A confluence of news stories last week, including, prominently, the release of a report by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, have highlighted the plight of Iranian Christians.
The salient findings from Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed’s report (issued online Tuesday 10/22/13), were as follows:
Sources communicate that at least 20 Christians were in custody in July 2013. In addition, violations of the rights of Christians, particularly those belonging to evangelical Protestant groups, many of whom are converts, who proselytize to and serve Iranian Christians of Muslim background, continue to be reported. Authorities continue to compel licensed Protestant churches to restrict Persian-speaking and Muslim-born Iranians from participating in services, and raids and forced closures of house churches are ongoing. According to sources, more than 300 Christians have been arrested since 2010, and dozens of church leaders and active community members have reportedly been convicted of national security crimes in connection with church activities, such as organizing prayer groups, proselytizing and attending Christian seminars abroad.
His report further noted allegations of additional abuses, including “various forms of legal discrimination…in employment and education,” as well as frequent cases of “arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment.”
Monday, 10/21/13, a day before the Special Rapporteur’s report was issued, Eddie Romero, a retired California pastor, who managed to enter Iran surreptitiously, staged a protest before Iran’s infamous Evin prison. Repeatedly proclaiming, “Let my people go,” in Farsi, Romero attempted to draw attention to the predicament of at least four Iranians, incarcerated for converting from Islam to Christianity—Farshid Fathi, Saeed Abedini, Mostafa Bordbar, and Alireza Seyyedian. (Detained for 24-hours in Iran, Romero was released and returned safely to the U.S. by mid-week.)
Shahrokh Afshar, a pastor for the Iranian Church On The Way in Los Angeles, maintained Christian converts in Iran were imprisoned simply because they practiced their new faith. “Their greatest sin was leaving Islam to follow Christ,” he stated. One of the four imprisoned Christians, whose plight Pastor Romero was protesting, is Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen who has been incarcerated for over a year in Iran. His wife, Naghmeh, wrote a poignant depiction (published 9/25/13) of her husband’s ordeal on the bitter one year anniversary of his imprisonment.
Without warning, members of the Revolutionary Guard pulled him off of a bus and put him under house arrest in his parents’ home in Tehran. On September 26, 2012, members of the Guard came to the home and took him away — in chains — to Evin Prison, where he has remained ever since.
The following day, Wednesday 9/23/13, Christian Solidarity International published a report about a “verdict” an Iranian court issued on October 6th, which the named defendants received October 20th. Four members of the Church of Iran—Behzad Taalipasand, Mehdi Reza Omidi (Youhan), Mehdi Dadkhah (Danial) and Amir Hatemi (Youhanna)—were charged with drinking alcohol during a communion service, and possession of a receiver and satellite antenna. The court sentenced them to receive 80 lashes each, for these alleged “offenses.” Two of the “suspects,” Behzad Taalipasand and Mehdi Reza Omidi (Youhan), had been detained December 31, 2012, during an Iranian government crackdown on house churches. Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Mervyn Thomas, declared forthrightly,
The sentences handed down to these members of the Church of Iran effectively criminalize the Christian sacrament of sharing in the Lord’s Supper and constitute an unacceptable infringement on the right to practice faith freely and peaceably. We urge the Iranian authorities to ensure that the nation’s legal practices and procedures do not contradict its international obligation under the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to guarantee the full enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief by all of its religious communities.
With depressing predictability, the Sharia (Islamic law)-based dynamic which underpins such blatant—and grotesque—religious persecution, was ignored by the mainstream media, including conservative outlets. Even the following specific (if merely allusive) statement contained within the Special Rapporteur’s analysis itself, did not get repeated.
…the [Iranian] Government…states that its Constitution recognizes only Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Judaism as minority religions and that adherents to those religions are entitled to manifest their beliefs, “within the limits of the law”, which is governed by Islamic sharia. [emphasis added]
For example, neither Benjamin Weinthal’s blog at NRO (“Iran’s Continued War on Christians,” 10/25/13), nor his lengthier Fox News piece (“Iran gives Christians 80 lashes for communion wine as UN blasts human rights record,” 10/24/13)—despite the fact that both accounts referenced Special Rapporteur Shaheed’s report—mentioned, let alone honestly elaborated upon, Shaheed’s allusion to sharia. Although Weinthal should not be singled out, per se, the discussion which follows demonstrates why his omission—pathognomonic of this consistent lacuna in contemporary “reportage” on Iran’s abuse of its vulnerable non-Muslim minority populations—is egregious, and unacceptable.
