Contradicting reality, Iranian leaders claim religious minorities have “absolute freedom”

“Today, all religious minorities enjoy absolute freedom under the Islamic Republic and freely practise their faith,” claimed Iran’s General Director of Politics at the Ministry of Interior, Mohammad Amin Rezazadeh, according to Christian news agency Mohabat News. With an estimated 90 Christians currently being held in prison, the statement hides a catalogue of abuses against the country’s Christian minority.

Earlier this year, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Seyyed Ali Khamenei, claimed in a meeting at the Iranian parliament (majlis) building with members of various religious minorities that, “after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, there is no record of aggression by Muslims against non-Muslims”.

In reality, Iran’s underground house churches are frequently raided and Christians rounded up as part of an ongoing crackdown to prevent the spread of Christianity. On 7 August, at least eight Christians were beaten and arrested when armed officials raided a house church in the city of Karaj, in northern Iran.

Only recognised Christian minorities are allowed to meet together to worship in church buildings in Iran. The recognised groups are the Armenian and Assyrian Christians who have long been present in the country after they fled the genocide sanctioned against them by the Ottoman Empire. Muslim converts to Christianity, who meet in underground house churches, are persecuted by the authorities.

In good news, Pastor Farshid Fathi, who was arrested in a similar raid on 26 December 2010, and sentenced to six years in prison, was told on 4 July that he would be released early, on 10 December 2015. He had expected to be detained until December 2017.

Pastor Fathi, now 36 years of age, was 17 when he came to faith in Christ. When he was arrested he was held in solitary confinement initially and subjected to brutal interrogations. In March 2012, the father of two was sentenced to six years in prison for “acting against national security through membership of a Christian organisation, collection of funds, [and] propaganda against the Islamic Regime by helping spread Christianity in the country”.

Activists have expressed concern that Iran’s officials may backtrack on their decision to free Pastor Fathi early. But in more good news, he was transferred on 22 June to ward 12 of Rajaei-Shahr prison, a ward that is for political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. Before then, he had been held in ward 1 of the same prison where he was living with dangerous criminals, contrary to Iranian prison laws on separation of criminals.

It appears that Iranian officials are making an example of Pastor Fathi, treating him with such severity in order to dissuade other would-be converts to Christianity. Yet, despite Iran’s persistent and brutal persecution of the country’s Christian converts, Elam Ministries reports that, “today the most conservative estimate is that there are at least 360,000 believers in the nation”.

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