Three Iranian Christian converts from Islam, with firsthand experience of persecution and imprisonment in Iran, joined the Article 18 director Mansour Borji and IranWire founder and Editor-in-Chief Maziar Bahari for a special discussion yesterday on the persecution of Iran’s Christian religious minority. Converting from Christianity was considered by the Islamic Republic to be “worse than murder,” one of the converts said, during a powerful session held in both English and Persian. Bahari – who noted the “courage” of converts in Iran, to practice their faith – moderated the discussion and translated for the three Christian converts.
Iran has at least three different types of Christians, Bahari said, including Armenians, Assyrians and converts. Yesterday’s event focused on the plight of Christian converts.
Borji, whose organization Article 18 is dedicated to the protection and promotion of religious freedom in Iran, and which advocates on behalf of its persecuted Christians, said that conversion from Islam is a “massive obstacle” in most Muslim-majority countries.
Iran signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 – but it expressed reservations over the Declaration’s Article 18 which was written to guarantee the freedom of an individual’s religious beliefs. And yet, Borji pointed out, Iran did sign and ratify the Declaration, and even signed later human rights conventions that elaborated on the document. The country therefore has an “obligation” to respect religious freedom for all its citizens.
Conversion in Iran – which has “always happened,” Borji said – has increased since the explosion of access to digital technology. Borji noted that a recent study suggested Iran’s 19.6 percent rate of conversion to evangelical Christianity is the highest in the world.
Borji added that while conversion to Christianity may have provoked “social persecution” before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, after 1979 it also provoked state persecution and laws and policies to criminalize and punish conversion.
Shadi Noveiri, the first of three Christian converts to speak about her conversion during the event, remembered that she had followed the teachings of Islam as a child. But she realized at the age of 11 that she was “seeking more” from her faith. And then, at age 15, Noveiri saw the film “The Passion of the Christ,” by Mel Gibson, and was struck by the scene of Christ on the Cross asking God to forgive those who had persecuted him.
Two years later Noveiri saw a program on the Christian satellite channel Mohabat; this completed her conversion, and brought a new sense of “peace” to her life. Noveiri wrote to Mohabat, which sent her a copy of the New Testament and connected her to Iran’s house-churches – a network of informal gatherings for Christian converts.
Eight years later, after becoming an active member of the house-church, Noveiri was arrested by the authorities.
Noveiri, who was staying with a friend at the time, said that several agents, men and one woman, entered the home in the middle of the night and came into her bedroom to arrest Noveiri and her friend. Noveiri was handcuffed, blindfolded and taken to prison in the nearby city of Rasht. The security agents later told her that, as a convert, her crime was “worse than murder.”
During one episode in prison, when Noveiri requested a copy of the Bible to read, agents began to “humiliate” and “mock” her and said she had “no right” to request such a thing. Noveiri added that all of her interrogating officers and guards, at the prison in Rasht, were men. Being surrounded only by men, during such a “scary” experience, made it even worse. The prison authorities held Noveiri alongside criminals: Noveiri said that during her time in prison she witnessed “things she did not know existed” at the hands of other inmates.
Noveiri, after repeated interrogations, was threatened with torture and later charged with threatening the security of the country. Noveiri could hear other inmates being tortured – and she said that the Iranian authorities were even beating a number of Korean women evangelists who had been detained during a visit to Iran.
Noveiri was later released on bail. The authorities monitored her after her release – causing friends and others to shun her company for fear of Iran’s security services. Noveiri’s mother, meanwhile, who had also converted to Christianity, was pressured to “do something” about her daughter; but she rejected this, saying that her daughter was an adult who could make her own decisions. Noveiri’s experiences in prison forced her to leave Iran before she could be sentenced to a longer jail term.
Speaking of his own conversion, Kavian Fallah-Mohammadi, also born to a Muslim family, said that when he was 18 years old, his parents converted to Christianity; this prompted him to also explore the faith, and to convert.
The family soon joined a house-church – in part because the Iranian government was shutting down Iran’s formal Christian churches. A wave of such shutdowns occurred when churches began to hold services in Persian – the language of Iran’s ethnic majority – instead of in the traditional Armenian or Assyrian languages.
Borji also explained that the rise in persecution of Iranian Christians was prompted by this tension over the language used for worship and preaching. Churches which held services in Persian were perceived to be proselytizing the faith; and while it is impossible for Iran make proselytizing illegal de jure, because of Iran’s human rights obligations, it is de facto illegal and suppressed by the authorities.
Fallah-Mohammadi, who was a student at the time, said he knew that conversion to Christianity could prompt friends and even family to ostracize him. He told few people of his conversion to begin with – even though he said it is “natural” for someone to want to share their new beliefs with others. But, over time, he was unable to conceal his beliefs and he was eventually arrested during an armed raid. He and several other Christians were charged with attending an “illegal” gathering – in reality a small Christmas celebration.