At the outset of the sixteenth century, Iran’s Safavid rulers formally established Shiite Islam as the state religion, while permitting a clerical hierarchy nearly unlimited control and influence over all aspects of public life. The profound influence of the Shiite clerical elite continued for almost four centuries (interrupted, between 1722–1795, by a period of Sunni Afghan invasion and dominance), through the later Qajar period (1795–1925), as characterized by the Persianophilic scholar, E. G. Browne:
The Mujtahids and Mulla are a great force in Persia and concern themselves with every department of human activity from the minutest detail of personal purification to the largest issues of politics.
These Shiite clerics emphasized the notion of the ritual uncleanliness (najas) of Jews in particular, but also Christians, Zoroastrians, and others as the cornerstone of inter-confessional relationships toward non-Muslims. The impact of this najas conception was already apparent to European visitors to Persia in the first century of Safavid rule. During the reign of Shah Tahmasp I (d. 1576), the British merchant and traveler Anthony Jenkinson (a Christian), when finally granted an audience with the shah,
was required to wear “basmackes” [a kind of overshoes], because being a giaour [infidel], it was thought he would contaminate the imperial precincts . . . when he was dismissed from the Shah’s presence, [Jenkinson stated] “after me followed a man with a basanet of sand, sifting all the way that I had gone within the said palace”—as though covering something unclean.
Muhammad Baqer al-Majlisi (d. 1699), the highest institutionalized clerical officer under both Shah Sulayman (1666–1694) and Shah Husayn (1694–1722), was perhaps the most influential cleric of the Safavid Shiite theocracy in Persia. The writings and career of al-Majlisi elucidate the imposition of Islamic law (Sharia) on non-Muslims in Shiite Iran. For six years at the end of the 17th century, he functioned as the de facto ruler of Iran, making him the Ayatollah Khomeini of his era. By design, he wrote many works in Persian to disseminate key aspects of the Shia ethos among ordinary persons. His treatise, “Lightning Bolts against the Jews,” was written in Persian, and, despite its title, was actually an overall guideline to anti-dhimmi regulations for all non-Muslims within the Shi’ite theocracy. Al-Majlisi, in this treatise, describes the standard humiliating requisites for non-Muslim, “dhimmis” living under the Sharia, first and foremost, the blood ransom jizya, a poll tax based on Koran 9:29 (the tax of submission, “paid in lieu of being slain.”) He then enumerates six other restrictions relating to worship, housing, dress, transportation, and weapons (specifically, to render the dhimmis defenseless), before outlining the unique Shiite impurity or “najas” regulations. According to Al- Majlisi,
And, that they should not enter the pool while a Muslim is bathing at the public baths. . . . It is also incumbent upon Muslims that they should not accept from them victuals with which they had come into contact, such as distillates, which cannot be purified. If something can be purified, such as clothes, if they are dry, they can be accepted, they are clean. But if they [the dhimmis] had come into contact with those clothes in moisture they should be rinsed with water after being obtained. As for hide, or that which has been made of hide such as shoes and boots, and meat, whose religious cleanliness and lawfulness are conditional on the animal’s being slaughtered [according to the Sharia], these may not be taken from them. Similarly, liquids that have been preserved in skins, such as oils, grape syrup, [fruit] juices, myrobalan [an astringent fruit extract used in tanning], and the like, if they have been put in skin containers or water skins, these should [also] not be accepted from them. . . . It would also be better if the ruler of the Muslims would establish that all infidels could not move out of their homes on days when it rains or snows because they would make Muslims impure [emphasis added].
Ignaz Goldziher, the renowned late 19th through early 20th century Orientalist, believed that Shiite Islam manifested this greater doctrinal intolerance toward non-Muslims, relative to Sunni Islam, because of the Shiites’ “literalist” conception of najas:
On examining the legal documents, we find that the Shi’i [Shiite] legal position toward other faiths is much harsher and stiffer than that taken by Sunni Muslims. Their law reveals a heightened intolerance to people of other beliefs. . . . Of the severe rule in the Koran (9:28) that “unbelievers are unclean,” Sunni Islam has accepted an interpretation that is as good as a repeal. Shi’i law, on the other hand, has maintained the literal sense of the rule; it declares the bodily substance of the unbeliever to be ritually unclean, and lists the touching of an unbeliever among the ten things that produce najasa, [najas] ritual impurity.
The enduring nature of the fanatical najas regulation prohibiting dhimmis from being outdoors during rain and/or snow, is well established. For example, this account provided by the missionary Napier Malcolm, who lived in the Yezd area at the close of the nineteenth century:
They [the strict Shi’as] make a distinction between wet and dry; only a few years ago it was dangerous for an Armenian Christian to leave his suburb and go into the bazaars in Isfahan on a wet [rainy] day. “A wet dog [Christian infidel] is worse than a dry dog.”
