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UN establishes annual day commemorating victims of religiously motivated violence

UN establishes annual day commemorating victims of religiously motivated violence

UN General Assembly (Patrick Gruban / Flickr / CC)

The UN General Assembly yesterday voted to adopt 22 August as the annual UN International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.

The proposal, tabled by Poland, was adopted by consensus. The day will recognise the victims of “all acts of violence against persons on the basis of their religion or belief, as well as any such acts directed against their homes, businesses, properties, schools, cultural centres or places of worship, as well as all attacks on and in religious places, sites and shrines that are in violation of international law”.

The Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Tenzin Dorjee, welcomed the move, but added: “We must not stop at condemnation. Like-minded governments must also increasingly work together to hold perpetrators accountable, whether they are state or non-state actors responsible for the abuses.” 

In Iran, religiously motivated violence tends to be state-led. Since the revolution 40 years ago, this has included the murder of several Christian leaders, the violent arrest and interrogation of many others, and the forced confiscation and closure of several churches and other Christian properties.

Just last week, Article18 reported that a church in Tabriz was forcibly closed on 9 May and the cross torn down from the church tower.

Last year, a Christian retreat centre in Karaj was finally ordered to close following years of threats and uncertainty. Article18’s Advocacy Director, Mansour Borji, said it was “not only a takeover of a property by corrupt judiciary and Intelligence officials, but yet another move in an ongoing and systematic campaign by the Iranian state to uproot Protestant Christianity”.

In the 1990s, several Christian leaders, such as Haik Hovsepian, Mehdi Dibaj, and Tateos Mikaelian, were brutally murdered, and another, Hossain Soodmand, was hanged for converting to Christianity. Previously, just eight days after the revolution, an Anglican pastor, Arastoo Sayyah, was killed in his church office.

Iran is 9th on the Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

Last year, Iranian Christians faced an unprecedented wave of arrests, including 114 Christians 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 sexually harassed.

Those arrests have continued this year, including the arrest of nine converts from one church in Rasht, and the violent arrest of a convert in Isfahan. Another convert, arrested in Shiraz, was held in solitary confinement, interrogated for 14 hours a day, repeatedly ordered to revert to Islam, and asked why he had evangelised.

‘Absurd’ that Iranian Christians are charged with acting against national security – USCIRF commissioner

‘Absurd’ that Iranian Christians are charged with acting against national security – USCIRF commissioner

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) Tony Perkins says it’s “absurd” that Christians in Iran “who practise their faith peacefully” face charges of acting against national security.

The commissioner was speaking at an International Christian Concern event, “Religious Freedom and Human Rights in Iran”, in Washington DC last week. 

“It is absurd that Christians in Iran who practise their faith peacefully are charged with acting against national security. Iran’s own constitution provides for Christians’ protected status,” Perkins said.

“In the 20 years of USCIRF’s existence, the Iranian government, in particular, stands out as one of the most consistently egregious violators of religious freedom. The Iranian regime treats centuries of religious diversity as a threat. The motivations for the regime’s behaviour are simple: cowardice and fear.” 

Other speakers at the event included Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh, Iranian converts to Christianity who were detained for 259 days because they were active in evangelism.

“The Iranian government arrested and imprisoned us because of our evangelical Christian faith,” Rostampour said. “We were threatened and indicted with execution by hanging for charges of apostasy, blasphemy, and promoting Christianity in Iran.

“We spent 259 days in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, where we learned why Iran is classified among the countries where followers of Christ face the most extreme persecution.” 

Amirizadeh added: “We are hoping that one day people in Iran will be free from persecution and suffering.

“Many house churches were attacked by Revolutionary Guards … and the majority of the house churches today have been closed.”

The US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, told the audience: “Religious persecution is not a theoretical problem. It is a real problem affecting real people all over the world.

“[Christians] have experienced persecution, they’ve been put in jail for their ministry work. And it’s terrible. It’s something that should never be happening today.”

Some other quotes from the event:

Dr. Mike Ansari, Heart4Iran: “The authorities detain [Christians] and threaten their families. A lot of church leaders have no choice but to leave Iran for the sake of their family and loved ones.” 

Dr. Hormoz Shariat, Iran Alive Ministries: “The first month or two, there is torture to get all the information they can from the prisoner. If the prisoner dies under torture, they claim that he committed suicide.

“They are using a few to bring fear into the hearts of the masses.” 

Isaac Six, ICC: “There are about 800,000 Christians in Iran, the majority of [whom] are converts from a Muslim background … There are protections in place for Christians, but the majority in place do not apply to those from a Muslim background.”

