The regime in Tehran is sending out mixed signals as to whether Iran’s Criminal Code will now impose the death penalty on Muslims who forsake Islam to convert to Christianity. A final decision on the question should finally be taken this autumn. The bill’s first reading in the Majlis last September passed by a large majority: 196 representatives voted yes, seven voted no, and there were two abstentions.
Now, supposedly, the Majlis has excised this intended change to the Criminal Code. According to media reports on June 27, the Chairman of the Majlis Legal Affairs Committee, Hojatoleslam Ali Schahroki, said that the regulation on “renunciation ofIslam” wouldn’t even be mentioned in the bill. According to the Farsi Christian News Network, Christians in Iran are surprised and irritated by this statement, because the truth is that the Council of Guardians and the Supreme Leader have the final say on this unsettled question.
The disputes within Islamist factions over this element of the Criminal Code are increasingly visible, and there may be a connection with the protests that followed the disputed presidential election. Joseph K Grieboski, President of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy in Washington, sees no sign that this debate indicates an opening up, but only the regime protecting itself. “If the regime were to uphold Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency and then push through a restrictive penal law, international pressure on the Iranian regime would be unbearable.” According to the International Society for Human Rights, the announced withdrawal of the bill is a “purely cosmetic move.” There is still the possibility of being executed for renunciation of Islam under Iran’s Islamic laws.
Up to now, punishment for renunciation of Islam – also known as apostasy – has been practiced arbitrarily in Iran. Once it becomes part of the Criminal Code, every Iranian court would be bound to enforce it. It’s certain that Christians who convert from Islam will continue to be arrested and convicted. This doesn’t include so-called ethnic Christians – members of the Armenian and Assyrian churches – but specifically evangelical Christians who actively pursue missionary work. The independent online Persian news agency Rooz, which is critical of the regime, reported on July 15 that two Christian women, 30-year-old Marsiye Aminsadeh and 27-year-old Mariam Rostampur, had been arrested in Tehran about four months earlier. The pair are social workers who without pay, help people in trouble regardless of race or religion. The two Christians were charged with apostasy and violations of national security and are being held at the notorious Evin Prison. Interrogated on a daily basis, they are held under very harsh conditions with no access to legal or medical assistance. According to Rooz, there are currently at least 50 Christians in Iranian prisons in Tehran, Schiras, Maschad and Urumije, among others.
Recent political events in Iran have ushered in a new phase in the emergence of a totalitarian dictatorship. Pressure on Iranian Christians is growing just as foreign powers are being blamed for rioting that broke out due to the electoral fraud. The argument on the influence of foreign powers is well known to Iranian Christians. Under the Islamic regime, they are regularly accused of embracing Western influence. The narrative of these allegations is this: that Iranian Christians are often in touch with European or American churches and associate themselves with their networks. The regime focuses on this, even accusing them of spying for foreign powers. Time and again, Iranian Christians are held hostage to the regime’s problems with the West.
Of necessity, collaboration with Christian Web sites or Christian TV channels that transmit their programs via satellite, takes place in secret. Christians in Iran are dependent on the flow of information from precisely these media, because with the help of modern technology, this is how the Persian-language bible, Christian children’s books and prayers are disseminated. The Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN) – a central source of news about Christian communities in Iran – reports that there are hundreds of thousands of Iranians who would embrace the message of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, Iranian Christians can expect a new wave of oppression and persecution.
It’s interesting in this context to assess how Iranian Christians behaved during the recent presidential election. The agency says that a majority of those who participated in the elections voted for presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mussawi because they hoped, “bad would be better than worse.” But the elections have clearly shown that the political system of “Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists [Velayat-e-faqih]” doesn’t allow opposing political positions to have a serious chance. Those who believed that there was a “minimal democracy” in Iran have now been disabused, according to FCNN.
In another report by FCNN, clear positions are staked out.
“There is a political power struggle between two elements, both of which are despotic and repressive. There is no struggle between despotism and freedom. Therefore, we have to expect even more pressure put on churches. We know that difficult times lie ahead. Nevertheless, under no circumstances will Iranian Christians give up their new faith.”
However, following the recent riots and repression, more and more Christians are abandoning Iran. Since the first government of Ahmadinejad came into office, the situation of Iranian Christians has worsened significantly. It’s not yet clear what the nature of the future threat will be. But at the same time, FCNN has reported on an increase of interest in Christianity among Iranian young people. At least 70 percent of Iranians support more freedom for religious minorities and support the separation of religion and state. The more people are impacted by the violence of despotic rule, the more they will be drawn toward Christianity.
Josef Hovsepian, son of Iranian Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr who was kidnapped and murdered in 1994, told FCNN in a conversation on July 4 that, “in times of crisis, the unity of our communities is strengthened.” In particular, “young people are looking for a religion that isn’t being forced on them.”
In another conversation, a Christian woman remembers the period before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when she lived happily in the town of Schiras among other Christians, Jews, Bahai and followers of Zoroastrianism. But one day in the 1980s, two of her girlfriends were taken from their classroom by strange men. Later she learned from their mother that their father, a Bahai, had been arrested and executed. In her family, it is now assumed that the situation for Christians will worsen in a similar fashion.
In the midst of these threats and persecution, there are a number of events that reflect a touch of humor. The story goes that one day the satellite dish of an Iranian priest was stolen from the roof of his house. The thief had taken a good look at some Christian broadcasts and, as a result, became a member of an illegal home church.
The home church movement remains fragile and underground, since in the official churches people aren’t even allowed to hear prayers in Persian. This is because Iran’s rulers fear that if they were, more people would be drawn to Christianity. As recently as May of this year, a home church in Karadsch was discovered and raided by paramilitary units of the Basij. The home church members were arrested.
[Dr. Wahied Wahdat-Hagh is a Senior Fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy. This article was first published on July 23, 2009 in German at: http://www.europeandemocracy.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=13484&catid=4&Itemid=22 and an English translation was made available at: http://www.europeandemocracy.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=13488&catid=4&Itemid=22.]