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As hard-liners tighten their grip on Iran, Release International appeals to the country’s new president to allow full religious freedom

The persecution of Christians is set to intensify in Iran, following the election of hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi as the Islamic Republic’s new president, warns Release International. The UK charity is urging Iran’s new president to allow full religious freedom and release all prisoners of faith.

Iran election news

The election, which was spurned by large numbers of Iranian voters, has been described as fraudulent, because many reformers and moderates were barred from standing.

The candidate favoured by the establishment was ultra-conservative Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who has also been tipped to take over from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the country’s next Supreme Leader.

‘This victory for the hardliners will mean hardship for the church,’ warns Release International CEO Paul Robinson. ‘They are likely to intensify their crackdown against Christians who are often regarded as enemies of the state.

‘Further arrests’

‘That would lead to further arrests and imprisonment. Already many Christian leaders have been forced to leave the country. That exodus is likely to continue.’

Voters boycotted the election in record numbers. Only 48.8 per cent turned out to choose their country’s next president. This is widely seen as a snub for a system that prevented most candidates calling for reform from standing.

As former head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi was responsible for the continuing imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian charity worker accused of spying.

And according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) Raisi served on a four-man ‘death committee’ that paved the way for the execution of up to 5,000 political prisoners in 1988, who were buried in unmarked graves.

Amnesty International say he should be investigated for crimes against humanity, including torture, murder and enforced disappearance.

Analysts say Raisi is the favoured successor to Iran’s ageing supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

82-year-old Khamenei’s stated objective is to ‘purify the revolution’. His broader aim is the establishment of an Islamic civilization, which would inspire and rally the Muslim world.

He has already set out his route map towards that final objective: Islamic revolution, leading to Islamic regime, then Islamic government, Islamic society, and onwards to Islamic civilization. Observers believe he considers himself halfway towards that goal. It will fall to Raisi to complete that task.

Growing concern

Paul Robinson e1592816375901
Robinson, CEO Release International

Iran has long been a country of concern to Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world. ‘Time and again we see persecution increase wherever Islamist radicals strengthen their grip on power,’ says Release CEO Paul Robinson.

‘In Iran, Pakistan, and in Nigerian states that have adopted Sharia (Islamic law), persecution has been the inevitable consequence of uncompromising Islamist theocratic rule.’

Under Islam, politics and religion are inseparable. And as Iran has become progressively more hard-line in its approach, the Church has been swept up in the crackdown against political opponents.

Individual Christians are often accused of ‘undermining national security’ and have found themselves cast in the role of enemy of the state.

Religious activity beyond the state’s control is regarded as an attempt to undermine the Islamic republic. And Muslims who want to change their faith are anathema.

The constitution continues to recognise Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians as protected minorities. But in practice, the Christian faith is tolerated only within clear confines. Religious repression has been increasing since 2010 when Ayatollah Khamenei branded house churches a threat to national security.


Persecution intensified again in 2015, driving many Christian leaders out of the country.

The hard-line view in Iran is that all ethnic Persians are Muslims. Converting from Islam is an act of betrayal, not just against the faith, but against the state. Conversion – apostasy – is punishable by death for men, or life imprisonment for women, although the death sentence is rarely carried out.

Evangelising Muslims is illegal and arrest and imprisonment are common.

Armenian and Assyrian Christians are allowed to practise their faith, but services must be in their own language and restricted to their own ethnic groups. All Christian activity in Farsi, the most widely spoken language in Iran, is illegal.

A partner of Release International says: ‘The overall goal is to eliminate the Persian-speaking church and only allow Christian minority groups to operate.’

To limit the spread of the Christian faith, the authorities have closed many churches, driving congregations underground.

Most Christians in Iran now meet in private homes. Meetings are closely monitored by the Revolutionary Guard, especially the activities of Christian leaders.

Forced exodus

Prominent figures such as pastors often come under the scrutiny of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Many have been forced out of the country.

A Release partner describes a ‘forced exodus of the Christian community’, adding, ‘Hundreds are fleeing. If they stay their lives will be in danger.’

Converts who remain in Iran face pressure from the state and from their families.

Says a Release partner: ‘If a Muslim is baptised as a Christian he or she can end up in prison for a year, while the person who performs the baptism can be jailed for four to five years.’

A number of Iranian Christians who were raised as Muslims suffer from severe ill-health in detention, due to lack of medical treatment and beatings from prison staff and other inmates.

Members of religious minorities, including Christian converts, face discrimination in employment and restricted access to education and freedom to practise their faith.

‘Alarming stage’

The Bishop of Truro’s recent persecution review on behalf of the UK Foreign Office described the situation facing Christians in Iran as having reached ‘an alarming stage’.

Hate speech was on the rise and ‘arrest, detention and imprisonment’ were common. The Truro Review, to which Release International contributed, reported that church and Christian properties have also been confiscated.

haik hovsepian
Murdered: Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr

In the face of a ban on any Christian activity in the common language, Farsi, many Protestant pastors have had to resort to holding services in secret in private homes. This has been a factor in the growth of Christianity.

