In this season of celebration and contemplation, we are publishing a series of articles about Christians who are prosecuted, imprisoned, and in some cases threatened with death because of their beliefs. As advocacy groups have made clear, Christians are under pressure from non-Muslim Mexico to non-Muslim China, but they face the most ferocious persecution in the Muslim Middle East, South Asia, and parts of Africa.
Santa Claus is a familiar face in Tehran this time of year, at least in the neighborhoods where people have enough money to share the excitement of Christmas shopping.
But many of those in Iran wanting to share the Gospel have been living this season in fear, painfully aware that anyone working to win converts to Christianity, and those Muslims who embrace its message of salvation, may find themselves charged by the Islamic Republic with nebulous religious and secular crimes, some of which carry the death penalty.
Such religious persecution is not unique to Iran—nor is it limited to Christians. The primary focus of the twisted Sunni Muslim death cult that calls itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is the eradication of Shia Islam. The Shiite Iranians, for their part, executed 25 Sunnis in August on various charges including “enmity against God,” according to Amnesty International.
Meanwhile the Bahais, Iran’s biggest religious minority with roughly 300,000 people, are under constant pressure from the regime, which has arrested their community leaders, blacklisted their businesses and makes it dangerous for them to educate their children.
There are about 150,000 Christians in Iran, mostly Armenians who live in relative peace with the regime. They were born Christians, as Iran sees it, and within limits their rights are respected. They have more than 100 churches. Their patriarch visited in 2014. And they are allowed not only to drink, but to some extent to produce alcohol.
But there are also Christians who worship in what are called “house churches” and are part of congregations that may include large numbers of people who were born to Muslim families and converted to Christianity—people whom the Islamic Republic does not accept and actively persecutes.
Altogether, according to activists, there are about 90 Christians being held in various Iranian prisons. And despite President Hassan Rouhani’s promise during this 2013 election campaign that “all ethnicities, all religions, even religious minorities, must feel justice,” the targeting of Christian converts has continued.
One is Maryam Naghash Zargaran, 38, a schoolteacher who converted from Islam to Christianity and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Already suffering from medical problems, including issues with her heart, she went on a hunger strike last May and after a precipitous drop in blood pressure was transferred from Evin prison to a hospital. But then she was returned to her cell before she had recovered fully, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Zargaran subsequently was allowed to go on medical furlough, but when she returned to prison earlier this month, she was told her sentence had been extended by 45 days to punish her for a late return to incarceration. Such are the Kafkaesque vagaries of Iranian law.
One of the most infamous cases at the moment involves Yousef Nadarkhani, a house church pastor of the Church of Iran, whose tribulations and trials have begun to take on epic proportions.
It is not true, as some sympathizers and activists tweeted in recent months, that he is facing a death sentence—but he once did.
In 2009, Nadarkhani went to his children’s school to question the Quranic monopoly on education. He argued that even in the Islamic Republic, this was unconstitutional. According to the British-based activist organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), “He was charged with apostasy (abandoning Islam) and sentenced to death. This isn’t actually allowed under the Iranian Penal Code—the court instead based its ruling on religious edicts (‘fatwas’) issued by several Iranian religious leaders.”
For three years, Nadarkhani languished in prison facing the possibility he would be executed. Three times he was called into court and asked to renounce his faith to avoid the death penalty, according to CSW. Three times he refused.
Even the Iranian courts eventually recognized something of the injustice and the legal anomalies in Nadarkhani’s case, and in September 2012 they released him. His wife greeted him outside the prison in an emotional scene.
“Pastor Nadarkhani was acquitted of apostasy but received a three year sentence for evangelizing Muslims,” Kiri Kankhwende of CSW tells The Daily Beast. “Since he had already spent close to three years in Lakan Prison in Rasht, the pastor was released after posting bail. However, in a highly irregular move, he was returned to jail on Christmas Day on the orders of prison authorities, who claimed he had been released too early.”
Finally, he was released in January 2013 and CSW and others claimed that their campaigns were a “success story” that freed him.
But, not so fast.
On May 13 of this year, Nadarkhani was arrested with three other men—Yasser Mossayebzadeh, Saheb Fadaie and Mohammad Reza Omidi—converts to Christianity (so, still Muslims as far as the regime is concerned). Nadarkhani was released on bail, but the other three remain in prison and were sentenced to 80 lashes for drinking alcohol. Specifically, they had sipped wine, symbolic of the blood of Christ, during church services.
All four were also charged with threatening Islamic state security, a catch-all that tries to sidestep the obvious fact of religious persecution.
Indeed, when Iran’s English-language propaganda organ Press TV interviewed Nadarkhani after his previous acquittal, the government claimed, “Nobody is executed in our country for choosing a religion. He had committed crimes against national security.”
The latest hearing in the case of Nadarkhani and the three others was on Dec. 14, and inconclusive. Their tribulations and their trials will continue—a warning to all in Iran that the only freedom of religion is the very narrow version allowed by the Islamic Republic.