In the days after Christmas, Iran arrested 9 Christians, accusing them of spreading “Zionism” in league with foreign agents. The Islamic Republic has cracked down on religious freedom for all but Shia Muslims, and these arrests seem yet another attack on religious liberty in Iran. The regime regularly persecutes people who convert from Islam to Christianity, and most converts worship secretly to escape this persecution.
“These people were in systematic contact with elements based outside the country, and spread corrupt Christian beliefs and ideas,” the state-run Tasnim news agency — which is connected to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — reported on Saturday.
PressTV Iran provided more justification for the arrests. “Iranian authorities have arrested four members of a Zionist group engaging in corrupt evangelism and promotion of a falsified version of Christianity in the province of Alborz,” the outlet reported (emphasis original).
Tasnim claimed that mainstream Christians in Alborz province near Tehran — where the arrests took place — “had officially protested against the propagation of the falsified Christian cultism throughout the province.”
While the state-run news agency claimed these Christians were “misleading the people of faith, including Muslims, by setting up cults and home churches,” it seems far more likely Iran has decided to target Christian converts in the name of security and religious purity (Iran’s official religion is Shia Islam.).
PressTV went on to warn that “Zionists and evangelical extremists have historically found good friends in each other as they have targeted practicing Jews and Christians.”
Iran has officially called for the extermination of of Israel, so the accusation of Zionism seems a particularly convenient excuse.
The Iran news outlet quoted an American rabbi in order to support these arrests. “Describing the bad influence of Zionism on Judaism, a US-based rabbi told Press TV in late October that Zionists had ‘hijacked the identity’ of Jews in favor of their goals,” the outlet reported.
PressTV went on to argue that “churches, synagogues and temples of divine religions are officially recognized and are free to operate and serve their congregations.” It went on to note that Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians live side-by-side in the country and are represented in parliament.
None of that excuses the state persecution of people who convert from Islam. In its 2018 report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom warned that religious freedom for non-Shia Muslims in Iran has increasingly been restricted. Religious freedom has worsened during the past year, with the government cracking down on Baha’is and Christian converts. Many Christian converts have been sentenced to at least 10 years in prison.
While PressTV noted that there are Zoroastrian members of parliament, it did not mention the suspension of a Zoroastrian elected to the local council of Yazd, which inspired a national debate about religious freedom.
The U.S. State Department designated Iran as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act (RFA) in 1999. USCIRF yet again confirmed that designation last year.
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