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40 years of religious apartheid: Christianity in post-revolution Iran

40 years of religious apartheid: Christianity in post-revolution Iran

By Mansour Borji

When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran in February 1979 as the face of the Iranian Revolution, he found a nation longing for social justice, freedom and equality.

In his initial speeches, the former exile rode this wave, speaking about human rights, the dignity of people, and the eradication of poverty – all of which he promised would become a reality under a new Islamic republic:

“Islam has given freedom to religious minorities more than any other religion; they must also enjoy their natural rights, which God has bestowed to all human beings. We will protect them in the best way. In the Islamic Republic, communists are also free to express their ideas.” (7 November, 1978)

“All religious minorities under the Islamic government can freely exercise all their religious rites, and the Islamic government is obligated to protect their rights in the best way.” (8 November, 1978)

“In Islam, there is no difference between the groups of nations. In Islam, the rights of all [people groups] are respected: the rights of the Christians are observed; the rights of the Jews and Zoroastrians are observed; all people are considered human beings with human rights; it views the entire world affectionately and wants the world to be saved.” (2 April, 1979)

Due to the tone he adopted, Khomeini’s message appealed to everyone from the leftists and modernists to the conservatives, but though he spoke about freedom, the ayatollah’s ultimate agenda was the establishment of an Islamic state based on a rigid, centuries-old interpretation – an interpretation that offered little room for any other expressions of faith.

1979-1981: Violent beginnings

In the violence and turmoil of the early months and years after the revolution, radicals sought to alienate the communities they felt were the weakest.

Christians were among the first victims.

Just eight days after the revolution, Arastoo Sayyah, an Anglican pastor, was brutally murdered in his church office.

In the following decade, there were attempts to take over Christian churches, schools, hospitals – both Protestant and Orthodox; everything that had been built over decades by missionaries.

Churches that had organisational links with overseas groups – such as the Anglicans in the UK and Presbyterians in the US – were considered dangerous, and many of their church workers and missionaries were labelled “spies of the West” (photographs of those deported in the newspaper cutting below).

But not all churches were targeted. Among the people who had welcomed Khomenei when he first arrived at the airport were leaders of the historic Armenian and Chaldean churches, who in so doing ensured their protection under the new Islamic state.

1981-1990: Consolidation of power; attempt to force Church into submission

As the years went by, the crackdown on dissidents became the major preoccupation of the regime as it consolidated power; Christians and their activities became a lesser concern.

Seeking both national approval and a place around the table of the international community, the regime used a more pragmatic approach towards Christians, trying to portray itself as tolerant towards them and other constitutionally recognised religious minorities.

The brutal violence of the early revolution gave way to systematic pressure to align the Church with the propaganda machine, and the churches that did not conform faced increasing restrictions.

Those who resisted were punished, such as Bishop Hassan Dehghani-Tafti, whose son, Bahram, was shot dead after the bishop refused to hand over church-property deeds. The bishop had earlier only narrowly survived an assassination attempt.

1990-1997: Violence resumes as church growth accelerates  

In the early 90s, revolutionary fervour began to dissipate as, a decade since the toppling of the shah and after a bloody war with Iraq, none of the revolutionary promises had materialised.

Disillusioned with the rigid reading of Islam propagated by the state, many people began to look elsewhere for a spirituality that could give them hope and meaning. This is when Farsi-speaking churches began to see an increasing number of converts attending their services – something the Islamic government of Iran was not happy to see.

Their displeasure at this new wave of conversions showed itself in Iran’s most religious city, Mashhad, where a special court of clergy sentenced Pastor Hossein Soodmand to death for apostasy. (He pastored an  Assemblies of God church consisting mostly of fellow converts.)

His death marked the beginning of a new chapter in the life of Christians in Iran, as the 1990s witnessed the most brutal treatment of church leaders who did not conform to new, restrictive demands aimed at stemming the tide of conversions.

Iran’s Bible Society was shut down and churches were prohibited from baptising new members; strict limits were placed on when services could take place; proselytism and the publication of Bibles and other Christian literature in Farsi were banned; attempts to register church organisations were blocked; and leadership development was inhibited.

But the new wave of persecution came to the attention of the international community through the advocacy efforts of Pastor Haik Hovsepian, who pleaded on behalf of his fellow clergyman, Mehdi Dibaj, already in prison for nine years and sentenced to be executed for apostasy.

Haik eventually secured Mehdi’s release, but paid the ultimate price. Just three days later, Haik was forcibly disappeared and later found dead, with multiple stab wounds to his chest.

The Iranian regime never accepted responsibility for Haik’s death (25 years ago last month). However, years later, when a group within the intelligence service were charged with the killings of dissidents, intellectuals and opposition party leader – a series of killings that became known as the Chain Murders – a number of pastors, including Haik, also appeared in the victims’ list.

The pressure on Farsi-speaking churches continued. 

Just six months after Haik’s murder, Rev. Tateos Mikaelian was shot dead. A few days later, the pastor whose release came about as a direct result of Haik’s campaigning, Mehdi Dibaj, was kidnapped on his way back from a retreat centre on the outskirts of Karaj. His brutally stabbed body was found days later.

