‘Total religious freedom’ or is Iran one of world’s worst persecutors of Christians?

‘Total religious freedom’ or is Iran one of world’s worst persecutors of Christians?

Article18’s advocacy director, Mansour Borji, has addressed the often cited discrepancy between the Iranian government’s claims that there is “total religious freedom” in Iran, and rights groups’ insistency that Iran is one of the world’s worst persecutors. 

Speaking during a live-streamed discussion on Friday – looking into the question of why the Iranian government considers Christianity a threat – Mr Borji noted that claims of “total religious freedom” are made not only by government representatives in Iran but also by some church leaders. Set aside this, he explained that there are at least 11 Christians currently in prison in Iran on charges related to the peaceful practice of their faith.

To address this inconsistency, Mr Borji said it was important not to distinguish between Iran’s “ethnic” and “non-ethnic” Christians, as is often done, but “recognised” and “un-recognised”.

He pointed out that while Iran’s historically recognised Armenian and Assyrian Christian communities are afforded “limited freedoms”, at the very same time an Assyrian Christian pastor, Victor Bet-Tamraz, and his wife Shamiram, are currently facing long prison sentences for their faith, while their son, Ramiel, has only recently been released from prison.

He also pointed to the example of Armenian Orthodox Christian Sevada Aghasar, who only last year was released from a five-year prison sentence.

And while such Christians may be considered among the ethnic groups “recognised” by the Iranian government, Mr Borji said it is the activities of such individuals that is the defining factor as to whether or not they are at risk of persecution.

“What is happening is that anybody who opens the opportunity for the general public, by offering any services – whether written, or a church service, or a TV programme, in Farsi – which allows people, regardless of their religious background or affiliation, to join, they’re the ones who are being targeted,” he explained, “Because obviously they open doors to conversions, and that’s something the Iranian government does not like to see.

“So therefore, we don’t use ‘ethnic Christians and non-ethnic Christians’. We use ‘recognised Christians’ – which are constitutionally recognised groups that usually the Iranian government would like to have some agreement with – and ‘unrecognised’ groups, which could be Christians or Jews, who are non-conformists; they don’t want to abide by the illegal restrictions that are set upon their community. And, therefore, the Iranian government dislikes their activities and would like to somehow maintain control over them. And within these ‘unrecognised’ Christians, you could have Armenians, you could have Assyrians, or you could have converts from a Muslim background.”

International stage

Mr Borji explained that one of the reasons for the “mixed messages” is that the Iranian government is careful to protect its image on the international stage, as it wishes to benefit from trade and international relations.

But he explained that while as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Iran is mandated to provide people with the freedom to practise their faith, including the right to “choose and change their religion”, Iran’s very constitution is opposed to full religious freedom, as the Shia Islamic jurisprudence upon which it is based does not allow for apostasy, and in fact provides for the death penalty for anyone leaving Islam – even if such a punishment is rarely carried out.

Mr Borji said that such a contradiction may not be a problem “if it was one or two [conversions], like in many of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa, but since there are a lot, and remember that Iran is also trying to be a member of the international community – they want to benefit from trade and international relations, so they can’t always be the bad guys. And therefore you have a very quiet, systematic persecution, which tries to eliminate churches without being seen as so oppressive – so limiting the churches where people could gather, to be trained, to nurture their faith, is one way of trying to get rid of this massive phenomenon of conversion.

“And secondly, if there are any people who are effective in reaching out to other people, or they’re in leadership, they’re facing arbitrary arrest and detention. A lot of them are jailed on security-related charges, as this sort of activity is now seen as an ‘action against national security’. And therefore they’re imprisoned for up to 10 years, or even more.”

You can watch the video recording of the entire discussion, hosted by Heart4Iran and also featuring Todd Nettleton from Voice of the Martyrs, at the top of the page.