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).”
And Sanasarian emphasizes the centrality of this notion of Islam’s superiority to all other faiths:
[E]ven the so-called moderate elements [in the Islamic Republic] believed in its truth. [emphasis added] Mehdi Barzagan, an engineer by training and religiously devout by family line and personal practice, became the prime minister of the Provisional Government in 1979. He believed that man must have one of the monotheistic religions in order to battle selfishness, materialism, and Communism. Yet the choice was not a difficult one. [Barzagan stated,] “Among monotheist religions, Zoroastrianism is obsolete, Judaism has bred materialism, and Christianity is dictated by its church. Islam is the only way out.” In this line of thinking, there is no recognition of Hinduism, Buddhism, Bahaism, or other religions.
The conception of najas or ritual uncleanliness of the non-Muslim has also been reaffirmed. Ayatollah Khomeini stated explicitly, “Non-Muslims of any religion or creed are najas.” Khomeini elaborated his views on najas and non-Muslims, as follows:
Eleven things are unclean: urine, excrement, sperm, blood, a dog, a pig, bones, a non-Muslim man and woman [emphasis added], wine, beer, perspiration of a camel that eats filth. . . . The whole body of a non-Muslim is unclean, even his hair, his nails, and all the secretions of his body. . . . A child below the age of puberty is unclean if his parents and grandparents are not Muslims; but if he has a Muslim for a forebear, then he is clean. . . The body, saliva, nasal secretions, and perspiration of a non-Muslim man or woman who converts to Islam automatically become pure. As for the garments, if they were in contact with the sweat of the body before conversion, they will remain unclean. . . .
The late Iranian ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, lionized as a “moderate reformer,” further indicated that a non-Muslim (kafir’s) impurity was “a political order from Islam and must be adhered to by the followers of Islam, and the goal [was] to promote general hatred toward those who are outside Muslim circles.” This “hatred” was to assure that Muslims would not succumb to corrupt—that is, non-Islamic—thoughts. Sanasarian provided a striking example of the practical impact of this renewed najas consciousness, and its impact on Armenian Christians, specifically:
In the case of the Coca-Cola plant, for example, the owner (an Armenian) fled the country, the factory was confiscated, and Armenian workers were fired. Several years later, the family members were allowed to oversee the daily operations of the plant, and Armenians were allowed to work at the clerical level; however, the production workers remained Muslim. Armenian workers were never rehired on the grounds that non-Muslims should not touch the bottles or their contents, which may be consumed by Muslims. [emphasis added]
Finally, Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkani’s chilling “apostasy” case—his alleged “crime” being conversion from Islam to Christianity—illustrates, starkly, how Iran’s application of the Sharia remains depressingly relevant today.
Notwithstanding transparent Iranian efforts to recast the criminal proceedings against Pastor Nadarkhani with allegations of “Zionist conspiracism,” or other trumped up charges, a translated Iranian Supreme Court brief from 2010 (obtained by CNN via the American Center for Law and Justice, and translated from its original Farsi by the Confederation of Iranian Students in Washington) makes plain that apostasy was the sole charge.
Mr. Youcef Nadarkhani, son of Byrom, 32-years old, married, born in Rasht in the state of Gilan is convicted of turning his back on Islam, the greatest religion, the prophecy of Mohammad at the age of 19…He (Nadarkhani) has stated that he is a Christian and no longer Muslim…During many sessions in court with the presence of his attorney and a judge, he has been sentenced to execution by hanging according to [article 8] of Tahrir Al- Wasilah (Vasileh).
A treatise on Sharia, authored by Ayatollah Khomeini as a guide for Muslims, Tahrir al-Vasileh states (vol. 2, pp. 366, 494-496), regarding apostasy:
Apostasy is leaving Islam and accepting infidelity. One who turns from Islam to infidelity is called an apostate and that is of two kinds: A) innate-apostate, and that is a person that one of his father or mother was Muslim when his seed was being jelled, and who embraced Islam following puberty and then left Islam.; B) National apostate, and that is a person whose father and mother were infidels when his seed was being jelled and he has expressed infidelity after puberty, and became an original infidel (kafar i aslee), then he embraced Islam and later has returned to infidelity; such as a person who originally was a Christian and became a Muslim and then returned to Christianity. [An] Innate-apostate’s [re-embracing of] Islam is unacceptable and, if a man, his ruling is execution and, if a woman, she is condemned to prison for life and [with] beating when praying and straitening of livelihood, but her repenting is acceptable and she will freed if she repents. A national apostate will be caused to repent and in case of refusing to repent will be executed. And it is preferable to give a 3 day reprieve and to execute him on the fourth day if he refused…The child of a Muslim or that of an apostate, whether national or innate, is considered Muslim before the father’s apostasy, and therefore, if the child reached puberty and chose infidelity he will be asked to repent (and to return to Islam), else he will be executed.
The quintessence of a contemporary Shiite pronouncement on apostasy in Islam (which cites Khomeini’s treatise extensively) appearing in Kayhan International, March 1986, proclaimed, openly:
In Islam, apostasy is a flagrant sin and guilt for which certain punishments have been specified in Sharia (Islamic law). Apostasy means, to renounce the religion or a religious principle after accepting it. In other words, one’s departure from Islam to atheism is called apostasy. A person who abandons Islam and adopts atheism is called an apostate. …Apostasy is the escape from the pattern of creation and nature and that is why the word “voluntary” has been adopted for such an apostate…Can the penalty of escaping from the path and pattern of nature and creation be anything other than annihilation? This is the same thing that has been crystallized in the penal code of Islam. The anti-apostasy punishments of Islam are proper laws to rescue mankind from falling into the cesspool of treason, betrayal, and disloyalty and to remind the human being of his ideological commitments.
Only a heroic international effort, spearheaded by Nadarkani’s intrepid lawyer, Mohammed Ali Dadkhah (the latter, unconscionably, still languishing in Evin prison as “punishment” for his noble efforts), and the American Center for Law and Justice, spared the pastor’s life.
Iran’s application of the Sharia across a continuum of five centuries—with a brief hiatus under the Pahlavi Shahs from 1925-1979—is manifested by the ongoing persecution of its contemporary Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities. Now after three decades of strict re-application of the Sharia in Iran, since the retrograde “Khomeini Revolution” (which has included stoning to death for adultery, execution for homosexuality, abrogation of freedom of conscience and religious minority rights, etc.), and notwithstanding delusive arguments that these phenomena had engendered mass public rejection of Islamic Law, Pew polling data released June 11, 2013 (from face-to-face interviews with 1,522 adults, ages 18 years of age and older), reveal an entirely different reality. When asked, “Do you favor or oppose the implementation of Sharia law, or Islamic law in our country?”, 83% favored its application. A largely concordant finding demonstrated that only 28% of Iranians were at all concerned (i.e., 9% “very,” and 19% “somewhat” concerned) about “extremist religious groups” in the nation.
Willful blindness to this reality by our media and policymaking elites is a moral perversion that assures such Sharia-sanctioned oppression will continue indefinitely.