Reports

Report: Violations of the rights of Christians in Iran in 2018

Report: Violations of the rights of Christians in Iran in 2018

This report is the result of collaboration between Article18, Middle East Concern, CSW, and Open Doors International.

Executive Summary

During 2018, the Iranian Christian community, along with other religious minorities, continued to suffer multiple violations of their right to freedom of religion or belief. Ongoing surveillance of Christians by the authorities was often accompanied by harassment. The end of 2018 saw an unprecedented wave of raids on private house gatherings, leading to a large number of arrests. Many Christians received prison sentences, or had sentences upheld by the Court of Appeal. Most of the reported violations involved converts from Islam, but there were also several instances where members of the recognised Armenian and Assyrian Christian minorities were imprisoned or sentenced to jail terms due to their religious activities. Recognised church buildings remained closed to ethnic Persian Christians and, in several cases, church property remained under threat of confiscation. 

Introduction – Freedom of Religion or Belief 

Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states:

  1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
  2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
  3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
  4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

Although Iran ratified the ICCPR in 1975, it fails to uphold the values enshrined in it, including the right to freedom of religion or belief for all of its citizens. This report records the violations experienced by the Christian community during 2018.

Ongoing Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief 

Religious and political leaders in Iran continue to speak out against Christianity. It is therefore unsurprising that the Christian community experiences repression in various forms. The Iranian intelligence service (MOIS) closely monitors Christian activity and, together with the Revolutionary Guard (IRCG), has raided Christian gatherings in private homes, arresting all in attendance and confiscating personal property. Those arrested have been subjected to intensive and often abusive interrogation. In June 2018, Christian convert Fatemeh Mohammadi released a letter detailing the sexually abusive interrogation she had undergone when she was arrested and detained in Evin Prison in Tehran.

House church networks and the targeting of converts to Christianity 

For nearly a decade, Persian Christians, who are generally converts from Islam, have been prohibited from entering official church buildings.  They have consequently been forced to resort to informal meetings, frequently called “house churches”, which are regularly targeted by the security services. This prohibition, and the subsequent targeting of house churches, not only constitutes a violation of the right to freedom of religion or belief, but also of the right of peaceful assembly and association.

Not only did the prohibition continue in 2018; there were also regular reports of house churches being raided, with a surge during November and December 2018 as arrests were reported in the cities of Ahvaz, Chalus, Damavand, Hamedan, Hashtgerd, Karaj, Mashhad, Rasht, Shahinshahr and Tehran. In one week alone, one hundred and fourteen Christians were reported to have been arrested. 

In March 2018, twenty Christians associated with house churches were arrested in Karaj and six were detained.

On 10 April 2018, Christian convert Mohammad Ali Yassaghi was arrested in Mazandaran Province, North Iran. He was held in Babol Prison, Mazandaran Province, on charges of “propaganda against the establishment.” On 25 June 2018, Mohammad Ali Yassaghi was brought before a judge in the 102 Revolutionary Court of Babol. The judge acquitted him, rejecting the charges.

It was reported that on 17 and 18 June 2018 five Christian converts had been arrested in Karaj and West Tehran. Those arrested were named as Razmik Zadourian, Shahab Bani Bayat, Mohammad Mohaghegh Dolatabadi, Shahin Shakib, and Vahid Dehghani.

On 16 November 2018, two Christian converts were arrested after arranging to hold a meeting in Mashhad. Behnam Ersali was arrested in Mashhad and Davood Rasooli was arrested in Karaj.  

On 30 November 2018 Jamshid Derakhshan, a Christian convert from Karaj, was arrested as he went to a house gathering in Hashtgerd. His family was unaware of his whereabouts for nearly two weeks. He was released on bail on 16 December and charged with “propagation of Zionist evangelical Christianity.”

On 2 December 2018 four Christian converts were arrested in Ahvaz. Sisters Shima and Shokoofeh Zanganeh were arrested together with Farzad Behzadizadeh and Abdollah Yousefi. Shima and Shokoofeh Zanganeh were both physically assaulted during interrogation. Shokoofeh Zanganeh was released on bail of US$44000 on 25 December, and Shima was released on bail of US$44000 on 31 December 2018. 

On 6 December 2018 intelligence agents raided the home of Amir Taleipour and his wife, Mahnaz Harati, arresting them in front of their 7-year old daughter.

In December 2018 nine Christian converts were arrested in Alborz province during Christmas celebrations.