For going underground, in defiance of the state, some Christian leaders have been executed or assassinated. They include Rev Hossein Soodmand, who was hanged in his cell in 1990 and buried in an unmarked grave, evangelist Mehdi Dibaj and Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr, who were both murdered in 1994.

The charges against Christians reveal the mindset of the Iranian authorities, who regard them as enemies of the state.

Victor Bet-Tamraz

Among the Christians who have fled the country is pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz. The authorities closed down his Assyrian church for holding services in Farsi.

Pastor Bet-Tamraz had already endured 65 days in solitary confinement for his faith. He was sentenced to a further ten years for telling Muslims about Jesus.

At the age of 66, he believed if he were sent back to an Iranian jail the harsh conditions would probably kill him. So before beginning his sentence he fled the country to join the Iranian diaspora.

Naser Navard Go Tapeh
Naser Navard Gol-Tapeh – solitary confinement

Christian Naser Navard Gol-Tapeh was arrested in 2016 when 30 intelligence agents raided an engagement party in Karaj, near Tehran.

He and three others were held in solitary confinement for two months and subjected to intense interrogation. They were denied legal counsel.

All four were charged with ‘illegal gathering, collusion and evangelism’. The others, who were Azeri nationals, later skipped bail and fled Iran.

The Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran charged Gol-Tapeh with ‘acting against national security through the formation and establishment of an illegal church organisation in his home’.

They sentenced him to ten years in prison. He lost his subsequent appeal.

In January 2018 he was incarcerated in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. There he was denied medical treatment for a painful gum infection. His family feared he could lose all his teeth.

Mohammed Reza Omidi

Christian convert Mohammed Reza Omidi was given 80 lashes for taking communion wine. This followed the completion of a two-year sentence for participating in a house church.

The authorities raided the underground church and charged him with ‘acting against national security’ by ‘propagating house churches and promoting Zionist Christianity’.

He was ordered to serve a further two years in internal exile in Iran, more than 1,000km from home.

Other Christians have also been flogged for taking communion wine. Drinking alcohol is not illegal for Christians in Iran, but is forbidden for Muslims. The charges brought against Christian converts reflect the state position that once a Muslim, always a Muslim. And the sentence reflects the state’s hard-line refusal to recognise the right of Muslims to change their religion.

Church growth

Christianity in Iran predates Islam, but after successive waves of persecution, there is much debate about the number of Christians in Iran today.

Gamaan survey growing numbers of Iranians now call themselves Christians
GAMAAN survey – Growing numbers of Iranians now consider themselves Christians

According to official Iranian government figures, Christians number just over a quarter of a million. But a recent survey by GAMAAN, a secular Dutch organisation, estimated as many as 1.5 per cent of the population now identify as Christian.

A number of Christian ministries also estimate there are now more than a million Christians in Iran.

Persecution has failed to prevent the spread of Christianity and, in turn, the spread of the Christian faith has led to increased persecution. Even so, the church in Iran is growing rapidly.

According to one partner of Release International: ‘Persecution is on the increase because the authorities are aware of the growth in the number of converts and house churches – and are determined to stem this.’

Release partner Lazarus Yeghnazar of 222 Ministries says: ‘In the last 40 years, amid severe persecution of the church, only matched in ferocity by the Emperor Nero, more Muslims in Iran have come to love and surrender to Christ than the combined number in the last 14 centuries.’

There are growing accounts of Iranian Muslims having dreams and visions of Christ and turning to the Christian faith.

Mike Thomas of 222 Ministries says: ‘The number of stories I have heard of people having dreams and visions about Jesus is incredible. Many have had physical encounters with Christ. It’s extraordinary what is going on there.’

Digital technology is also fuelling church growth in Iran. Advances in IT have made available high-quality teaching materials from abroad. ‘Twenty years ago that was impossible,’ says one Release partner, ‘but today the church has some amazing tools at its disposal.’

Initiatives include social media and TV programmes broadcast into Iran in Farsi, as well as on-line prayer rooms and virtual churches.

Before the Iranian Revolution some estimate there were only a few hundred Christians in the country from a Muslim background. Today, it is commonplace to hear reports of revival taking place in Iran, and beyond the borders of Iran to where the Iranian diaspora have fled.

Religious freedom

Release International is urging full freedom of religion in Iran. ‘The Iranian authorities should allow their citizens to choose their own faith, and should release all prisoners of faith,’ says Release CEO Paul Robinson.

Release International has been supporting the families of Christian prisoners in Iran, training house churches and supplying Christian literature.

Through its international network of missions, Release International is active in some 25 countries around the world, supporting pastors, Christian prisoners and their families; supplying Bibles, and working for justice.

UCB Christian Radio has broadcast an interview with Release about the Iranian elections. You can listen to it here.