Christians in Iran are made up of communities of Armenians, Assyrians, and Persians who share a rich history even in the face of tremendous suffering. The story of Christianity – Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant --  is woven into the rich and colorful fabric of Persian history and culture. Since the advent of Islam, the story of the pilgrim Christian church in Iran has also often been an emotive story of persecution. Christianity may have come to Persia in the first century but it has survived and flourished through the commitment and faithfulness of the church.  Today, perhaps 90% of all Iranian Christians have good relations with the governing authorities while the remaining 10% suffer from severe persecution and imprisonment. The Islamic Republic of Iran ensures the freedom of Armenian and Assyrian Christians to worship with freedom but those Christians who have converted from Islam (such as Mehdi Dibaj and many others) have been subject to severe punishments, arrests, and even death for breaking “anti-blasphemy” laws. Further, those Anglican, Pentecostal, and Protestant Christians who have insisted on preaching to non-Christians and who have evangelized (“proselytized”) among Muslims have also faced persecution and arrest. 

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

A Summary of Christian Responses to Persecution in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Christian van Gorder, D. Phil., Queen’s, Belfast

The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) are both theocratic regimes that – in a number of significant ways - are state sponsors of persecution against their own Christian minority communities. These two nations have been ranked one and two in a recent Pew Research Center Forum that studies which nation states sponsor the most severe government restrictions on religion. Both Iran and the KSA claim political legitimacy based on religious authority. Iranian Christians and those residing in the KSA face unique challenges; they are, at times, vilified by extremists as the possible end-time anti-Christ or dismissed as “polytheists, enemies of the faith, agents of Satan, and lackeys of foreigners.”


Iran is a diverse collection of cultures and faiths with at least 200,000 but as many as 370,000 Christians in 4 major denominational groups: “Oriental” Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestants; largely Evangelical, and Pentecostal. To live as a Christian in ideologically adventurous Muslim Iran is to face countless, daily “micro-aggressions.” Perhaps only about 10% of Iranian Christians – mostly Evangelicals and Pentecostals - suffer serious indignities. These Christians experience constant scrutiny from the nation’s “religious police,” (Basij). Church services are raided and worshippers arrested with the most systematic persecutions of Iranian Christians relating to those Evangelicals who insist on avoiding registration and proselytizing Muslims. Some Christians are not imprisoned but assigned to be lashed a specific number (often 48 for women and 60 for men). As of September 2015, at least 90 Christians remain in prison for their faith, 75 of which were held since 2014. Some of these prisoners have reported beatings, privations, threats, and efforts to break their determination.  Sentences tend to be between 1 and 8 years and Christians tend to be held for political crimes instead of for directly religious accusations. 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. Evangelicals in Iran actually become more determined the more they face persecution. One report claimed that in a campaign between mid-2010 and September 2012, over 300 Christians were arrested for apostasy.  Persian Christians have lived with integrity and dignity within their communities for almost two millennia. Their persistence, dedication, and grit has been a long-term marathon of faithfulness.

Saudi Arabia

Some Saudis boast that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the “center” of the “Middle East, the Arab World, the Muslim world, and the global world of energy.” The KSA is a religious monarchy – with over 70,000 masjids – and claims to be a purely Salafist and theocratic nation; all citizens must be Muslims. Human rights advocates claim “freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia.” Predictably, Saudis reject such charges: One judge claimed: “Saudi Arabia leads the world in the protection of human rights.”

Christians have lived in the Arabian Penninsula for most of church history. Today, the vast majority of Christians are expatriate migrants from South and East Asia; especially the Philippines. The Catholic Church claims that these expatriates make Saudi Arabia the second largest Catholic nation in the Middle East with an estimated 1.5 million Catholics. Still other claims are that there are as many as 3.5 million Christian workers in the KSA. They face many trials and their services and homes are frequently raided.  One official warned that some expatriates were “plotting to celebrate Christmas.” Other clerics have claimed that the wearing of a cross publicly amounted to “Christian missionary activity.” In one odd incident, a visiting Colombian soccer player (2011) was arrested for his visible religious tattoos, which included the face of Jesus. When one expatriate cursed his Saudi driver using Christ’s name, he was arrested because “the use of the word ‘Christ’ amounted to a public prayer.” While there are a number of functioning Christian churches in the KSA among expatriates, they are not allowed to be visible; a fact dismissed by officials who claim that seeing a church would be as odd as seeing a masjid at the Vatican. Muslims who convert to Christianity face the greatest danger. A number of “secret Christians” of Muslim background meet to study what the Bible says about persecution. In one widely publicized case, Fatima al-Mutairi was murdered by her family once they discovered she had become a Christian.

Christian Responses to Persecution in Iran and Saudi Arabia

Christians in Iran and the KSA are not surprised by persecution and are careful to avoid criticizing their governments; living out the message of “rendering unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar.” This is a basic survival strategy in a context where Islam sharply categorizes the political status of non-Muslims even as it stresses the marriage of din and dawlah; faith and power. In order to protect their status, for example, one church told Farsi-speaking believers that they were no longer welcome as of January 2014. The goal in this “great sea of problems” is often one of socio-cultural retrenchment and mere survival.  Christians in both countries must prove beyond question that they are not agents of Western political goals. They can be caught in a cross-fire and become vulnerable to being targeted to score points before assertive enemies and sometimes face difficult choices in responding to a wide range of general social controls –both generated from the State and from non-State actors - that cause them to accept their second-class status without question. Christians in both contexts are extremely cautious when meeting each other, when speaking over the phone, or when sending emails or using Skype.

Christians in Iran and the KSA often respond to persecution by fleeing these countries. Alarming rates of emigration have led to worry if the very future of Christianity in these countries is guaranteed. Muslims who become Christians are those most often at risk for persecution. In both countries, former Muslims are deemed apostates guilty of treason and, thus, eligible for execution. It is among former Muslims that one is most likely to find those who see no other alternative but exile. Some Muslims who become believers that Jesus Christ is God’s Son 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.  

Every year, Iran and the KSA consistently rank near the top of lists detailing where religious liberties are most at risk. For Christians, it is no wonder that hopes for progress are corporately framed in hopes for a heavenly reward. Christians within these countries respond to systematic persecution with theological reframing which makes clear that suffering is inevitable.