In 2018 there were many reports of Christians, mainly converts, being arrested. Those arrested often faced pressure to recant their faith or sign commitments not to meet with other Christians. Those who did not comply were detained and generally faced charges related to evangelism, engaging in “illegal” house churches or acting against “national security.” They were eventually released conditionally on payment of bail pending a court summons. 

As a result of the pervasive and ongoing repression, during 2018 Christian converts and those from ethnic minorities continued to flee the country.

Church closures and violation of property rights

In 2018 churches which used to hold services for Farsi-speaking Persian Christians remained closed. These include St. Peter’s Presbyterian Church and Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Tehran, Assemblies of God Central Church, Tehran, and Assemblies of God churches in Janat-Abad, Ahvaz, and Shahinshahr among others. In addition, the Assemblies of God retreat centre in Karaj, the Garden of Sharron, was issued a confiscation order on 7 March 2018.

Imprisoned Christians

A number of Iranian Christians are either still serving prison sentences or were released in 2018. Several appealed their sentences during 2018. However, with few exceptions, the sentences were upheld. 

In January 2018 Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh was detained and began serving a 10-year prison sentence in Evin Prison for “acting against national security through forming and establishing illegal house churches.”

On 2 May 2018, Yousef Nadarkhani, Yasser Mossayebzadeh, Zaman (Saheb) Fadaee and Mohammad Reza Omidi were informed that the 10-year prison sentences given on 14 June 2017 at the 26th Branch of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran for “acting against the national security through propagating house churches and promoting Zionist Christianity” had been upheld. On 22 July 2018, ten police officers arrived at Yousef Nadarkhani’s home and physically assaulted Yousef Nadarkhani’s son, Danial, when he opened the door to them. Both Yousef Nadarkhani and his son were tasered, despite offering no resistance. Mohammad Reza Omidi and Zaman (Saheb) Fadaee were arrested on 24 July and Yasser Mossayebzadeh on 25 July before being taken to Evin Prison to serve their sentences. The men had received no official summons prior to the arrests.

On 25 April 2018 there was a preliminary appeal hearing for Rev. Victor Bet Tamraz, an ethnic Assyrian, and Christian converts Kavian Fallah Mohammadi, Hadi Asgari and Amin Nader Afshari. Rev. Victor Bet Tamraz, Kavian Fallah Mohammadi and Amin Nader Afshari were arrested at a private Christmas celebration on 26 December 2014. Amin Nader Afshari was re-arrested at a picnic in August 2016, together with Hadi Asgari and Ramil Bet Tamraz (see below). In June 2017, Judge Ahmadzadeh sentenced Rev. Victor Bet Tamraz, Kavian Fallah Mohammadi and Hadi Asgari to 10-years’ each for “conducting evangelism and illegal house church activities.” Amin Nader Afshari was sentenced to 15-years’ imprisonment for “conducting evangelism, illegal house church activities and insulting Islamic sanctities.”

On 6 January 2018, Shamiram Issavi Khabizeh, the wife of Rev. Victor Bet Tamraz, was sentenced to 5-years’ imprisonment for “membership of a group with the purpose of disrupting national security and another five years in prison for “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security.” An appeal is ongoing – the first session of the Court of Appeal has since been held.

In May 2018, Majidreza Souzanchi Kushani, a Christian convert detained in Evin Prison, was sentenced to 5-years’ imprisonment for “membership of evangelistic groups and conducting evangelism.” Majidreza Souzanchi and Fatemeh Mohammadi, another Christian convert, had been arrested in November 2017.

On 20 June 2018, 12 Christian converts from Bushehr were given prison sentences of one year each for “propaganda activities against the regime through the formation of house churches.”  They were also under intense pressure to recant their faith.

On 11 July 2018, Ramil Bet Tamraz, son of Rev. Victor Bet Tamraz, was sentenced to prison for four months for “spreading Christian propaganda.” The sentence is being appealed.

On 22 September 2018, Zaman (Saheb) Fadaee – already serving a 10-year sentence in Evin Prison – received an 18-month prison sentence for “spreading propaganda against the regime.” Fatemeh Bakteri received a 12-month sentence for the same charges.