Ted Cruz, US Senator: “The Iranian regime continues to hunt and oppose anyone who they think is a threat to the regime.

“Why is it that tyrants fear? Because telling stories shining light on their atrocities strengthens others being oppressed. It is our responsibility to not let them suffer in silence.”

Assyrian parliamentary representative condemns Tabriz church closure

Assyrian parliamentary representative condemns Tabriz church closure

Only 48 hours after Article18 published news of the forced closure of a church in the northwestern city of Tabriz, the Assyrian representative to the Iranian parliament wrote an open letter to the President on Saturday, calling for it to be reopened.

“Mr. Rouhani, is this action befitting the dignity of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to treat the sacred places of Christians in such a way?” wrote Yonathan Betkolia.

Two days previously, Article18 had revealed that on 9 May agents from the Ministry of Intelligence and EIKO, an organisation under the direct control of the Supreme Leader, had stormed the church, changing the locks, tearing down the cross from the church tower and ordering the church warden to leave.

Betkolia’s letter urged the President “to urgently take the necessary steps to reopen the church and to repatriate and reinstall the Holy Cross, in order to console the [Christian] and other religious authorities of the country, as well as their followers”.

The letter appears to have come in direct response to the publication of this news, given that the church had already been closed for two weeks before Article18’s report.

The Assyrian representative, who has been criticised in the past for failing to speak out against abuses of religious freedom, is reliant upon the support of Assyrian Christians in northwestern provinces, including Tabriz.

Betkolia’s letter mysteriously refers to an unspecified “group” as the enactors of the church seizure, implying that this may have been an isolated and out of the ordinary incident. 

The Assyrian representative has also been implicated in the closure of other Assyrian churches in the past. Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, noted in his 2018 report that “multiple sources” had reported that Betkolia was “instrumental” in the 2009 closure of the Shahrara Assyrian Protestant Church in Tehran, due to its provision of Persian-language services.

Christians from Iran’s historic Assyrian and Armenian communities are a recognised minority, who are usually able to freely practise their faith, providing they don’t open their doors to Muslim-born Iranians by holding services in Persian.

The church, belonging to The Assyrian Presbytery, was officially “confiscated” by Revolutionary Court order back in 2011, but church members had until now been able to continue using the building for services in the Assyrian language.

‘Brainless’ converts from Islam to Christianity deserve death – cleric

‘Brainless’ converts from Islam to Christianity deserve death – cleric

Seyed-Hashem Bathaee (Shabestan.ir)

A member of Iran’s Expediency Council of religious leaders appointed in an advisory capacity by the Supreme Leader has implied that Muslims who convert to Christianity are stupid, poor and easily manipulated.

Seyed-Hashem Bathaee, in an interview with Shabestan news agency, blames the government for being unable to eradicate poverty, saying that as a result people are poorer and vulnerable to “religious corruption”.

He adds that anyone found guilty of apostasy deserves the death penalty – whether “man or woman, boy or girl”.

“Those who go towards Christianity – they don’t hate the Muslim prophet, but they are being influenced by the promotion of corruption in society,” he says.

Article18’s Advocacy Director, Mansour Borji, notes that Bathaee “doesn’t specify whose corruption, but we know from many recent admission by Iranian clergy and politicians that it is mostly due to the authorities themselves”.

Iran is among the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International.

The cleric adds: “We should know that today’s Christianity in many aspects is corrupt. Even the Bible is corrupted.”

His comments are the latest example of public denigration of Christianity in Iran and amount to an incitement to religious hatred, says Borji.  

“He is basically accusing anyone who has converted of being a brainless person who’s been easily manipulated and deceived to convert,” Borji explains.

“And then, as a religious authority and member of the Expediency Council, he claims that the punishment for people who convert, regardless of their gender or marital status, is death.”

The cleric’s comments come just a few weeks after Iran’s Minister of Intelligence for the first time publicly admitted to collaborating with Shia religious seminaries to combat the perceived threat of mass conversions to Christianity across the country.

Mahmoud Alavi, addressing a gathering of Shia clerics in Qom on 4 May, admitted to summoning converts to Christianity for questioning “to ask them why they were converting”, as it was “happening right before our eyes”.

“Some [of the converts] said they were looking for a religion that gives them peace,” Alavi said. “We told them that ‘Islam is the religion of brotherhood and peace’. They responded by saying that: ‘We see Muslim clerics and those who preach from the pulpit talk against each other all the time. If Islam is the religion of peace, then before anything else, there must be cordiality and peace among the clerics themselves.”

