelize established house churches."
This move, Behnam Irani says, angered the government of the Islamic Republic. “The state assumed that after all the bloodshed and intimidation of Christian converts, it would have an easier job of it. But it was difficult to identify and find these small house churches.
“The security forces tried to identify people like me, and this time the pressure was applied in a different way. Society had changed in such a way that people could no longer be killed in secret, but threats, intimidation, court summonses and torture were still open to them."
Crackdowns in the Ahmadinejad Era
According to Rev. Irani, at the outset of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency in 2006, the regime’s squeezing-out of Christian converts and their leaders took on a new form.
Their assets and property began to be confiscated. The publication of Christian books and the holding of religious ceremonies were banned, while evangelists, including Rev. Irani, were rounded up and jailed.
"I was first arrested in 2006,” he says, “and spent about 70 days in solitary confinement. Later I was released on bail. On February 23, 2008, Branch 30 of the Tehran Court of Appeal upheld my five-year suspended sentence.
“Then on April 14, 2010, we had a prayer service at my private home in Karaj. Several of my colleagues were there. The security agents raided the house and detained us in front of my family with the utmost violence and physical harassment."
Every time he was arrested or his house was searched, Rev. Irani says, some of his memories were looted too. "My son has never seen any pictures or videos of his mother’s wedding. Even some of his childhood photos are gone. When they came to arrest us, they usually took everything of value that they found, and mostly did not return it: photos, videos, books, cell phones. Even if they returned the phones, they were no longer reliable and we couldn’t use them anymore.”
Three Choices: Silence, Emigration or Rotting in Prison
After the arrest at the private sermon, Behnam Irani was sentenced to one year in prison on top of the existing five-year suspended sentence. Over the six years he spent behind bars, he said, “they tried very hard to silence me. There were so many threats that I took my wife and child out of Iran and sent them to a safe place so they at least would not suffer.
“I didn’t remain silent during this period. From prison, I constantly wrote to inform the international community about the situation of Christian converts in Iran."
The prison correspondence prompted the guards to completely ignore Rev. Irani’s needs, including his health. Seventeen months after he was jailed, he became very physically ill and suffered from intestinal bleeding, requiring surgery. He was never sent on medical leave.
"I have applied for leave many times,” he wrote in an open letter at the time. “No response has been given to my request, and eventually, through the efforts of a prison assistant, I realized that it was written in my file that the judicial authorities should not take any action [to assist me[; that is, they had exempted me from the rights of a prisoner.”
On October 17, 2016, when Behnam Irani was finally released, the security agencies offered him three choices: "They told me to either go home and live quietly, or emigrate with my wife and children, or continue the same way, and go back there and rot. I left Iran after consulting with friends and experts. What would be the use of my death and decay in prison and isolation in Iran? At least here I can be the voice of Christian converts."
The Islamic Republic officially recognizes Christianity as a minority religion. Despite this, an enormous degree of suffering is inflicted on converts to Christianity, for which Rev. Irani has a very simple explanation. “Christians recognized in the Constitution are those that belong to ethnic churches. They are Armenians or Assyrians.
“But Persian-speaking Christians are deprived of many citizenship rights. For example, Rev. Yousef Nadarkhani's children, who are still in Iran and legally accepted as Christian citizens, go to school but don’t receive a diploma. They’re present in the classroom only as free listeners. Dead Persian-speaking Christians are only permitted to be buried in Armenian and Assyrian cemeteries. To be buried in Muslim cemeteries, they have to not observe the Christian rites of burial or refer to their beliefs.”
Bad Christians, Good Christians
The Iranian government officially considers Armenian and Assyrian Christians to be "good and harmless Christians". Converts, or those who preach in Persian, are called "evangelicals" by the regime and are considered apostates, who can therefore be deprived of their citizenship rights.
Behnam Irani, however, believes that all Christians are discriminated against in the Islamic Republic, through different means. "Let me point out that if the official churches belonging to Armenian and Assyrian Christians are run down and need to be renovated, this is not allowed by the Islamic Republic."
There are no accurate figures on the number of Christian converts in Iran. But international organization Open Doors, which reports the persecution of Christians worldwide, believes about half of all Christians in Iran are either native Persian speakers or converts. According to some recent reports, Iran has one of the highest conversion rates to Christianity in the world.