The following table includes cases which have appeared in public reports, and does not constitute a comprehensive record of every Christian currently detained in Iran: 

Name Place Detention began Released Length of prison sentence (if convicted)
Ebrahim Firouzi Karaj 2013 5 years
Sevada Aghasar Tehran 2017 5 years
Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh Tehran Jan 2018 10 years
Hadi Asgari Tehran 2016 April 2018 on bail 10 years
Majidreza Souzanchi Kushani Tehran 2017 5 years
Ali Amini Tabriz 2017 April 2018
Fatemeh Mohammadi Tehran 2017 April 2018 6 months
Yousef Nadarkhani  Tehran July 2018 10 years
Aziz Majidzadeh Tehran March 2018 May 2018 on bail
Mohammad Ali Yassaghi Babol April 2018 June 2018
Yasser Mossayebzadeh Tehran July 2018 10 years
Saheb Fadaie  Tehran July 2018 10 years
Mohammad Reza Omidi Tehran July 2018 10 years
Behnam Ersali Mashhad Nov. 2018
Davood Rasooli Karaj Nov. 2018
Shokoofeh Zanganeh Ahvaz Dec. 2018 25 Dec. 2018 on bail
Shima Zanganeh Ahvaz Dec. 2018 31 Dec. 2018 on bail
Farzad Behzadizadeh Ahvaz Dec. 2018
Abdollah Yousefi Ahvaz Dec. 2018
Jamshid Derakhshan Karaj Dec. 2018 16 Dec. 2018 on bail
Amir Taleipour Mashhad Dec. 2018
Mahnaz Harati  Mashhad Dec. 2018

Recommendations 

The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has an obligation under international law to respect, protect and fulfil the right to freedom of religion or belief.  We therefore call:

  • For the immediate and unconditional release of Christians detained on spurious charges related to their faith or religious activities, and
  • For the government of Iran to uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief for every citizen regardless of their ethnic or linguistic group, and including converts from other religions.
  • We also call on members of the international community to assist in holding Iran accountable for upholding its obligation to ensure and facilitate freedom of religion or belief for all of its citizens by highlighting this principle during political or economic discussions with, or concerning, the nation.
  • Finally, we ask the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to consider investigating and issuing a report on the ongoing mistreatment of Christians and other religious minorities in Iran. 
Human Rights Watch World Report 2019

Human Rights Watch World Report 2019

Iran’s mistreatment of religious minorities, including the imprisonment of 37 converts to Christianity, is highlighted in the Iran chapter of Human Rights Watch’s latest annual World Report.

“As of September 30, Iran has sentenced 37 Christians who converted from Muslim backgrounds to imprisonment for ‘missionary work’,” notes the report, citing Article18 as the source of the information.

HRW also highlights the sentencing of at least 208 Dervishes; the detention of at least 79 Baha’is, and the refusal to allow them to register at public universities “because of their faith”; the discrimination faced by Sunnis; the cultural and political restrictions placed on Azeris, Kurds, Arabs and Baluchis; and the case of Yazd city councillor Sepanta Niknam, a Zoroastrian, who was suspended from his work because of his religion.

The report also notes the reaction of Iran’s security forces to the numerous nationwide protests in 2018: “arbitrary mass arrests and serious due process violations”. 

“Authorities have also tightened their grip on peaceful activism, detaining lawyers and human rights defenders who face charges that could lead to long jail terms,” says HRW.

HRW’s report also highlights:

  • The execution of at least 225 people, with “apostasy” and “insulting the prophet [of Islam]” among crimes punishable by death in Iran.
  • The continued detention of scores of human rights defenders and political activists.
  • The failure to provide fair trials and adequate medical care to those charged with national-security crimes (among them several Christians); and the suspected use of torture to extract confessions
  • Discrimination against women in “personal status matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody”.
  • Stigma and discrimination against disabled people, and failure to provide them with sufficient access to social services, healthcare and public transportation.
  • Iran’s continued role in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. 
Imprisonment of 37 Christian converts highlighted by Human Rights Watch

Imprisonment of 37 Christian converts highlighted by Human Rights Watch

Iran’s mistreatment of religious minorities, including the imprisonment of 37 converts to Christianity, is highlighted in the Iran chapter of Human Rights Watch’s latest annual World Report.

“As of September 30, Iran has sentenced 37 Christians who converted from Muslim backgrounds to imprisonment for ‘missionary work’,” notes the report, citing Article18 as the source of the information.

HRW also highlights the sentencing of at least 208 Dervishes; the detention of at least 79 Baha’is, and the refusal to allow them to register at public universities “because of their faith”; the discrimination faced by Sunnis; the cultural and political restrictions placed on Azeris, Kurds, Arabs and Baluchis; and the case of Yazd city councillor Sepanta Niknam, a Zoroastrian, who was suspended from his work because of his religion.

The report also notes the reaction of Iran’s security forces to the numerous nationwide protests in 2018: “arbitrary mass arrests and serious due process violations”. 

“Authorities have also tightened their grip on peaceful activism, detaining lawyers and human rights defenders who face charges that could lead to long jail terms,” says HRW.

