In a year dominated by Covid-19, Iran still found time to persecute Christians in 2020, Article18’s annual report reveals.
The report, published today in collaboration with Middle East Concern, Open Doors, and CSW, shows that 15 Christians were being held in Tehran’s Evin Prison on account of their faith by the end of the year, while two others were living in internal exile and another was imprisoned on a disputed criminal charge.
A further 115 Iranian Christians were arrested in 2020, though only 52 of those arrests were publicly reported.
Meanwhile, two Iranian Christians were flogged for drinking wine as part of Communion, others were denied education or employment, and one couple were told they could no longer retain custody of their adopted daughter on account of their faith.
The vast majority of the Christians affected were converts from Muslim backgrounds, whom the state does not recognise as Christians, but Christians from the recognised Armenian and Assyrian Christian communities were also affected.
Indeed, the case study for this year’s report is the Iranian-Assyrian pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, who was forced to flee Iran in August 2020, with his wife Shamiram, after learning that their years-long appeals against lengthy prison sentences had finally been rejected.
The case study reveals how Victor and Shamiram faced 10 and five years in prison, respectively, for leading a house-church after Victor was removed from the leadership of a recognised Assyrian church for refusing to stop converts from attending.
Three of the converts from his church, who later joined his house-church, were also sentenced to 10 years alongside pastor Victor and have also now fled the country.
This case highlights how the state targets both converts to Christianity and those who minister to them.
The same is true in the case of Iranian-Armenian pastor Joseph Shahbazian, who was one of dozens of Christians arrested by Revolutionary Guards in a coordinated operation targeting homes and house-churches in Tehran, Karaj and Malayer on 30 June and 1 July 2020.
Iran recently denied persecuting Christians, in response to a formal query by six senior UN figures. But while it may be true that Christians from Armenian and Assyrian backgrounds are afforded some freedoms, the cases of Victor, Shamiram and Joseph show that this freedom only exists within strict confines.
Iran is a signatory of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which defines religious freedom as including the right to “have or adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice” and to practise that religion “either individually or in community with others”.
Iran’s continued crackdown on house-churches shows that no such freedoms exist.
Article18’s report calls on the Iranian government to immediately and unconditionally release all Christians detained on spurious charges related to their faith or religious activities, and to uphold the right to freedom of religion of belief for every citizen, regardless of their ethnic or linguistic group, thereby amending Article 13 of the constitution to recognise fully the freedom of religion or belief of all faiths as envisaged by Article 18 of the ICCPR, to which Iran is a State Party, without reservation, and therefore legally bound to respect.
We also call on the government to:
Finally, we call on members of the international community to assist in holding Iran accountable for upholding its obligation to ensure and facilitate freedom of religion or belief for all its citizens by highlighting this principle during political and/or economic discussions with, or concerning, Iran.