Iranian Christians ordered not to meet – in person or online

Iranian Christians ordered not to meet – in person or online

Photo: Mission Network News

Eleven Christian couples from a city just outside Tehran have been ordered by agents of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence to sign commitments to refrain from meeting together – either in person or online.

After refusing, the Christians were threatened with long prison sentences and told it would be better for them if they left the country.

The demands were made during interrogations in Fardis over the past two weeks, which followed coordinated raids on the homes of 12 Christian families in the city in November.

None of the Christians were arrested at that time, but many of their personal belongings were confiscated – including phones, laptops, Bibles, Christian literature and anything else to do with Christianity – and they had been expecting to be summoned ever since.

Iranian Christians are routinely asked during interrogations to sign commitments to refrain from gathering together in house-churches, but this is the first known example of intelligence officials demanding they sign a commitment to have no further social engagements together at all, including online.

It is not illegal for Christians to meet together in Iran – whether in person or online – but all religious gatherings technically require permits, though these have never been granted for Christian converts, whom the Islamic Republic does not recognise as Christians and instead refers to as members of a “Zionist” cult.

At the same time, converts are not permitted to attend the recognised churches of the Assyrian and Armenian ethnic minorities, meaning the only churches available to them are house-churches, which are forced to exist in secret.

House-church members are frequently arrested and charged with “actions against national security” – there are currently 15 Christians in prison on such charges, and two in internal exile – while the Iranian judiciary recently labelled house-churches “enemy groups” in an official response to six UN experts who had raised concerns about the treatment of Christians in Iran.

A new strategy?

The Iranian parliament has for months been pushing for a bill to be passed into law that would provide the judiciary with the means to bring charges against members of “illegal” groups for their online activities.

However, the bill has been twice sent back for amendments by the Guardian Council, which must approve all parliamentary bills.

The bill proposes additions to articles 499 and 500 of the Islamic Penal Code – already two of the most commonly used laws in cases against Christians – which relate to membership of and support for (“propaganda”) groups deemed “hostile” to the regime.

The proposed bill would add extra wording to the articles, such as “propaganda contrary to Islam” – whether in the “real or virtual sphere” – and “deviant psychological manipulation” by “sects”.

The punishment for these ill-defined “crimes” would include imprisonment, flogging, fines, and even the death penalty.

Human rights lawyer Hossein Ahmadiniaz told Article18 that the bill, if passed, would “facilitate the repression and punishment of Christian converts and others belonging to unrecognised religious groups”.

“The law should protect citizens, including Christian converts and Baha’is, against the government,” he said, “But in Iran the law has become a tool to justify the government’s violent treatment of converts and other unrecognised minorities.”