After the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, an official campaign of harassment and discrimination of non-Shia Muslims got under way. Article 13 of the Islamic Republic constitution technically safeguarded Christianity as one of three recognized minority religions in Iran. But Muslims who converted to Christianity became targets for sustained ill-treatment by the regime.
The government’s position is that Christians only belong to three ethnic minority groups: Armenians, Assyrians and Chaldeans. They must also be able to show that either they themselves or their families were Christian before the revolution. IranWire talked to a series of academics and Iranian Christian figures to understand the problems this causes.
A detailed report recently published by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center found that Christian converts in Iran are systematically denied their human right to practice the religion of their choice, without fear of persecution or prosecution, and deprived of a vast range of their basic civil rights. This means Iran is constantly violating both its own constitution and its obligations under international conventions.
“Christian converts [in Iran] are those who have converted away from Islam,” says journalist and researcher Fred Petrossian. “The Islamic Republic regime views itself as the standard-bearer of Shia Islam, and converts, by turning their backs on the founding principle of this regime, i.e. Islam, are posing a serious challenge to it.
“Christian converts are unwilling to hide their beliefs or deny who they are. They make their conversion known even though they’re well aware they might lose their inheritance, and they know the threats that lie ahead of them. And this is the cue for the regime to start imposing restrictions on their private and social lives.”
Limiting Freedom of Thought
Reverend Behnam Irani is an Iranian Christian convert who spent six years in prison for his faith. In an interview with IranWire earlier this year, he said that the Islamic Republic keeps a close watch on known converts to Christianity: “To suppress Christian converts, the Islamic Republic’s first steps are to arrest their leaders and influential figures and to identify house churches.”
According to Reverend Irani, often no warrant is presented before Christian converts are arrested or their homes raided. Confiscated item are not returned and the arresting authority remains unclear. In many cases, he said, people are beaten in the process of being detained.
This claim was confirmed by a Christian couple who featured as a case study in the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center’s report. “One afternoon,” it states, “a group of Christian converts had gathered to pray in the privacy of the home of a Christian couple in Shiraz. Bijan Farokhpour-Haghighi and Marzieh Rahemi, who hosted the church meeting, never thought that that day would change their lives. Suddenly, plain-clothes security forces poured into their home. They showed no warrant, but they searched everyone and everywhere. They confiscated the attendees’ belongings—including cell phones, ID cards, valuable items, and Bibles—and destroyed the church’s emblems, such as a picture of Jesus Christ. A number of the attendees, including Bijan Farokhpour-Haghighi, were arrested, while others were forced to sign a pledge stating that they would not attend any church. The agents acted violently and intimidated church members.”
The Charge of Apostasy and the Threat of Death
According to existing Shia jurisprudence, if a follower of another Abrahamic religion coverts to Islam, not only should he or she not suffer any consequences but be provided with certain legal protections. But if a Muslim converts and doesn’t repent, they can be convicted of apostasy and – although the Quran does not specify a punishment – can be sentenced to death in Iran. The death sentence is based on commentaries by various authorities on the hadith, and existing records of statements, actions, and the silent approval attributed to the Prophet Mohammad. Some Shia religious authorities even believe there is no need for a judge to sentence “apostates” to death; that is to say, they can be killed without trial.
Reverend Hossein Sudmand is one recorded case of a convert executed after being convicted of apostasy. According to the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran, in 1971 Sudmand had joined the Assemblies of God, a self-governing national Pentecostal church. He then migrated to Isfahan and started working in a hospital. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, he was expelled from the hospital and returned to his birthplace, Mashhad.
Sudmand, a father of four, used his house in Mashhad as a church. After a while, pressure from the Iranian government prompted him to close it. He was jailed for a month, and he and his family were warned to stop “proselytizing” and disavow their faith. The Church advised the Sudmand family to leave Iran for Greece, but Reverend Sudmand said he would remain in Iran to serve God even if his service came at a price. He was eventually arrested again in 1990 and, according to his daughter, charged with apostasy. On December 3, 1990, authorities informed Sudmand’s family that he had been “hanged for remaining steadfast in Christianity and buried in a suburb of Mashhad”.
