There is a common misconception that Iran's restrictions on the right to worship freely apply only to members of the Baha'i religion. But while the Islamic republic has reserved the most vicious forms of persecution for the adherents of this gentle faith — whose numbers, according to some estimates, have dwindled from around 500,000 at the time of the 1979 revolution to just 150,000 now — the situation of Iranian Christians is little better.
Through its treatment of its Christian and Jewish minorities, Iran's policies underscore that mythology behind the oft-heard claim that the followers of the "Abrahamic" faiths are accorded dignity and respect. Just last week, Iran's millenarian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told an Islamic conference in Tehran that Islam is the only true religion, denying at the same time the divine provenance of both Judaism and Christianity. "My dear ones!" Ahmadinejad declared munificently, "Islam is a world religion and God has only one religion, that of Islam, he did not send Judaism or Christianity; Abraham was a harbinger of Islam, as were Moses and Jesus!"
The majority of Iran's 300,000 Christians belong to established churches like the Armenian and the Assyrian; for the time being, their fate is to walk on eggshells around the regime, which means they can't say or do anything that the mullahs might interpret as proselytizing. By contrast, it is open season on the followers of the smaller, evangelical denominations, all of whom risk being charged with the crime of moharebeh, or apostasy.
Arguably the best known victim of this charge is the 35 year-old Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who marked his 1,000th day of incarceration In Iran's Lakan prison earlier this month. Nadarkhani, a leader of the evangelical Church of Iran who embraced Christianity as a child, has been given a choice: recant and return to Islam, or face the death sentence. So far, Nadarkhani has held firm.
Nadarkhani's plight reflects a long-established pattern of harassment. In 1990, Pastor Hussein Soodman, like Nadarkhani a convert from Islam to Christianity, was executed after he repeatedly defied the regime's insistence that he recant. Soodman's execution set the tone for Iran's future dealings with converts to Christianity; in the last year, as well as Nadarkhani, several other pastors have been locked behind by bars, charged with offenses ranging from "crimes against national security" to the life-threatening accusation of moharebeh.
What applies to these church leaders applies increasingly to their flocks. According to a report from ANS, a news service that highlights Christian persecution, Iranian Revolutionary Guards have closed down the Central Assembly of God Church in Tehran, along with a campsite that holds Bible study schools and conferences. In tandem, the regime has imposed the sorts of restrictions that will be familiar to those who remember the persecution of Jews in the old Soviet Union: prohibiting the distribution of the Bible and associated Christian literature; allowing only small numbers of worshippers to attend services; checking IDs before worshippers enter services, which is a surefire way of depleting attendance through fear; and preventing the conduct of services in the Farsi language.
A recent report on the treatment of Christian converts in Iran related the remark of an Iranian intelligence agent to the mother of two converts who were hauled away from their Tehran apartment for questioning: "Tell Jesus to come and rescue them." One will probably not find a better statement of the regime's true intent.
The reaction of western church leaders to the brazen demonization of Christianity in Iran has been typically nervous. Nadarkhani has been the subject of several press releases asking for clemency, but there is a clear reluctance to identify Iran's strategy for what it is: the first stage of a campaign to eradicate Christianity from the country.
The "message of solidarity" issued by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu last month illustrates this problem well enough. Tutu, who is best known in recent years for franchising the word "apartheid" to adversaries of the State of Israel, was at pains to point out that the torture and imprisonment which Iranian Christians face does "not reflect the Muslim faith." Given that the vast bulk of the 100 million Christians around the world facing persecution reside in Muslim countries, it would seem that the archbishop is denying himself a much-needed reality check. Should the Iranian regime carry out its commitment to execute Pastor Nadarkhani, Iranian Christians will need much more than Tutuesque platitudes to soothe their wretched existence.