Iran has been ranked number one in a recent Pew Research Center Forum that studies severe government restrictions on religion. To live as a Christian there is to face countless, daily “micro-aggressions.” Perhaps only about 10 percent of Iranian Christians—mostly evangelicals and Pentecostals—suffer serious indignities, but these Christians experience constant scrutiny from the nation’s “religious police,” the Basij. Church services are raided and worshippers arrested, with the most systematic persecutions directed towards evangelicals who insist on avoiding registration and proselytizing Muslims. Most Christians focus on survival by avoiding conflict and seeking to minimize their visibility.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Responses to Persecution in Iran
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Turkish-Occupied Cyprus, Egypt, Libya, Gaza, Iraq, Syria
Panel: Findings from the Middle East & North Africa
Moderator: Christian Sahner, University of Cambridge
Speakers: Joshua Landis, University of Oklahoma
Elizabeth Prodromou, Tufts University
Mariz Tadros, Sussex University
Christian Van Gorder, Baylor University
Iran is a diverse collection of cultures and faiths with at least 200,000 but as many as 370,000 Christians in four major denominational groups: “Oriental” Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestants (largely evangelical and Pentecostal).
History of the Christian Community
Persian Christians have lived with integrity and dignity within their communities for almost two millennia, and in fact predate Persian Muslims.
Current Situation of the Christian Community
Iran has been ranked number one in a recent Pew Research Center Forum that studies severe government restrictions on religion. To live as a Christian there is to face countless, daily “micro-aggressions.” Perhaps only about 10 percent of Iranian Christians—mostly evangelicals and Pentecostals—suffer serious indignities, but these Christians experience constant scrutiny from the nation’s “religious police,” the Basij. Church services are raided and worshippers arrested, with the most systematic persecutions directed towards evangelicals who insist on avoiding registration and proselytizing Muslims. Some Christians are not imprisoned but assigned a specific number of lashes (often 48 for women and 60 for men). As of September 2015, at least 90 Christians remain in prison for their faith, 75 of whom were held since 2014. Muslims who become Christians are accused of the crime of “waging war against God” (moharebeh). A number of former Muslims have lost their jobs. The worst-case scenario for someone who converts to Christianity can be imprisonment and, in some cases, even the death penalty.
Christian Responses to Persecution in Iran
Christians in Iran focus on survival. They are not surprised by persecution and base their response in a theological framework that regards tribulation as integral to their spiritual health, but, in general, they do what they can to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Christians are careful to avoid criticizing the government, instead living out the message of “rendering unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar.” Because of inherent cultural suspicion, they must prove beyond question that they are not agents of Western political goals. As such, they avoid all political debate that might seem to evoke secularism or to oppose ideas that the government emphatically supports. Christians are also extremely cautious when meeting each other, when speaking over the phone, or when sending emails or using Skype. Sometimes they even deny their faith publicly while retaining it privately in their hearts. Similarly, Christians avoid proselytism of any form, especially to Muslims.
Christians in these Iran also employ strategies of language when dealing with persecution. The language of Farsi is seen as inherently Muslim since it was used in a host of classic Islamic devotional and poetic writings. Therefore, one way that Christians avoid conflict is to rely on languages other than Farsi in their services. Assyrian and Armenians rely on their ancestral languages, while evangelicals conduct parts of their services in multiple languages, sometimes including English. One church in Tehran even told Farsi-speaking believers that they were no longer welcome to attend worship services because they feared government retaliation.
Christians in Iran often respond to persecution by fleeing the country. Alarming rates of emigration have led some to fear that the very future of Christianity in Iran is in jeopardy. Muslims who become Christians are those most often at risk for persecution, and consequently former Muslims are most likely to see no other alternative but exile. Some Muslims who convert to Christianity are able to “fly under the radar” and believe in the faith without ever attending public services or sharing their faith with their immediate family.
This country profile draws on research by Dr. Christian Van Gorder and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project.