In his speech, Alavi also admitted that “these converts are ordinary people, whose jobs are selling sandwiches or similar things”.

This represented a “huge shift away from Iran’s usual rhetoric that converts are agents of the West who have undergone significant training to undermine national security,” according to Borji.

“It is also especially alarming for the Iranian regime to acknowledge that ‘ordinary Iranians’ are converting, as it is they who have formed the regime’s hardcore support for the past 40 years – support the regime is now losing in huge numbers.”

Assyrian Presbyterian church in Tabriz closed down

Assyrian Presbyterian church in Tabriz closed down

Intelligence agents stormed the 100-year-old church, which is a National Heritage site, and tore down the cross from the tower.

The Assyrian Christian community in the northwestern city of Tabriz has been left it a state of shock, after the Presbyterian church was forcibly closed earlier this month.

Intelligence agents stormed the 100-year-old church, which is a National Heritage site, on Thursday, 9 May, changed all the locks, tore down the cross from the church tower, and ordered the church warden to leave.

“They made it clear that the Assyrian people are no longer allowed to hold any worship service there,” explained a trusted source to Article18.

Services at the church continued after the ‘confiscation’ order was issued in 2011.

The source said church members had been fearful since just a few days after Christmas, when pastors from other churches were prevented from visiting the Tabriz church for a joint worship service with other Assyrian and Armenian Christians.

Then on 9 May “a large number” of agents from the Ministry of Intelligence and EIKO, an organisation under the direct control of the Supreme Leader, “entered our church compound and changed all the locks on the doors, removed the cross from the church’s high tower, installed some monitoring instruments and started to threaten and force our custodian to leave his place inside the compound immediately”.

The church, which once offered services in Assyrian, Persian and English, was “confiscated” by the Revolutionary Court order in 2011, but Assyrians had been able to continue using the building for services in the Assyrian language – until now. 

“Many churches owned by Protestants have been confiscated in Iran,” explains Article18’s Advocacy Director, Mansour Borji, “In most cases the government has been unable to repurpose them, especially if they were listed. So they typically remain as empty buildings, often neglected, and turn into ruins before being demolished, as was the case with the church in Kerman.”

Christians from Iran’s historic Assyrian and Armenian communities are a recognised minority, who are usually able to freely practise their faith, providing they don’t open their doors to Muslim-born Iranians by holding services in Persian.

Four months after appeal hearing, converts told jail sentences upheld

Four months after appeal hearing, converts told jail sentences upheld

Two Iranian converts to Christianity have been informed that their jail sentences have been upheld, four months after their appeal hearing, reports Middle East Concern.

Saheb (Zaman) Fadaee and Fatemeh (Ilar) Bakhteri were sentenced to 18 months and 12 months in prison, respectively, in September 2018 for “spreading propaganda against the regime”. Zaman was also sentenced to two years’ exile in Hamedan province.

Saheb Fadaee and Fatemeh Bakhteri

Their appeal hearing took place in January, during which they were asked to renounce their faith.

When they refused, the presiding judges, Hassan Babaee and Mashallah Ahmadzadeh, told them to expect their verdict in a few days.

Four months later, on Saturday, 18 May, they were notified that their sentences had been upheld.

Zaman is already serving a separate ten-year sentence, issued in July 2017, for forming a “house church” and “promoting Zionist Christianity”. He was taken to serve that sentence in Evin Prison in July 2018, alongside his pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani, and two other members of their Rasht church – Mohammad Ali Mossabayeh and Mohammad Reza Omidi, who are also converts to Christianity.

Nine other members of the Rasht “Church of Iran” group have been arrested this year. In March, seven of them were released on bail, but two were held.

UK hires clerics to train asylum staff in religious literacy

UK hires clerics to train asylum staff in religious literacy

The UK’s immigration service has hired clerics to train its staff in religious literacy, following years of criticism that workers are ill-equipped to deal with the complex claims of converts and others claiming persecution on religious grounds.

The issue came to particular prominence in March when a Home Office worker used verses from the Bible to contradict the claims of an Iranian asylum seekerwho said he’d converted to Christianity because it was a “peaceful” religion. 

The convert was told that suggesting Christianity was “peaceful” was inconsistent with verses such as “You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you” – from the book of Leviticus.

“These examples are inconsistent with your claim that you converted to Christianity after discovering it is a ‘peaceful’ religion, as opposed to Islam which contains violence, rage and revenge,” read a letter from the British Home Office, which was shared online by the Iranian’s lawyer, Nathan Stevens.

