40 years since constitution enshrined discrimination along religious lines

40 years since constitution enshrined discrimination along religious lines

Embed from Getty Images

The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran was ratified 40 years ago this week, enshrining discrimination along religious lines.

Ever since, non-Shia Iranians of all religions and none have been swimming against the prevailing tide, and, worse still, the law.

The latest protests in Iran have not on the face of it had anything to do with discrimination – they began after a rise in gas prices, as a result of a struggling economy – but in pressured times, pressured people rise to the surface, venting frustrations that run much deeper.

And in recent years, such protests have grown ever more frequent.

In the West, the protests that have gained the most publicity have related to women’s rights – from the “Blue Girl” who set herself on fire to protest against women being banned from football stadiums, to the women who take off their headscarves or wear white on Wednesdays to protest against forced hijab.

But scratch beneath the surface, and there are rumblings of discontent from all sectors of society, including religious minorities – both those “recognised” by the constitution (Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians) and unrecognised groups like Baha’is and Christian converts.

Christians’ right to a church

Earlier this year, a brave young Iranian Christian woman named Fatemeh Mohammadi began a campaign calling for all Iranian Christians – whether from Christian families or converts – to be permitted to go to church.

In an article for the Persian-language website of the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), Fatemeh challenged the common misconception that, as there are over 300 churches in Iran and Christians are one of the few “recognised” religious minorities, their situation can’t be all that bad.

In fact, as she pointed out, those churches are only accessible to members of Iran’s historically “Christian” Armenian and Assyrian communities, whose numbers have fallen dramatically from around 300,000 to perhaps a third of that as a result of emigration, and not the ever-growing community of “Persian Christians” – converts from a Muslim background, of whom there are believed to be between 500,000 and 800,000.

Fatemeh Mohammadi, as her name suggests, is one of them, and a rare one at that. 

There are few known Christian activists still living in Iran. Others have long since been chased out of Iran, put in prison, or, in some cases, even killed

Yet, while Fatemeh, who now prefers to be called Mary, has already spent six months in prison for her membership of a Tehran “house-church” and is currently facing new charges related to her “improper” wearing of hijab – charges that were brought against her after she initially went to police to complain of an assault – for now at least, she is free.

Or, at least, she is as free as a Christian convert can be in Iran.

Because the reality is that, while defenders of the Islamic republic continue to claim, in the face of all logic, that Christians in Iran enjoy “full religious freedom”, such freedom as exists for the “recognised” Christian minority does not extend to converts.

In this instance, Iran’s discrimination against converts actually seems to go against its own constitution.

What is an ‘Iranian Christian’?

As Mary points out in her article, the Iranian constitution does not define what is meant by a “Christian” when promising them, “within the limits of the law”, freedom “to perform their religious rites and ceremonies and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education” (Article 13).

There is nothing in there about a Christian being someone from an Assyrian or Armenian home.

Neither does the constitution define which “individuals” are protected from “molestation”, or “taking to task”, as a result of “holding a certain belief” (Article 23). 

On the face of it at least, such protections would seem to extend to all Iranians, but it seems this doesn’t include those who convert to Christianity. 

Instead, converts in Iran are firstly denied access to churches – the government has banned churches from holding services in Persian – and then arrested if they join the private gatherings of Christians in what have become known as “house-churches”, which only exist because there is nowhere else for the converts to gather together to worship.

So, not only are converts denied access to the hundreds of churches that indeed do still exist in Iran; their efforts to find another place of worship is then deemed a criminal offence, with converts regularly charged with “acting against national security” – even though time and again Christians like Mary say that such meetings involve nothing of the sort.

The Christians just sing worship songs, pray and read the Bible together – like all other Christians around the world.

As Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh, a Christian convert serving a ten-year sentence in Tehran’s Evin Prison, asked in a letter from prison: “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?”

‘They say nothing, because it’s too dangerous’

So Christian converts first suffer deprivation by not being permitted to attend a church building, and then when they resort to meeting together in private homes, they are locked up or chased out of the country.

Mary has said she cried after her first visit to a church, because the pastor said he didn’t want to talk to her.

“I realised this is the start,” she said. “They put people under pressure, and so if people want to know about Christianity, they say nothing, because it’s too dangerous.”

Mary is also of the opinion that not enough is known about the situation of Christians in Iran – particularly converts – compared to the significant amount of publicity and advocacy work relating to other rights issues.

“When people talk about women’s rights or against the death penalty, everyone is supporting them. But every time you talk about Christians’ rights, many people say it’s impossible,” she says. “I want to use the campaign to educate people that converts are [considered] inferior.”

And while she says she is not optimistic about the chances of her campaign succeeding, she hopes that one day all Christians in Iran will be able to “have a place to praise God, without security guards”.

“Human beings are born without a religion,” she writes. “… Religion is not in the gene or the blood, and cannot be passed down from generation to generation. Therefore a person born to a Muslim parent is not a Muslim, and the same applies to people who are brought up by Christian parents or followers of other religions.”

Mary concludes: “Since the text of the constitution has not changed, so today, these rights [promised to all Christians] are within the scope of the law, and Christians should be able to enjoy these rights. Even in the Islamic Republic of Iran, banning Persian-speaking Christians from official churches has no legal basis and is contrary to written law.”