Although the Islamic State’s persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria warrants global attention, the suffering of the Church inside Iran continues unabated and without international action. In fact, it is an evil that has persisted for decades.
Christians inside Iran, especially believers from a Muslim background, have faced significant state discrimination ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and the imprisonment, torture, or killing of this religious minority has continued regardless of the recent international agreement in regards to Iran’s nuclear program. If anything, the failure of the free world to condemn Iran’s treatment of religious minorities while still at the negotiating table has and will continue to lead to increased boldness by the regime in persecuting Christians and greater toleration of this behavior by the global community.
The Iranian Constitution claims freedom of religion for the three non-Muslim groups of Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. However, this is mostly a nominal freedom since many non-Muslims are persecuted every year. The largest Christian churches in Iran are the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East of Iran, the Chaldean Catholic Church of Iran, the Persian Apostolic Church of the East, the Roman Catholic Church of Iran. Christians face both violent and nonviolent forms of discrimination inside Iran, ranging from prohibitions against intermarriage with Muslims to arrests, imprisonments, or even executions. Yet even in the face of persecution, Christianity continues to thrive, and the evangelical Christian population is growing nearly 20 percent each year.
A number of Iran’s illegal detentions of Christians have attracted the attention of the global community. In 2009, Iranian-born American Pastor Saeed Abidini was arrested and has been unlawfully detained by the Iranian government ever since, and the United States has led other nations in demanding his release.demanding his release. Many other Christians face daily persecution with little to no interest from the free world. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has expressed willingness to free Pastor Abedini and other American prisoners “under the right circumstances,” but in responding to American pleas for their release condemned the imprisonment of Iranians in the US. For its part, the Iranian government has denied that religious freedom violations are occurring, claiming that recent US reports such as the 2014 International Religious Freedom Report are deceptive sources attempting to accomplish the political end of creating strife within the Iranian state. By contrast, the young people of Iran, who comprise more than half of the country’s population, realize the impact of religious oppression and desire an end to it. Weary of religious edicts and strict societal rules, they long for the freedom to enjoy more cultural activities and the chance to change Iran’s ideological direction; by 2016, the hardliners in Iran’s Parliament may disappear, giving full sway to President Rouhani’s popular, more liberal approach.
The nuclear deal successfully negotiated by the P5+1 and led by Secretary of State John Kerry offered a unique opportunity to challenge Iran’s treatment of Christians. However, even as the P5+1 negotiated an agreement ending Iran’s nuclear program and lifting sanctions on Iran’s economy, the Western powers failed to secure the release of political and religious prisoners, including pastor Abedini. In the first days of the US congressional review period following the end of negotiations, critics of the Iran deal highlighted a continued lack of accountability for human rights violations, including religious persecution. As concerns for both national and global security eclipsed the human rights question, Western engagement with religious persecution in Iran did and has continued to decline.
The nuclear deal is likely to strengthen Iran both financially and diplomatically. The lifting of sanctions now will allow the influx of billions of dollars into the Iranian economy, and the internationally community has indicated a general sense of peace and understanding towards the Iranian regime. Despite the financial and diplomatic victories they stand to gain, Iran has already engaged in activities raising serious questions. More pertinent to the condition of religious minorities such as Iranian Christians, the agreement allows for a greater degree of permissiveness in regards to religious persecution. Moreover, Ayatollah Khamenei and other Iranian officials’ rhetoric demanding “Death to America” does not signal friendly engagement with non-Muslim religions or their home countries. All these factors suggest that Iran’s religious minorities, including Christians, may continue to face great discrimination and danger from a hostile state if the free world continues to stand idly by.
How can global faith communities engage with the religious persecution of their brothers and sisters inside Iran? First of all, they should pray for an end to religious persecution in Iran. Pray for the hundreds held captive, tortured, and condemned to death by the regime. Believers can also look to the example of Naghmeh Abedini, Pastor Abedini’s wife, who fasted for 21 days while praying for her husband and for other Christians persecuted around the world. Pray also for her marriage and children since she admitted just last week to chronic spousal abuse from her husband.
Pray too for the persecutors – the prison guards, government officials, and religious leaders – that they would have a change of heart and cease harming believers inside Iran. Pray for wise responses from the leaders of the free world, responses that hold Iran accountable while causing minimal increases in danger to religious minorities. Pray that the young people of Iran, whose political engagement and ideological leaning could radically transform Iranian policy in the coming decades, will be given wisdom to understand the ways of peace, justice, and forgiveness towards their brothers and sisters.
Second, faith communities should speak out by informing others of the religious oppression still present within Iran. They should also write to their elected officials at the local, state, and federal level asking them to engage the Iranian government on this issue. The people of God have the ability and indeed the duty to speak out for the vulnerable and the oppressed, and now is the time. With a unified engagement of Christians on both a spiritual and a political level, real change can take place inside Iran.