Denial of education ‘used as lever to pressure religious minorities’

Denial of education ‘used as lever to pressure religious minorities’

An Iranian Christian convert kicked out of university last month, without explanation, has spoken with Article18 about the decision and about the general situation of converts in Iran.

Fatemeh Mohammadi, who now prefers to be known as Mary, is a rare example of a Christian activist still living in Iran. 

The 21-year-old has already spent six months in prison as a result of her Christian activity, which was deemed “action against national security” and “propaganda against the system”.

The text below is a translation of the interview, which was conducted in Persian.

1. Although you were not told of the reason for your expulsion from university, what do you think led to the decision?

It appears that my religious beliefs and having a prior conviction [because of Christian activities] on security-related charges, as well as my human rights activism, are the reasons for banning me from further education. 

The denial of basic and fundamental rights, such as the right to education, certainly can act as a pressure mechanism and is used as a lever to apply pressure on religious minorities and human rights activists in the hope that individuals will halt their activities and abandon their beliefs. 

Depriving me of my education is certainly intended to exert pressure upon me, and silence me.

2. You have written tweets about the sentencing of nine Christian converts, and in support of the those killed during the recent protests in Iran. To what extent do you think the decision to expel you from university was a reaction to those tweets?

Of course, all the activities, writings, statements and any action taken by members of minority groups and activists, especially those living in Iran, is constantly monitored by the Islamic Republic. 

I was also barred from my education last year – perhaps that was an ultimatum. But given that my first ban did not result in my complete expulsion, perhaps this second ban could be seen as a more serious repeat of that ultimatum. Any such activism could lead to being denied a right, and my recent tweets may have made the authorities even more determined.

3. You have been denied education before. Is your situation similar now and to what extent may it be possible for this new ban to be lifted?

Given that I have not been informed of the reason for the denial of my education, it is hard for me to comment. It is sometimes not easy to predict the decisions and reactions of the relevant institutions. 

The Islamic Republic, by imposing numerous restrictions and deprivations on its people, commits a sort of self-harm as it incites the anger and discontent of many different groups of people.

4. Every year, during Christmas, we witness increased harassment and arrests of Christians. What do you think are the reasons for this? 

At Christmas, Christian celebrations and services are different, more attractive and more populated than they are during the rest of the year. What better time for the Iranian security forces to be able to trap multiple Christians in one operation, rather than having to bother to identify each one! Some Christians may also invite their friends.

I believe there are two main reasons why they may target people more at this time. Firstly, because the violent raids on services and festivities could increase fear among those present and act as a deterrent; at Christmas time, when Christians are celebrating, and gatherings are more crowded, it is a good time to repress those who are exploring Christianity. 

Secondly, news of the arrests of Christians at Christmas could act to deter other Christians from celebrating. 

But experience has shown us that increasing pressure on citizens in fact often acts to make them more determined to exercise their rights. So not only does raiding Christian worship services not help the Islamic Republic achieve its aims; it actually makes them more likely to fail.

5. How do you assess the level of discrimination against Christian converts in 2019?

In my opinion, it is impossible to provide a comprehensive assessment of the overall situation of Christians in Iran because we don’t have access to all the information about the rights violations against them. There are many Christians who will have been arrested, sentenced, imprisoned and deprived of their rights in the past year who we won’t even have heard of. 

So we don’t have much information, but what is striking is that, according to the statistics released every year by organisations such as Open Doors about the numbers of Christians in the world and the countries in which they are most persecuted – and the Islamic Republic’s authorities’ own admission of the growth of Christianity in Iran as a result of conversions – the Islamic Republic, which does not tolerate the right to choose religion, or freedom of thought, is now likely to feel more threatened and weakened and to therefore intensify its battle against these people.

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