Church of England spokesman Bishop Paul Butler said he was “extremely concerned that a government department could determine the future of another human being based on such a profound misunderstanding of the texts and practices of faith communities”. 

One of the clerics who took part in the first session for Home Office case-workers last month told the Church Times “there have been a number of bad decisions over the years, highlighted as far back as 2004 by an Evangelical Alliance report, All Together for Asylum Justice”. 

Rev. Mark Miller, whose church has a large number of Iranian converts and translates its services into Persian, added: “I have been involved in training to share some of my experiences of working with Christian conversion, and how to go about assessing whether someone is genuine. In the session, I asked staff what they thought was basic knowledge, but most of what they suggested back to me wasn’t basic knowledge; it was ‘Name the Ten Commandments’, rather than the significance of a faith in Jesus.”

Converts to Christianity are regularly targeted in Iran, as was recently admitted by Iran’s Minister of Intelligence, who said he had “summoned [converts] to ask them why they were converting” and had been told it was because “they were looking for a religion that gives them peace”.

In recent years, many converts have been arrested and charged with “actions against national security”, then given lengthy sentences of up to 15 years in prison

Once arrested, they often face pressure to recant their faith or sign commitments not to meet with other Christians. In many cases, converts have been released after paying huge sums for bail, then given their passports and encouraged to leave Iran. 

As a result of the harsh treatment they face, many converts decide to leave Iran, as Article18 highlighted in its inaugural annual report, released in January.

Iran considers denying access to lawyers in ‘national security’ cases

Iran considers denying access to lawyers in ‘national security’ cases

The Iranian parliament (Flickr / CC / Parmida Rahimi)

Amnesty International has called on Iranian lawmakers to “urgently revise” a proposed amendment to the criminal code that would deny detainees facing charges such as “actions against national security” the right to a lawyer.

The proposal, which would also apply to detainees charged with “terrorism” or “financial corruption”, could have significant ramifications for the country’s Christians, many of whom have faced charges relating to alleged actions against national security, leading to jail sentences of up to 15 years.

Amnesty notes that while denial of a lawyer is only permitted for 20 days, the proposal enables undefined “judicial authorities” to extend this indefinitely, “if deemed necessary”.

Amnesty calls the proposal “contemptible” and “a huge backward step” that would “reintroduce the kind of restrictions found under the previous Code of Criminal Procedure of 1999, under which prosecution and judicial authorities could effectively bar detainees’ access to a lawyer for the entire investigation phase in a wide range of criminal cases, including those concerning ‘national security’”.

The current criminal code, which came into force in 2015, decrees that all detainees must be given access to a lawyer, albeit only one chosen from a small pool of lawyers approved by the head of the judiciary. 

When an initiate to reform the code was announced in June 2018, it was hoped that this provision would be scrapped, but the lawmakers have “turned the initiative on its head”, Amnesty says, “by proposing, instead of the annulment of the existing provision, a new flawed provision”.

The proposal was announced by the spokesperson of Iran’s legal and judicial parliamentary commission, Hassan Norouzi, on 6 May and is expected to be voted upon in the coming weeks.

Amnesty’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Philip Luther, said the “regressive” proposal, if passed by MPs, “would be a crushing blow to Iran’s already deeply defective justice system and could further consolidate patterns of torture and other ill-treatment against detainees to extract forced confessions during interrogations”.

“Iranian lawmakers should focus their attention on introducing legal reforms that would strengthen rather than further undermine the right to a fair trial,” he added. “The Iranian parliament must urgently revise this proposed amendment to bring it into line with Iran’s obligations under international human rights law and guarantee the right of all detainees to access a lawyer of their choice from the time of arrest and at all stages of judicial proceedings, including pre-trial detention, questioning and investigation.”

Jailed woman convert accuses Intelligence Minister of ‘violating constitution’

Jailed woman convert accuses Intelligence Minister of ‘violating constitution’

Fatemeh Mohammadi (HRANA)

A young woman who was jailed for six months for being part of a Tehran “house church” has written an open letter to Iran’s Minister of Intelligence, accusing him of violating the constitution by targeting Christians.

Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi admitted earlier this month to “inviting” Christian families for questioning to ask them why they had converted.

In her letter, Fatemeh Mohammadi, 19, accuses him of violating Article 23 of the constitution, which states that “no-one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief”. 

She adds that intelligence officials were wrong to search the properties of the converts because the Christians had committed no crime, and says they were “summoned”, not invited, to “inspect their opinion and attempt to remove them from their beliefs”.

Fatemeh was arrested at a house-church meeting in November 2017 and sentenced to six months in prison in April 2018; she was then released, owing to time already served in the women’s ward of the notorious Evin Prison. 

