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23 February 2011

Religious Liberty: Iran

The situation facing the evangelical church in Iran is "dire", Christian Solidarity Worldwide told the European Parliament's Iran Delegation. At least 202 Christians have been arrested and detained across 35 cities in Iran since June 2010. This round-up of Christians was triggered by a series of speeches from Iranian politicians, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei, who warned a large crowd against Christians by saying "they want to diminish the faith of people towards Islam and the sacred things of Islam", and adding "they work to shake the foundation of the faith of people with the spread of loose and shameless lifestyles".   

No churches have been allowed to be built in Iran for decades because of Iran's Sharia law leading to the proliferation of house churches and fellowships. An estimated one million Christians now live in Iran, which the government has called a "disaster". They have also described the evangelical movement as the work of the "enemy". Compass, a news agency focused on stories of global persecution of Christians, reported that Iranian Christians belonging to house churches knew it was only a matter of time before security forces acted on Iranian leaders' condemnation of the house church movement. The Governor General of Tehran Province, Morteza Tamadon, announced the arrests of Christians and warned "the so-called evangelical movement that we recently confronted is a true example of a cultural invasion and our final blow towards them is imminent".

There have been varying reports of the conditions for those imprisoned. A few have said that the physical conditions are better than expected, while others tell a story reminiscent of historic totalitarian regimes, where prisoners' family members have been threatened with violence and rape. Elam, an organisation which serves Iran's growing church, reported that Christians undergo solitary confinement, prolonged interrogation, pressure to recant and beatings. When released Christians are often forced to sign a statement to say they will no longer attend church. The Religious Liberty Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) said that "the ongoing raiding of homes and arrests of Christians in predominantly Shi'ite Iran, which began deplorably during the Christmas season, needs to stop immediately".

Apostasy is a capital offence under Iranian law and new Christian converts worship in secret as they face arrest and detention if their identities are discovered, but this is a crucial time for Christians in Iran and many feel the reaction from the government is due to the success of the church. Iranian Christians know that the government wants them to flee after being released from prison, to purge Iran from Christianity, but many do not want to, saying the more persecution there is, the stronger the Christian determination.