Another convicted apostate who managed to escape execution, Youcef Nadarkhani, is a Christian convert and pastor with the Church of Iran: a network of evangelical Persian-language house churches. He was sentenced to death on this charge in a lower court in Rasht in October 2009. Branch 11 of the Criminal Court of Appeal in Gilan Province upheld the death sentence in 2010. Establishing that Nadarkhani had been a Muslim before converting to Christianity was critical for the court.
Due to international pressure, the court finally acquitted Nadarkhani of the apostasy charge. But it found him guilty instead of “acting against national security” and sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment. In 2016, Nadarkhani was arrested again, sentenced this time to ten years in prison and two years of internal exile on being convicted of “setting up an illegal group by holding house churches”. His jail sentence was later reduced to six years.
Children Are Not Immune to Iranian Apostasy Law
In response to a religious inquiry, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has previously stated that if someone was born Muslim but has later decided to follow another Abrahamic religion, that person is an apostate. But he did acknowledge that if an apostate had married another ex-Muslim, in accordance with the tenets of their new religion, then the children resulting from that marriage are not automatically apostates. Depending on their religion, these children could enjoy the constitutional rights preserved for the state-recognized religious minorities.
The Islamic Republic, however, does not always follow its own leader’s fatwa. “The children of Mr. Nadarkhani,” Iranian pastor Behnam Irani told IranWire, “who are still in Iran and have been legally recognized as Christian citizens, go to school but they gain no certificates, meaning that they attend classes as observers only.”
Also painful is the fact that Iranian Christian converts suffer discrimination even after death. They are not allowed to be buried in cemeteries for Armenians and other “recognized” Christians. If their families insist that they are Christians, they cannot be buried in Muslim cemeteries, either. They have to be buried in cemeteries for Muslims without undergoing the Christian burial rites, says Behnam Irani, because “if their families say they’re Christian, they’re told: ‘You are making a Muslim cemetery unclean.’”
Other Charges Brought against Christian Converts
Besides apostasy, Christian converts are often charged with insulting the Prophet Mohammad and other things considered sacred in Islam. This charge, if proven, can carry a death sentence in Iran. If there are extenuating circumstances, the offender is sentenced to a minimum of five years in prison.
The report by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center confirms a number of Christian converts have been jailed on the charge of “insulting the sacred”, often based on forced confessions or unevidenced complaints. Amin Afshar Naderi, a Christian convert, was put on trial on charges of “insulting the sacred” and “establishing and running an illegal organization” in 2017. The Revolutionary Court in Tehran, presided over by Judge Mashallah Ahmadzadeh, sentenced him to 15 years’ imprisonment, five of which were imposed for the former charge.
Fred Petrossian believes all such charges against Christian converts are baseless: “In none of the cases in which defendants have been charged with insulting the prophet, insulting the sacred or even acting against national security has there been a shred of evidence to support the conviction. Iranian Christians have suffer imprisonment and its consequences on groundless charges. In fact, the charges are so baseless the Iranian government was not able to provide a reasonable answer to UN experts who had inquired about this issue.”
Another charge often brought against Christian converts, as mentioned, is “acting against national security”. If the defendant is found not guilty of moharebeh (“waging war against god”), which can carry a death sentence, he or she may be sentenced to two to 10 years in prison. Over the past four decades, several Christian converts were charged with acting against national security for setting up and participating in house churches. Hadi Asgari and Kavian Fallah Mohammadi, for instance, were jailed for 10 years for this peaceful expression of their faith.
Naser Navard Gol-Tapeh is another Iranian Christian convert who was convicted in 2017 of “acting against national security” through “the formation and establishment of an illegal church organization in his home” by Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, presided over by Judge Mashallah Ahmadzadeh. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Last year Gol-Tapeh developed a serious gum infection that went untreated, making him fear he would lose all his teeth, and in August he came down with Covid-19 symptoms, which under-resourced prison officials could only treat with painkillers.
Banning the Bible in Persian
Christian proselytizing and publication of the Bible in Persian were banned in Iran in the 1980s. The Iranian Bible Society was shut down in 1990. The closure caused major shortages of the Bible and Christian theological books in Persian, which have lasted until the present day. Western missionaries were also expelled, and Iranian believers were not allowed to collaborate with fellow believers outside the country.
According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, as a result of the government’s policy against Christian presence in Iran, a number of churches in different cities have been abandoned or destroyed. The Islamic Republic has not authorized the construction of new churches or the renovation of existing ones, and it has also undermined the leadership of churches in Iran.