Her letter, which was published by the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), references Mr. Alavi’s acknowledgment that the Christians who were questioned were “ordinary people”, who had jobs “such as selling sandwiches”. As Article18 reported, this statement marked a huge shift away from Iran’s usual rhetoric that converts are agents of the West who have undergone significant training to undermine national security. 

Fatemeh’s letter queries whether the members of her house church were not also “ordinary”, saying it comprised “several housewives, a salesperson, guard, agricultural engineer, taxi driver, student and others with similar professions … aged between 19 and 60”.

“Were we not ‘ordinary people’ who were threatened by plainclothes agents who searched the house and ransacked everything, without hesitating?” she asks.

Fatemeh also questions why Christians are prevented from “talking about their ideas with their peers”, while Muslims can freely engage in “propaganda” at schools, universities, mosques and shrines.

She adds that those who had been interrogated would no doubt have seen all these advertisements about Islam, yet, “for whatever reason, they have decided to believe in Christianity, while they are not allowed to go to church, will not hear church bells … not see Christian TV and not have the experts available to them to add to their information”.

She calls for “open, free and secure spaces” where people can discuss their ideas with “peace of mind” and says “identifying Christians in an attempt to harass them and inquire into their beliefs is a flagrant violation of the constitution and other domestic and international laws”

Fatemeh also calls on human rights groups to do more to highlight the “oppression” of Persian-speaking Christians in Iran, whom she says are an overlooked minority, recognised and researched only by the international community.

She says Iranian officials should devote their energies to compiling statistics on the numbers of converts in order to “learn the well-founded roots of their problems in this country and society as Christians, not identifying them just for the purpose of inspecting their opinions”.

Fatemeh published another letter in June last year, in which she accused her interrogators of sexual harassment.

Fatemeh was arrested alongside Majidreza Souzanchi, 35, who is still in Evin Prison, serving a five-year sentence – for his membership of the house church and “conducting evangelism” – that in January was reduced to two years

Both of their cases were highlighted in Article18’s annual report, which documented rights violations against Christians in 2018. Majidreza was one of at least 14 Christians still in prison in Iran at the start of 2019.

Dabrina Bet-Tamraz: My parents’ lives are on hold

Dabrina Bet-Tamraz: My parents’ lives are on hold

Dabrina Bet-Tamraz told the UN Human Rights Council last year that the charges against her parents were ‘baseless’. (World Evangelical Alliance)

The daughter of an Assyrian pastor and his wife still awaiting the outcome of their appeals against prison sentences for their Christian activities says their lives are “on hold”.

Dabrina Bet-Tamraz told the Gatestone Institute that her father, Victor, and mother, Shamiram, are “trying to survive, not knowing what is going to happen next, not being able to make plans about their future”. 

“They are living with constant anxiety, powerless, not having security and safety even in their own home,” she said. “They are fully aware of the dangers around them but are not able to do anything to protect themselves. They are watched, controlled and wiretapped; it is their everyday life. Every time they get a phone call, they are filled with fear: It might be Iranian intelligence officers calling them for an interrogation session or a court hearing.”

Last year, Dabrina told the UN Human Rights Council the charges against her parents were “baseless”.

Her father, Victor, was sentenced to ten years in prison in July 2017 for “action against national security by organising and conducting house-churches”. In January 2018, her mother, Shamiram, was sentenced to five years in prison on similar charges.

Now, Dabrina says all her father’s money has been “frozen”.

“He has no income now and is not allowed to have a government job,” she said. “He is 65 years old and is living on a pension that is not even enough to pay for food.

“Also, my brother [who was also given a prison sentence] was constantly accused by his interrogators of carrying on my father’s ministry – of teaching and preaching the Bible, since my father is no longer able to do so.”

Dabrina noted that the judge who recently took over her mother’s appeal “has not even found enough evidence to sentence my mother”. 

“The case was not clear to him,” she said. “He requested more information and documents from the interrogators. He will most likely take all the cases – of my father, mother and brother – together and call them all in for the next court hearing.”

Dabrina, who now lives in Switzerland, said that she too had been “arrested many times in Iran, threatened [and] forced to cooperate with the government against pastors, Christian leaders and church members”. 

She said she was “kept in custody with no legal permit, with no female officer present and in male surroundings”.

Although she said she now feels “safe” in Switzerland, Dabrina was recently forced to move home after “Iranian MOIS [intelligence agency] officers published an article on social media with my pictures and home address, encouraging Iranian men living in Switzerland to ‘pay me a visit’”.