Iranian referee asked if he’d converted to Christianity after officiating at ‘Armenian Olympics’

Iranian referee asked if he’d converted to Christianity after officiating at ‘Armenian Olympics’

Mohammad Reza Faghani takes charge of an Iranian football match in February 2017.

A top-level Iranian football referee has revealed that he was asked if he had converted to Christianity because he officiated at the final of an annual Iranian-Armenian football competition in Iran.

Mohammad Reza Faghani, who has refereed in major competitions including the Asian Champions League, told Article18 that three weeks after refereeing the final of the “Armenian Olympics” in October 2016, he was accused by the Iranian Football Federation of engaging in “Christian propaganda”.

Mr Faghani said the accusation was based on an Instagram post he had published in which he “explained the happiness and respect I witnessed in the ceremonies, and the humanity that I found among these dear Armenians”.

He said that he had “quickly removed the post, so there would be no problems for these dear people and also for myself”, but that the consequences of the post have “caused me a lot of problems”.

There are believed to be around 75,000-85,000 Iranians of Armenian descent still living in Iran, where they are considered “ethnic Christians” and are therefore afforded a measure of religious freedom, alongside Iranian-Assyrians – albeit with constraints, as Article18 has highlighted.

As Mr Faghani put it, “There are many restrictions on religious minorities in Iran, and ‘freedom of religion and belief’ [in Iran] is nothing more than a slogan.”

Mr Faghani left Iran in the winter of 2018, travelling first to Norway, and then to Sweden, where he has now applied for asylum while continuing to work as a referee and studying economics and business administration. 

“Because of the problems caused to me by the Iranian Football Federation and Ministry of Sports, I decided to referee for a while away from Iran,” he explained to Article18. “And now I have decided to apply for asylum.”

Mr Faghani’s brother, Alireza, is one of Iran’s best known referees, having officiated in the finals of the Asian Champions League, Asian Cup and Club World Cup, as well as a World Cup qualifier. He has also left Iran and is now refereeing in Australia.