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 are not recognized by the state and insist on proselytizing Muslims.
The Iranian government attempts to marginalize Christians by barring them from leadership positions in all areas of society. Christians are legally excluded from all senior and representative government positions, aside from four of Iran’s 290 parliament seats. Christians cannot serve in Iran’s judicial system and security service, and cannot work as public school principals or career military officers. Additionally, Christians, and especially Christian converts, face frequent workplace discrimination and unjust termination, societal pressure, and rejection from friends and family, all of which the government explicitly encourages through policy.
Muslims who become Christians, as well as Christians who proselytize or express dissent against the government, are accused of the crime of “waging war against God” (moharebeh). Although the penal code specifies the death sentence for individuals convicted of this charge, the penalty is often reduced to imprisonment. Increasingly, the Iranian judicial system has also charged Christians with “armed rebellion against the Islamic rule” (baghy). January 2021 amendments to Articles 499 and 500 of the criminal code criminalize insulting “Islamic schools of thought” and engaging in “deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam.” These amendments offer prosecutors significantly expanded grounds with which to charge Christians and other minorities.
Christians who are prosecuted but not imprisoned are often placed under house arrest, internally exiled, or assigned a specific number of lashes (often 48 for women and 60 for men). In September 2015, at least 90 Christians remained in prison for their faith, 75 of whom had been held since 2014. At least 32 Christians were imprisoned for their beliefs at the end of 2021. Incarcerated Christians suffer from poor prison conditions, including a heightened risk of Covid-19 due to overcrowding, as well as mistreatment and abuse in violation of Articles 38 and 39 of the Iranian Constitution. Since President Ebrahim Raisi’s inauguration in August 2021, Iranian Christians fear that persecution will increase, as President Raisi is a more hard-line leader than his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, and helped supervise the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.
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 in person or communicating by phone or online. 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 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. Consequently, Christians avoid conflict by using languages other than Farsi in their services. This strategy has become essentially a compulsory practice, as authorities closed nearly all Farsi-language churches between 2009 and 2012 and continue to close Assyrian churches that hold sermons in Farsi. Assyrians 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. Christian converts often worship in secret, as state security services closely monitor registered Christian congregations. 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.