HRW’s report also highlights:

  • The execution of at least 225 people, with “apostasy” and “insulting the prophet [of Islam]” among crimes punishable by death in Iran.
  • The continued detention of scores of human rights defenders and political activists.
  • The failure to provide fair trials and adequate medical care to those charged with national-security crimes (among them several Christians); and the suspected use of torture to extract confessions
  • Discrimination against women in “personal status matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody”.
  • Stigma and discrimination against disabled people, and failure to provide them with sufficient access to social services, healthcare and public transportation.
  • Iran’s continued role in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. 
Iran’s Christians faced ‘unprecedented’ wave of arrests in 2018

Iran’s Christians faced ‘unprecedented’ wave of arrests in 2018

An “unprecedented” wave of raids on private house gatherings of Christians at the end of 2018, leading to more than 100 arrests, was the culmination of a year in which religious freedom continued to be violated in Iran, reveals Article18’s inaugural annual report.

One hundred and fourteen Christians were arrested in one week alone in early December, following a series of raids in ten cities across the country. Dozens more were arrested over the course of the year – with some of them subjected to violent physical assaults and one woman reporting that during her interrogation she was subjected to sexually abusive interrogation.

At the end of 2018 at least 14 Christians remained in prison, “detained on spurious charges related to their faith or religious activity”, notes the report, which was released in collaboration with CSW, Middle East Concern and Open Doors International. 

The report calls for the “immediate and unconditional release” of those still detained, for a “careful investigation” by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Iran, and for the international community to “promote freedom of religious and belief in Iran and to keep this principle in mind in political or economic discussions”.

It accuses Iran of “failing to uphold the values” enshrined in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which Iran ratified in 1975 and which includes provision for religious freedom.

The report also notes the continued enforced closure of Farsi-speaking churches and confiscation of church property, nearly a decade since Iranians were banned from entering church buildings unless they belong to the ethnic Armenian or Assyrian communities.

This ban has led to the proliferation of informal gatherings in private homes, known as “house churches”, which, the report notes, are closely monitored by the Iranian intelligence service (MOIS), leading to raids conducted with the support of the Revolutionary Guard (IRCG).

Most of those arrested are converts to Christianity, although members of the Armenian and Assyrian minorities have also been targeted for actions related to their faith, such as Assyrian church leader Victor Bet Tamraz, who was arrested at a Christmas gathering in 2014 and later sentenced, alongside three converts, to ten years in prison for “conducting evangelism and illegal house church activities”.

The report notes that “those arrested often faced pressure to recant their faith or sign commitments not to meet with other Christians. Those who did not comply were detained and generally faced charges related to evangelism, engaging in ‘illegal’ house churches or acting against ‘national security’. They were eventually allowed conditional release on payment of bail pending a court summons”.

In one recent case, the bail amount for two Christian sisters was set at the equivalent of nearly $45,000 each.

In another case – that of church leader Yousef Nadarkhani and three of his church members – the pastor’s son was assaulted by police officers when he opened the door to them, and both he and his father were tasered despite offering no resistance. 

Two days later, the three church members, Yasser Mossayebzadeh, Zaman (Saheb) Fadaee, and Mohammad Reza Omidi, were taken to Tehran’s Evin Prison to serve their sentences despite receiving no official summons prior to their arrests.

The report notes that the arrests came as “religious and political leaders in Iran continue to speak out against Christianity” and that the “ongoing oppression of Christians, whether from ethnic minorities or Christian converts, continued to result in emigration from Iran throughout 2018”.

Yesterday, Iran was revealed to have risen to 9th place on the latest annual ranking by Open Doors of the 50 countries where it is hardest to be a Christian.

Iran rises to 9th on annual ranking of worst persecutors of Christians

Iran rises to 9th on annual ranking of worst persecutors of Christians

Iran has risen to 9th on Open Doors International’s ranking of the 50 countries where it’s hardest to be a Christian.

Last year, Iran was 10th on the charity’s World Watch List, but this year it has risen above neighbouring Iraq, which has moved down to 13th place, and stayed ahead of countries such as India, which has seen a big rise in the persecution of Christians, as well as China, Algeria, Central African Republic, Mali and Mauritania, which each rose at least 10 places on the list.

Henrietta Blyth, chief executive of Open Doors UK & Ireland, said it was “shocking” to see a country such as India – “the country which taught the world the way of non-violence” – now sitting “alongside the likes of Iran on our World Watch List”. 

This is of course hardly a glowing reference of Iran’s treatment of Christians, which continued to worsen in 2018, as Christians – particularly converts – were regularly harassed and arrested for practising their faith.

