As Iran observes a year since the killing of hijab protester Mahsa Zhina Amini, there are reports that Christians are coming under pressure from the authorities to boycott the protests.
Those who participate have been arrested and face sexual assault in prison, according to a new report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
Since the freedom protests began in Iran, the country has detained some 20,000 protesters and killed at least 530, by conservative estimates.
According to the BBC, seven protesters have been executed after ‘sham trials’ and dozens more have been sentenced to death.
The women’s rights protests in Iran have turned into a movement pressing for greater freedom of religion or belief. Over the weekend thousands of protesters around the world took to the streets in a show of solidarity.
Christians under pressure
In Iran, the country’s religious minorities have been swept up in the violence. According to USCIRF government crackdowns have targeted not only hijab protesters, but the country’s religious minorities.
USCIRF Commissioner Susie Gelman told CBN: ‘Christians report that they’re getting pressure from the government not to participate in the protests. If they do and they’re arrested, they are sexually assaulted in prison.’
In August, it was reported that 69 Christians were arrested in raids on 11 cities in Iran. More than 50 were detained the previous month.
Many Christians currently in Iranian prisons have been jailed because of their involvement in the underground house-church movement.
Christian leaders and pastors have faced torture and imprisonment and their families have been harassed.
Many have fled the country. UK-based Release International has launched an appeal for Christians in Iran and around the world who have been driven from their homes to avoid persecution.
Forced to flee
Tabitha, not her real name, was among them. Tabitha was forced to leave Iran after choosing to follow Jesus Christ and telling others about how she had been healed of cancer after Christians prayed for her.
Tabitha converted to Christianity at the age of 18 and was diagnosed with cancer a few years later. She was told she needed immediate surgery. A Christian woman in the hospital suggested she ask Jesus to heal her, and they prayed together.
‘I had a dream that night,’ said Tabitha. ‘I saw Jesus coming to me and he was holding my hand. He told me not to be afraid. It was then that I realised fully that Jesus is God.’
A growing number of Iranians report dreams and visions of Christ that have led to their conversion to Christianity.
Tabitha recovered enough to attend a Christian conference, hosted by one of Release International’s partners in Turkey. And it was there she again experienced God’s healing power and was eventually able to have children.
When she returned to Iran she told her family and friends about her healing. Some mocked her, but her mother and sister wanted to know more, so she led them and some of her friends to faith in Christ.
The Iranian secret police found out that she and her husband were holding Christian meetings in her home and telling people about Jesus. Several times they raided their house.
Knowing the secret police would come after her and her children, Tabitha fled Iran. She settled as a refugee in Turkey. Release international has been supporting Tabitha with practical and pastoral help to begin her new life.
According to USCIRF, Iran has relaxed its laws against so-called honour killings, which usually target women and girls, especially those who leave Islam. This impacts Christians, who are now more at risk of attack from their families for turning away from the Shia faith.
Christian women who are arrested can face sexual assault. According to the September USCIRF report, an Armenian Christian woman who was detained in 2022 during the hijab protests was held at the notorious Evin prison.
Her interrogator told her, ‘You thought that because you’re a Christian you can do whatever you want and remove the hijab.’ He then sexually assaulted her.
There are believed to be some 800,000 Christians in Iran. Official figures say fewer, but some put the figure as high as a million. And despite the oppression, some consider the Iranian church to be the fastest growing in the world.
The authorities view the growth of Christianity as a plot by the West to undermine the Islamic revolution.
It is illegal to hold church services in the native Farsi language, and to teach the Bible or speak about the Christian faith. Christians who do so can be accused of inciting violence.
The authorities have sentenced Christians to be whipped for taking communion wine. Iranians who convert to Christianity are still considered to be Muslims, for whom alcohol is forbidden. In November 2020 Christian Zaman Fadaei was given 80 lashes for taking communion.
However, there are signs that change may be in the air. In November 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that Christians who attended house churches could not be considered a threat to national security or enemies of the state. Even so, Christians continue to be arrested in Iran.
According to USCIRF, at least 75 Christians, Sunnis and Baha’is have been jailed for ‘religious practice’. Some have been charged with ‘enmity against God’.
‘The freedom movement in Iran has been gathering momentum. And the most powerful freedom of them all, the cornerstone of all freedoms, is the freedom of religion or belief,’ says Paul Robinson, CEO of Release International.
‘Release International is supporting Christians in the house church movement in Iran and continues to call on the Iranian authorities to allow full freedom of faith for all its citizens.
‘We are heartened that the Supreme Court has begun to recognise that Christians cannot be considered enemies of the state and should not be criminalised. This message has yet to reach to the heights of government in Iran and filter down to those who continue to persecute and arrest Christians.’
For details of the Release International appeal to support Christians driven from their homes, go to www.releaseinternational.org
UK-based Release International is active in around 30 countries. It works through partners to prayerfully, pastorally, and practically support the families of Christian martyrs. It supports prisoners of faith and their families, Christians suffering oppression and violence, and those forced to flee.