State-recognized churches are always under surveillance. Some reports indicate that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit recently took over the oversight of Christian churches which were previously monitored by the Ministry of Intelligence and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence agents have reportedly begun attending services and checking the lists of church members on a regular basis to ensure no converts can participate.
Killing Prominent Christian Figures after the Revolution
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution many prominent Christian figures were killed. Some were convicted of apostasy and executed like Hossein Sudmand, but others were extrajudicially murdered.
In May 1980, a little over a year after the revolution, Bahram Dehghani-Tafti, the son Bishop Dehghani-Tafti, was abducted and shot to death in a desert area near Evin Prison in Tehran. The authorities had already seized his passport to prevent his travel outside the country so that his father would hand over access to a pension fund belonging to employees of the Episcopal Church’s schools and hospitals. “They took his passport because they couldn’t take mine, and killed him instead of me,” Bishop Dehghani-Tafti later said.
Some others, like Mohammad Bagher Yousefi, a minister in the Assembly of God Church in Mazandaran Province, Bishop Haik Hovsepian-Mehr, Reverend Tatavous Michaelian and reverend Mehdi Dibaj, died in highly suspicious circumstances or were blatantly murdered during the so-called “chain murders” of dissidents in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Torture, Exile and The Looting of Christian Property
The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center has also listed numerous cases of the torture of arrested Christian converts during interrogation, in order to extract forced confessions against either themselves or others.
The report quotes the Christian convert Bijan Farokhpour Haghighi, who described how agents of the Intelligence Ministry behaved when they raided his home in Shiraz, arresting him and six others: “First of all, they started beating me. Then they handcuffed and blindfolded me and brutally kicked me out of the house in front of my wife and my disabled son, who had a high fever.” Like others, Haghighi said he was beaten, insulted and humiliated during his interrogation, and was ultimately forced to express regret for his Christian faith and plead for forgiveness.
A friend of Milad Goodarzi, a Christian convert who has been repeatedly harassed, summoned and arrested, told IranWire: “The last time Milad was summoned he was told his properties would be confiscated if he did not stop ‘proselytizing’. Milad was forced to sell all the merchandise in his shop and close it down. What they meant by ‘proselytizing’ was participating in Christian gatherings that weren’t to do with religion. Like most other people, these families just get together.”
The confiscation of property, another violation of Christians’ civil rights, is part and parcel of the mafiosi modus operandi of the Islamic Republic. From the very beginning, this regime illegally confiscated a large number of properties from both political opponents and people it generally determined were “undesirable”, including Christians and Christian converts. The state has seized churches, two large Christian-owned hospitals in Shiraz and Isfahan, businesses and even the homes of some church leaders.
Elimination of Christian’s Presence
Since its early days, the Islamic Republic has also sought to diminish Christians’ presence in the country by claiming it is limited to small ethnic groups. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance does not allow Armenian and Assyrian churches to renovate their buildings or freely transfer ownership of their properties. They also have not been allowed to construct any new church buildings. In addition, some of their properties have been left abandoned due to the significant drop in the number of ethnic minority Christians living in Iran after the 1979 revolution.
The Islamic Republic’s most recent tactic to eliminate Christian presence in the country was to hold Muharram mourning ceremonies in properties belonging to Christians, instead of their usual locations. As IranWire recenty reported earlier, a group of traditional Muharram mourners set up tents in Tehran’s Armenian Square this year, near a sanctuary for Armenian Christian monasteries.
A source told IranWire Tehran’s city managers were considering both removing the “Armenian” part of the square’s name and destroying the sanctuary. ”It seems that Tehran’s managers intend to challenge the image of this space as one belonging to the Armenians by establishing a mourning group here, which has no background in the neighborhood and no connection with the Christian or Armenian communities in Iran, and to facilitate the transformation of this area into a general urban zone."
The report by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center concludes: “Christian converts have not only been denied the right to practice their religion openly, freely, and without fear of repression, but they have also encountered the Iranian government’s repressive and discriminatory policies and practices.
“Christian converts have been unrecognized and labelled unofficial, their properties have been seized without compensation, and their rights have been violated. The Iranian state’s actions in the prosecution of Christian converts are contrary to international human rights law and Iran’s Constitution.”