The interrogators began questioning Fallah-Mohammadi and the other Christians; they asked for access to personal data accounts, questioning Fallah-Mohammadi on his political views and how he had converted. He was taken to a security office and questioned through the night – at which point Hakani said the agents became more “aggressive” – and later sent to the Ministry of Intelligence ward at Evin Prison in Tehran.
A refrain emerged during these interrogations as agents told Fallah-Mohammadi that he had “no right” to tell other people about his own religious beliefs. He also said that, while it did not happen to him, he had heard examples of agents insisting that other Christians convert back to Islam to secure their release. And, in his case, he was threatened with a lifetime prison sentence if he did not “cooperate” by becoming an “informer” for the authorities. Fallah-Mohammadi told his captors that they wanted him to become a “Judas” in his community, and rejected the ultimatum, which provoked them to extend the warrant for his detention.
Fallah-Mohammadi spent a month in solitary confinement – where he was not allowed to have even his glasses – and was released from detention on bail after 53 days. He then then fled Iran before a court could sentence him to prison.
Vahid Hakani, speaking of his own experience, said that another reason for such widespread changes of beliefs in Iran is the “claustrophobic” atmosphere created over four decades by the Islamic Republic.
Iran is “like the Truman Show,” Hakani said, referring to the Jim Carey comedy film in which an individual unwittingly lives his life in a fake community and on live television. Iranians are educated and raised in a certain way, Hakani explained, referring to a national-religious ideology that favors Islam and ethnic Persians; but when Iranians grow up, they see that “reality is different” and start to think differently about their own beliefs.
When Hakani first learned about Christianity, and converted to the faith, he did not know it would be such a gross “misdemeanour” to convert or that it would be so difficult to even find Christian literature. Finding a copy of the New Testament took him a year.
Hakani, who was living in the city of Shiraz, also said that it was difficult to attend the only Persian-speaking house-church in the city because it was opposite both a local intelligence bureau and a precinct of Iran’s “morality police”. Iran’s security agencies always monitor house-churches, Hakani said, making even private worship dangerous. Hakani was summoned and arrested – which Hakani said was “unnecessary” for people who are just trying to live their lives as Christians or as other minorities.
The Ministry of Intelligence first contacted Hakani in 2008 and warned him against communicating with the Mohabat Christian satellite television channel.
Hakani was then arrested in 2011 at a Christian gathering. The gathering included women who were not wearing the obligatory Islamic hijab headscarf; when the agents raided the event, they did not allow the women to don their veils, while also filming them, so as to implicate them in false charges of immodesty, mingling with men, and immoral behavior.
The detainees knew how others had been treated by the authorities – in particular at the prison to which they were taken, Adelabad Prison near Shiraz, a notorious detention center – and Hakani and his fellow Christians were afraid of how they would be treated. He was pressured to falsely confess against himself and to declare that he was a member of a “seditious cult” – both of which he refused to do. Hakani spent 1.5 years in temporary detention and then a further three years in prison, alongside Christians and other minorities, including Baha’is, Jews and Sufis.
Basic rights of the detainees – including the right to go outside once a day, or to have regular phone calls with their families – were routinely denied.
Hakani also said that a number of Shia Islamic clerics visited the converts in prison and offered them instant freedom if they recanted their Christian faith. He added that a number of Nigerian drug traffickers, who had been caught trying to smuggle illegal substances from Iran to Europe, were offered the same choice; they converted to Islam, and their jail terms were reviewed and their sentences reduced.
Hakani said that he and his fellow Christian detainees felt like “hostages” in prison. He and the others knew that their situation and imprisonment – and those of other Christians – were being used in international negotiations, for example over Iran’s nuclear program, and that Iran might dangle the treatment of minorities as a way to extract concessions from other countries.
Hakani went on two hunger strikes during his time in prison, protesting against the mistreatment and denial of medical care, and suffered gastrointestinal bleeding as a result. He was released after serving most of his sentence and later left Iran.
Mansour Borji, the Article 18 director, said as the event concluded that basic elements of Christian life, such as access to Bibles and religious icons, have become restricted in Iran and that selling or even owning such items was a risk.
Borji, answering a question from the audience as to why Iran finds it difficult to grant religious freedom, said that Iran wants to be a part of the international community. But the ruling clergy finds it “very difficult” as a “theocratic” and “authoritarian” government to allow any religious minority – whether Christian converts, Baha’is, Sufis or others – to exercise their freedom of religion or belief. But “when you make the choice to convert,” Borji said, Iranians who have tried to change faith have come to realize that their rights have been stolen.