The Iranian government pointed the finger of blame for all three murders at opposition groups, in an unconvincing stage show, where they lined up a few defectors confessing to the murder of these pastors, and plans to eliminate a few more.

These claims were largely discredited, as evidence continued to emerge in the following years, pointing the finger of blame squarely upon agents within the Ministry of Intelligence itself.

1997-2005: The birth of ‘house churches’

The escalation of violence continued as more church leaders – including Mohammad Bagher Yousefi, known as Ravanbakhsh (1996), Gorban Tourani (2005), Abbas Amiri (2008) – were murdered in suspicious circumstances widely believed by the Iranian Christian community to have been orchestrated by the government.

The relentless pressure forced the Church to go underground, giving birth to the “house-church” movement, which soon spread like wildfire across the country – in both rural and urban areas, among affluent as well as poverty-stricken communities.

There are many other factors that could have contributed to this phenomenon, but many believe that the primary factor was the broken monopoly of Iran’s Islamic republic.

Leaders from the Armenian and Chaldean churches were among those to welcome Ayatollah Khomeini as he returned in February 1979. 

The new generation,  guided by what sociologists call “rational choice”, were less likely to unquestioningly inherit their beliefs, and instead began to be make their own choices.

People’s increasing willingness to embrace the Christian faith illustrated cracks within the legitimising ideology of the Islamic republic. The ensuing period of extraordinary church growth caused major concern for the establishment, which was reliant on the religious convictions of its people, especially in the rural areas that it considered strongholds.

2005-2009: Church members also targeted 

The election of reformist president Mohammad Khatami in 1997 did not make a radical difference to the strategy and general policy of the Iranian government in dealing with the native-grown, Farsi-speaking churches. Any change in this policy would have to have come from the Supreme National Security Council, consisting of all major legislative, judicial and executive leadership, and spearheaded by the representative of the Supreme Leader himself.

But with the election of the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, more radical elements returned to the Ministry of Intelligence and pursued an even more intolerant approach towards religious minorities, and especially evangelical Christians.

A systematic approach to the elimination of Protestant churches began, with the closure of churches, confiscation of church property and arbitrary arrests and imprisonment of Christians extending beyond church leaders to include regular church members – particularly converts, who faced apostasy charges in Revolutionary Courts, which were punishable by death. 

International outcry and a potential diplomatic crisis often resulted in these convictions being overruled in the appeal process, such as in the case of Pastor Hamid Pourmand.

2009: Elimination of Farsi-speaking churches resumes

With the re-election of Ahmadinejad in 2009 came a new wave of crackdowns on Farsi-speaking churches. The security forces, unsuccessful in controlling the spread of the house-churches, began targeting the mainstream churches, which they saw as a breeding ground.

They began a campaign of intimidation and extensive pressure, forcing the church leadership to submit the names and national ID numbers of all their members, in the hope that most converts would refuse and thereby forfeit their right to attend.

To their surprise, many of these church members, risking their lives, willingly submitted their names. 

Furthermore, security officials demanded that these churches limit their services to only one meeting on a Sunday, closing down all midweek, as well as Friday, services. (Friday is Iran’s day off, and most people could only attend church on that day.)

Despite all these pressures, many Farsi-speaking churches continued to thrive and attract new members.

Therefore, some of them were forced to shut down completely, and their leaders were ordered to either leave the country, or their posts, or they were threatened with consequences ranging from long-term imprisonment to harm to their loved ones.

2010 onwards: Evangelicals considered national-security threat 

October 2010 marked the beginning of a new stage in the treatment of Christians in Iran, as Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, addressed the crowds in the conservative stronghold of Qom, home to the religious seminaries that had provided the theological framework for the revolutionaries for the past 40 years.

Offering his analysis of the threats facing Iran in modern times, Khomeini’s successor explicitly named the spread of house churches among critical threats facing the Islamic regime:

“They [our enemies] … resorted to different things, ranging from promoting debauchery to propagating fake schools of mysticism – fake forms of genuine mysticism – the Baha’i Faith and the house-church network. These are some of the things that the enemies of Islam are pursuing today through studying, planning and prediction. And the goal is to undermine religion in society.” (19 October, 2010)

Security officials and religious leaders appointed by the Supreme Leader throughout the country picked this up not just as a subtle gesture but as an official memo to crackdown on Christian activities, and especially house churches.

From this point onward, religious-sounding charges against Christians – such as apostasy – gave way to charges related to acting against national security.

Just two months after his speech, the most unprecedented, widely spread arrests of Christians across the country signalled a new era. Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, as well as other, parallel security forces, were eager to show the Supreme Leader and concerned religious clergy that they were dealing with the threat.

The many documented cases of arrests and imprisonment since 2010 show a continuing trend of intolerance towards Christians, which shows no sign of abating. 

Just before Christmas, 114 Christians were arrested within just six days during a series of raids in nine different cities. The arrests have continued into 2019.

Looking back 40 years to the first speeches made by the founder of the Islamic republic, it is the 2010 speech by his successor that has ensured intolerance against Christians continues to this day. Yet, so too, remarkably, has the growth of Christianity in Iran.