In his recent speech before the United Nations, and as a way to support his claim that Israel is “a rogue and racist regime [that] trample[s] upon the most basic rights of the Palestinians,” Iranian president Hassan Rouhani repeatedly portrayed his government as dedicated to “moderation and respect for human rights,” adding: “We in Iran strive to build peace and promote the human rights of peoples and nations. We never condone tyranny and we always defend the voiceless. We never threaten anyone…”
How do these claims stand to scrutiny? One need only look to Iran’s Christian minority—which forms only one percent of the entire population—for an answer. Unlike the persecution other Christian minorities experience in Muslim majority nations—which often comes at the hands of Muslim individuals, mobs, or professional terrorists—the primary driver of Christian persecution in Iran is Rouhani’s government itself.
The 2018 World Watch List, compiled by Open Doors, a human rights organization that highlights the global persecution of Christians, makes this clear. Iran is among the top ten worst nations where Christians experience “extreme persecution.”
[Moreover], whereas most persecution of Christians in the Arab Gulf region comes from society or radical Islamic groups, the main threat for believers in Iran comes from the government. The Iranian regime declares the country to be a Shia Islamic State and is constantly expanding its influence. Hardliners within the regime are vehemently opposed to Christianity, and create severe problems for Christians, particularly converts from Islam. Christians and other minorities are seen as threats to this end, and are persecuted as a result. Iranian society as a whole is more tolerant than their leadership, thanks in part due to the influence of moderate and mystical Sufi Islam.
Most of the regime’s persecution is directed against Protestant Christians and Muslim converts to Western forms of Christianity, such as the Evangelical, Baptist and Pentecostal strains. Because they are denied the right to build churches, Christians often resort to meeting and worshipping in secret. Reports of Iranian authorities breaking into such house church gatherings, arresting and hauling off many if not all present Christians have become increasingly common.
Discussing this phenomenon, Middle East Concern, another human rights organization, says:
A great many Iranians have been coming to Christ and it’s something which the authorities are clearly very unhappy about. So there are periodic arrests, detentions, [and] imprisonments. There have been a lot of charges lately which are suggesting an even greater clampdown—sentences of 10-15 years in some cases for Christians. And usually, the authorities will suggest that this [is] the result of undermining the state or seeking to collaborate against the state and will use more political charges than say apostasy or blasphemy laws.
For example, in June 2017, four Muslim converts to Christianity, who were arrested a month earlier in raids on house churches, were each sentenced to ten years in prison. “The four men,” notes one report, “were officially charged with ‘acting against national security,’ a catch-all charge often used by the Iranian government to punish different types of religious and political dissent. The government often uses it against converts instead of the charge of apostasy, according to freedom of religion advocates, in an attempt to avoid international scrutiny.”
Most recently, another convert to Christianity, Naser Navard Gol-Tapeh, inquired about the charge he was convicted for, namely, “Action against national security through the establishment of house churches.” In an August, 2018, open letter to the Iranian court that sentenced him to ten years in prison, he asked, “is the fellowship of a few Christian brothers and sisters in someone’s home, singing worship songs, reading the Bible and worshiping God acting against national security? Isn’t it a clear violation of civil and human rights, and an absolute injustice to receive a ten-year prison sentence just for organising ‘house churches…’”
Although the official reason Iranian authorities give in all these arrests and convictions is that such Christian—by which is meant “Western”—activities are tantamount to “crimes against national security,” that religious hostility is the root source behind such governmental animus is evident in other ways. For instance, “[w]hile the government is anti-Christian, it does grant some limited freedoms to historical as opposed to Protestant] Christian churches,” says the World Watch List. “They [indigenous Orthodox and Catholic communities] are allowed to preach to fellow countrymen in their own language but are forbidden from ministering to people from Muslim backgrounds. Members of these historical churches are treated as second-class citizens, and they have reported imprisonment, physical abuse, harassment and discrimination, and jail terms, particularly for reaching out to Muslims.” Moreover, even historical, indigenous churches are targeted for destruction by Iranian authorities.
Not only does Iran persecute its Christian minorities, but it also tries to coerce them to embrace Islam—despite Rouhani’s boasts before the UN that “Iran does not seek to … impose its official religion on others,” because “[w]e are so confident in the depth of our culture, the truth of our faith and tenacity and longevity of our revolution…”
In one instance, the government “ordered children belonging to families of one of the country’s largest house church movements to study the Koran and Shi’a Islam teachings or face expulsion from school,” notes one report. This policy “deprives Christian children of primary and secondary education unless they agree to religious instruction that does not conform to their faith.” As one Iranian Christian living in hiding had explained, “Rouhani wants to prove that he is a good Muslim by persecuting Christians…. Most of the new Christians are former Muslims…. The authorities are trying to eradicate Christianity, just as the Islamic State group, but smarter.”
Moreover, many Christians who eventually escape Iran and its prisons make clear that pressuring them to convert to Islam was a standard tactic. An October 2017 report says that it had “obtained confirmed reports of them [arrested Christians] being beaten in prison and threatened that if they don’t renounce their faith in Christ and turn away from their Christian faith they will be forced to leave the country or be beaten to death.”
Similarly, while recounting their harrowing experiences in Iran’s jail system, two female converts to Christianity said “they were asked repeatedly to deny their Christian faith,” and “were denied medical treatment because of their faith and that they were seen as ‘dirty infidels.’”
“We can do anything to you and nobody can stop us,” their Islamic captors regularly informed them. “Here we are the law and we can do whatever we want…. If you don’t give us the information we need, we’ll beat you till you vomit blood…” “They treated us like animals,” recalled the women. “If a prisoner’s case got [international media] attention, they stopped torturing or raping them because they knew the world was watching…. We heard of many cases of prisoners who had no voice outside, and many things happened to them.”
The irony of all this is that Rouhani himself hints that Iran’s commitment to human rights does not include non-Muslims. At one point in his UN speech he said that “Human and citizens’ rights, along with the quest for justice and Islamic values, have constituted the most pivotal demands of the Iranian people … particularly in the Islamic Revolution of 1979.” Apparently any Iranian who has “Christian values” does not count.
Elsewhere Rouhani said, “It is simply impossible for anybody to aspire to attain long-term stability, prosperity and development, while Muslims in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Myanmar and so many other places live in misery, war and poverty.” Why stress “Muslims”? Why not say “all people” in Syria, Iraq, etc.? Again, apparently the “misery” of non-Muslims who live in those countries does not warrant mention.
Until such time that Iran can show that it cares about the human rights of all—including those non-Muslims that live within its borders—all lofty talk about rights and Palestinians must be seen for what it is: hypocrisy, lies, and a political agenda.