In the run up to Christmas, 114 Christians were arrested in just one week, following raids on private house gatherings of Christians – known as “house churches” – in 10 different cities across Iran.

Most of those arrested were released after just a few hours, but each of them was forced to sign a statement detailing their history of Christian activities and told not to meet with other Christians again. They were also informed that they would soon hear from the Ministry of Intelligence.

Those suspected of being leaders were detained.

At the turn of the year, at least 14 Christians remained in detention in Iran’s prisons – serving sentences of up to 15 years on spurious charges related to the practice of their Christian faith. Many of them have faced brutal conditions, including torture, solitary confinement and the denial of medical care.

Mansour Borji, Article18’s advocacy director, says Iran’s mistreatment of Christians can be seen in the context of a general crackdown on civil liberties by a regime that feels threatened. 

“The Iranian regime feels under siege and, with the rising unrest resultant from economic hardship as a consequence of sanctions and widespread corruption, they are cracking down on civil liberties,” he says. 

“They seem to have began this campaign of terror by arresting and detaining groups that they feel most vulnerable against. This includes human rights activists, who expose injustice and corruption, and religious groups like Christians, whose continued growth exposes the weak legitimacy and broken monopoly of the theocratic state.”

Dervishes share photos appearing to reveal police brutality

Dervishes share photos appearing to reveal police brutality

Photographs have emerged appearing to show 10 Gonabadi dervishes with bandaged heads and bruised faces posing for police mugshots.

The photographs, published by the BBC, are purported to show injuries sustained by the dervishes during their recent arrest and transfer to jail. 

Gonabadi dervishes, Iran’s largest Sufi order, have long complained of mistreatment at the hands of Iran’s law enforcement agencies, and these new photographs would seem to provide a rare piece of concrete evidence of their claims.

There are many similarities between the claims made by the dervishes and members of other religious minorities, such as Christians, Zoroastrians and Bahá’ís.

In the past decade, dervishes claim to have had their houses of worship destroyed, to have seen hundreds of their members arrested, and dozens sentenced to lashes, time in prison or exile. They say they have been beaten and tortured by police, and then in prison have faced rape, solitary confinement and denial of medical care.

Dervishes claim they have been fired from government jobs, refused university education and faced constant harassment by members of Iran’s intelligence agency. 

They have also faced accusations of being a threat to national security and of being used by foreign powers to undermine the regime.

Their situation has been highlighted by rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran.

Yet while there are clear similarities between the harassment faced by dervishes and other religious minorities, there is an additional political element to the dervishes’ troubles.

Gonabadi dervishes believe that religion and politics should remain separate, which puts them instantly at odds with the foundations of the Islamic republic.

The dervishes’ popularity with the Guardian Council was further damaged during the 2009 presidential elections when they supported a candidate not favoured by the council and began to be seen even more as a potential threat in mobilising support against the regime.

Their tactics, of public protests, sit-ins and hunger strikes, and widely publicised clashes with police in defence of their leader, Nurali Tabandeh, have also made life uncomfortable for the authorities.

Sisters released on bail after paying 1 billion tomans

Sisters released on bail after paying 1 billion tomans

Shokoufeh (left) and Shima Zanganeh (Mohabat News)

Two sisters who were arrested in Ahvaz earlier this month and charged with “action against Iran’s national security through evangelism” have been released on bail.

Shima and Shokoufeh Zanganeh, who are aged 27 and 30 respectively, were arrested on 2 December by plainclothes Revolutionary Guards and after interrogation at the Intelligence Office transferred to Sepidar Prison.

Shokoufeh was released on Christmas Day and Shima on New Year’s Eve, after their family paid a combined sum of one billion tomans (nearly $90,000).

The two sisters, who are both converts to Christianity, were assaulted during their interrogation and had many of their personal items confiscated, including books, phones and computers.

For the first few days, it was unclear where they were being held, but after a few days’ detention Shima called her family to let them know that she and her sister were being held at the Amanieh Intelligence Office in Ahvaz.

On 12 December the sisters were brought before Branch 12 of the Revolutionary Court in Ahvaz, where they were charged with “action against Iran’s national security through evangelism” and their bail was set at 500 million tomans (nearly $45,000) each. They were then transferred to Sepidar Prison.

The Zanganeh family attempted to pay their bail amount on several occasions, but several times they were told by court officials that “the judge is not in today”.  

Meanwhile, two other converts arrested on the same day in Ahvaz, Farzad Behzadi and Abdollah Yousef, remain in detention in a prison in Mollasani, just to the north of Ahvaz. It is still unclear on what charges they are being detained.