Reza Pahlavi’s spectacular rise to power in 1925 was accompanied by dramatic reforms, including secularization and Westernization efforts, as well as a revitalization of Iran’s pre-Islamic spiritual and cultural heritage. This profound sociopolitical transformation had very positive consequences for Iranian non-Muslims. Historian Walter Fischel’s analysis from the late 1940s (published in 1950), underscores the impact of Reza Shah’s reforms:
In breaking the power of the Shia clergy, which for centuries had stood in the way of progress, he [Reza Shah] shaped a modernized and secularized state, freed almost entirely from the fetters of a once fanatical and powerful clergy.
Despite the expected opposition of the irredentist Shiite clergy, Sir Clarmont Skrine would record in his World War in Iran, that the announcement of Reza Shah’s abdication,
…was received with gloom by the governing class and the younger generation who feared a return to the medieval, mulla-ridden Persia they thought they had left behind for good and all. This fear received some confirmation from the fact that very soon, for the first time in years, women appeared in the streets of Meshed in the chador enjoined by religion but forbidden by the late Shah.
Reza Shah’s abdication in 1941 (and death in 1944) was marked by a revival of Shiite Iranian clerical influence which reached its apogee during the premiership of Muhammad Mosaddeq (1951-1953). Allied to the clerics, who were also against external “domination,” Mossadeq’s regime, was punctuated, as F.R.C. Bagley notes, by
…sermons broadcast from loudspeakers in mosque-minarets [which] not infrequently denounced foreign manners, and many well-educated Iranian ladies resumed the veil…
Following the restoration of Iran’s own constitutional rule—suspended by Muhammad Mossadeq–Muhammad Reza Shah (Reza Shah’s son) was returned to his throne, and Mossadeq was replaced as Prime Minister. The Shah’s subsequent “White Revolution,” (which emphasized women’s suffrage), was in turn denounced by the Shiite clerical hierarchy (who felt women’s suffrage was “un-Islamic”).
The so-called Khomeini revolution, which deposed Mohammad Reza Shah, was in reality a mere return to oppressive Shiite theocratic rule, the predominant form of Persian/Iranian governance since 1502. Conditions for all non-Muslim religious minorities rapidly deteriorated.
The writings and speeches of the most influential religious ideologues of this restored Shiite theocracy—including Khomeini himself—make apparent their seamless connection to the oppressive doctrines of their forebears in the Safavid and Qajar dynasties. For example, Sultanhussein Tabandeh, the Iranian Shiite leader of the Ne’ematullahi Sultanalishahi Sufi Order, wrote an “Islamic perspective” on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to Professor Eliz Sanasarian’s important study of religious minorities in the contemporary Islamic Republic, Tabandeh’s tract became “the core ideological work upon which the Iranian government . . .based its non-Muslim policy.” Tabandeh begins his discussion by lauding as a champion “of the oppressed” Shah Ismail I (1502–1524), the repressive and bigoted founder of the Safavid dynasty who “bore hatred against the Jews and ordered their eyes to be gouged out if they happened to be found in his vicinity.” It is critical to understand that Tabandeh’s key views on non-Muslims, summarized below, were implemented “almost verbatim in the Islamic Republic of Iran.” In essence, Tabandeh simply reaffirms the sacralized inequality of non-Muslims relative to Muslims, under the Sharia:
Thus if [a] Muslim commits adultery his punishment is 100 lashes, the shaving of his head, and one year of banishment. But if the man is not a Muslim and commits adultery with a Muslim woman his penalty is execution. . . . Similarly if a Muslim deliberately murders another Muslim he falls under the law of retaliation and must by law be put to death by the next of kin. But if a non-Muslim who dies at the hand of a Muslim has by lifelong habit been a non-Muslim, the penalty of death is not valid. Instead the Muslim murderer must pay a fine and be punished with the lash.
Since Islam regards non-Muslims as on a lower level of belief and conviction, if a Muslim kills a non-Muslim . . . then his punishment must not be the retaliatory death, since the faith and conviction he possesses is loftier than that of the man slain. . . . Again, the penalties of a non-Muslim guilty of fornication with a Muslim woman are augmented because, in addition to the crime against morality, social duty and religion, he has committed sacrilege, in that he has disgraced a Muslim and thereby cast scorn upon the Muslims in general, and so must be executed. Islam and its peoples must be above the infidels, and never permit non-Muslims to acquire lordship over them. Since the marriage of a Muslim woman to an infidel husband (in accordance with the verse quoted: ‘Men are guardians form women’) means her subordination to an infidel, that fact makes the marriage void, because it does not obey the conditions laid down to make a contract valid. As the Sura (“The Woman to be Examined,” [i.e., sura 60, specifically verse 60:10]) says: “Turn them not back to infidels: for they are not lawful unto infidels nor are infidels lawful unto them (i.e., in wedlock).”