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UK can ‘amplify voices of those persecuted for faith’ – Mansour Borji

UK can ‘amplify voices of those persecuted for faith’ – Mansour Borji

Article18’s Advocacy Director, Mansour Borji

Interviews and case studies used in the formation of a UK government report into the persecution of Christians worldwide have now been made publicly available.

Article18 was the report’s primary source on Iran, contributing statements from Advocacy Director Mansour Borji and researcher Dr. Sara Afshari, as well as case studies on the ten-year sentences given to pastors Yousef Nadarkhani and Victor Bet-Tamraz, and the forced closure of an Assyrian church in Tabriz.

The report, the preliminary findings of which were first published in May, found that the situation for Christians and other minorities in Iran had “reached an alarming stage”.

“Persecution in Iran is on the rise,” noted the report in its brief country overview on Iran, “and most of it is targeted at Christians from a Muslim background and Protestant Christians”.  

Advocacy Director Mansour Borji called on the UK Foreign Office in his statement to “amplify the voices of those suffering discrimination, harassment and persecution because of their faith and peaceful Christian activities”. 

He said the UK government should “openly address the violations of religious freedom because that is effective and it does change their behaviour. It makes the Iranian government feel as if they are accountable to the international community”. 

Mr. Borji suggested that, in light of the current political standoff between Iran and the US, the UK may be better placed to call Iran to account on abuses of religious freedom. He championed the work of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, and said “multilateral efforts are perhaps more effective, given the current circumstances”.

Mr. Borji added that a combination of “both behind the scenes reaction and openly addressing the issues” is required, because “doing one or the other runs the risk of appearing insincere”.

He cited the examples of Yousef Nadarkhani’s acquittal in his apostasy case and the release of Iranian-American Saeed Abedini as proof that “publicly advocacy does work in most cases, because the Iranian government doesn’t like negative publicity”.

Researcher Sara Afshari focused her statement on the government-led campaign of hate speech against Evangelical Christians and converts from a Muslim background, who are referred to as “Zionists” and “crusaders”.

She cited the example of the state-sponsored Rahpoyan Institute, which between October 2010 and December 2018 published over 1,800 “critical views and anti-Christian items, including hate speech and incitement of discrimination and hatred against Christians in the form of news, views, interviews, video clips, articles and so on”.

Dr. Afshari noted that there had been a “spike” in anti-Christian propaganda in 2017 after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called the paramilitary volunteer group Basij “commanders” in a “soft war” allegedly being waged by the West against the Iranian regime, with Evangelical Christianity as its weapon.

“Khamenei ordered them [the Basij] to bypass the law and ‘act on their own sense of religious duty’ and act in a ‘fire at will’ form,” Dr. Afshari explained. “This caused great concern and so shortly after this he clarified his comments saying that, ‘By “fire at will” I didn’t mean bypassing the law; I was referring to responding from a social and cultural point of view”. So his agencies took that as needing to increase their media propaganda, and through media propaganda you increase your effectiveness in a ‘cultural way’.”

Dr. Afshari urged the UK Foreign Office to engage with the “complexity of the Iranian system”, whereby “although the president is the second highest official position in the country, his power is limited” by the Supreme Leader’s control over all aspects of life in Iran.

She said failure to understand this complexity was “one of the main reasons for the ineffectiveness of the international efforts in relation to their negotiation with the Iranian government regarding Christian persecution and freedom of religion in general”.

Dr. Afshari added that it was important not only to focus on the persecution of Christians, but also of other religious minority groups, as for a Western government to “single out Christians” could be seen as a “confirmation” of the regime’s accusations that Christians are “spies” of the West and Israel.

Dr. Afshari also said that to reduce the number of Christian refugees fleeing Iran – almost all of whom she noted are from a Muslim background – “it is important to put pressure on the Iranian government to recognise Christians from a Muslim background, to reopen Farsi- speaking churches and allow them to worship together, and to guarantee their safety”.

Case studies

The case of Assyrian pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, sentenced to ten years in prison in July 2017, is presented by Article18 as a “good example” of how, “though Christians are one of the few religious minority groups officially recognised in Iran’s constitution … they are not allowed to share their faith with Muslims or permit converts to participate in church activities”.

“If they do,” as in the case of Pastor Victor, “the church may face severe persecution, such as the closing down of the church and imprisoning of church leaders”.

Pastor Victor was removed from his post by the Assyrian representative to the Iranian Parliament, Yonathan Betkolia, in 2009, after the pastor refused to stop conducting services in Farsi.

He was then arrested during a Christmas celebration in 2014, alongside two converts from a Muslim background – who were later sentenced alongside him to ten and 15 years in prison, respectively.

Article18’s case study notes that this issue was raised by a UK member of parliament in the week after the verdict. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth office responded: “The government is aware of reports regarding Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, Amin Afshar-Naderi and Hadi Asgari. The government notes the worrying trend of harassment of Christians in Iran and strongly condemns any mistreatment of religious minorities in the country. We regularly raise our concerns about the human rights situation in Iran both in London and Tehran. We call on Iran to cease harassment of religious minorities and to fulfil its international and domestic obligations to allow freedom of religion to all Iranians.”

Similarly, Mr. Borji noted in his statement that in the case of Pastor Nadarkhani’s death sentence for apostasy, “the FCO made a plea for his release and, as a result of mounting international pressure, he was released”.

“However, in 2016 he was re-arrested and sentenced to 10 years for actions against national security and he is in his first year of his prison sentence,” Mr. Borji added. “His children are banned from school unless they accept the status of a Muslim. Local education authorities overruled the superior education authority ruling to give them access to education. He tried to register them as Christians before he went into prison.”

Last week, Article18 reported on the comments of Iran’s Minister of Education, who said children professing an “unrecognised” religious faith at school were engaging in “propaganda” and should be banned.

Meanwhile, Article18 reported in July that a pro-government news agency in Iran had claimed the Assyrian church in Tabriz was in fact never closed and that its cross “fell down” and was later restored.

Mr. Borji said the report was an effort at “damage control” after the “despicable act” of forcibly closing the church and taking down the cross.