Religious freedom in Iran: awareness, advocacy, action

Iran (MNN) — On Wednesday, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is launching their Religious Prisoner of Conscience Project.

(Logo courtesy of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom)

It’s meant to highlight the people who’ve been jailed for exercising their freedom of religion, the conditions in the country that led to their imprisonment, and what’s being done on their behalf.

One-third of the USCIRF advocacy cases under this project are from Iran.  Interestingly, Iran was again the country in which Middle East Concern, a separate advocacy ministry, had the most cases (56).  Some of the names overlap across the board for advocacy and watchdog groups.  MEC’s Miles Windsor agreed, although he declined to comment on some specific cases, noting, “I think there’s an awful lot of people in Iran who don’t necessarily want to publicize their situation for fear of further issues from the state, in terms of persecution.”

What this means, he says, is that despite the promise of the 2013 elections in Iran, hopes for change were quickly dashed.  “I think a few years ago, with the change of leadership to President [Hassan] Rouhani, there was some optimism about potential change in this regard, as he was seen very much as a moderate leader.  So there was some optimism.  But we’ve seen that, actually, the picture has continued to remain the same in terms of state persecution against Christians in Iran.”

Evin Prison (Photo courtesy of Middle East Concern)

In sharp contrast to many Arab countries where major sources of persecution are family and society, “The population, as a whole, is largely more positive toward Christians than the State.  The State is the Islamic Republic of Iran and they are seeking to create a fairly pure Shia state rather than have all these different other beliefs operating within the country as well.”

The most prevalent form of harassment is the arrest and detention of Christians, usually in connection to underground house churches, he says, adding that more often, “These are believers from a Muslim background — converts to Christianity — who tend to be the most persecuted group of Christians.  There are low-level issues facing Christians from the more traditional backgrounds, Assyrian Christians, and the like.  But the majority of Christians who are facing difficulties are from a Muslim background.”

Three cases MEC recently updated:
Ebrahim Firouzi’s mother has undergone surgery for cancer and is weak and unable to care for herself. She is having chemotherapy. According to Mohabat News, Ebrahim (pictured) has not been given leave to visit her.

Ebrahim was arrested on 21st August 2013. He was due for release on 13th January 2015 but was kept in detention, re-tried on 5th March 2015 and charged with “acting against national security, gathering and collusion”. In April 2015 he was sentenced to five years in prison.

On 13th July 2016 he was summoned to attend an appeal hearing but refused to go, thinking it was sufficient for his lawyer to attend. He was beaten by guards and taken to court. One of the judges was absent and the hearing was postponed. On 11th December 2016 his appeal was heard in court and a decision was recently given upholding his sentence.

Those arrested in August have been charged with “acting against national security” and “organizing and creating house churches”. Ramiel Bet Tamraz faces additional charges of propagating the teaching of his father Pastor Victor Bet Tamraz. It is expected they will have a final hearing in the coming weeks and a verdict will be delivered.

On 26th August Amin Nader Afshar, Ramiel Bet Tamraz, Mohammad Dehnavy, Amir Sina Dashti and Hadi Askary were arrested at a picnic in Firuzkuh. They were detained in Evin Prison in Tehran.

In October and November Ramiel, Mohammad and Amir were able to get conditional release by submitting bail payments. Hadi and Amin were unable to raise the bail demanded for their release and went on hunger strike in February to demand that their case be addressed. They received a promise from the attorney general’s office that their case would be seen to promptly and ended their hunger strike. Hadi has reportedly been suffering a kidney infection and has not received medical attention.

According to Christianity Solidarity Worldwide, authorities in Rasht have referred charges of acting against national security to Tehran, resulting in further delay in this case.

Yaser Mosibzadeh, Saheb Fadayee and Mohammad Reza Omidi were arrested on 13th May with their pastor Yousef Nadarkhani as they were celebrating communion. They were charged with acting against national security and have had two hearings, but a verdict is pending. Yaser, Saheb and Mohammad Reza were charged with consumption of alcohol for drinking wine at communion and sentenced on 10th September to 80 lashes.

On 9th February the lawyer representing Yaser, Saheb and Mohammad Reza attended an appeal hearing and stressed that, as converts to Christianity, it is not illegal for them to drink wine because, though alcohol is prohibited for Muslims in Iran, it is permitted for Christians. The judge has yet to give a decision.
(Photo courtesy of Middle East Concern)

Windsor encourages all believers to do a couple of things.  First, understand what’s happening and know that Iranians “…have an openness to the Gospel as well there.  Understanding that, understanding there is a significant growth in the people coming to faith in Iran, and that this is seen as a great threat by the authorities in Iran.”

Secondly, pray.  “We would always ask that people continue to pray for Iran as a country, in general — that it would become more open, that people would be able to worship freely, that the changes that are needed in the leadership would come to fruition, to enable such liberty, but also to pray for Christians that they would endure, and that they would continue to be a great witness in the country.”