Iranian state propaganda likes to show off the country’s official churches, one of which houses the Middle East’s first printing press. But what state-backed media doesn’t show, is Iran’s ongoing campaign to crack down on converts to Christianity.
In Aug 2018, Iran sentenced four Christians to decades in jail for ‘threatening national security’ prompted condemnations from the international community.
Their imprisonment follows a wider trend inside the country of persecuting thousands of Christian converts. Networks of underground churches are constantly on the run from Iranian police and security forces; pastors are arrested under the guise of threatening Iran’s stability and converts are surveilled.
Iran’s ruling party, the Islamic Republic Party, appears to be using oppressive state functions and Sharia Law to mold the social identity of Persians in order to keep Iran’s people under the thumb of the regime.
Persecuting Christian Converts and Regulating Faith
In Aug 2018, Iran sentenced four Christians to a combined total of 45 years in jail. Shamiram Issavi, Victor Bet-Tamraz, Amin Afshar-Naderi and Hadi Asgari were all accused of ‘conducting evangelism’ and ‘illegal house church activities’ that Iranian authorities claimed were socially destabilizing the country.
Though their activities were entirely peaceful, Iran’s courts had determined they presented a grave threat to Iran, and accused them of “forming a group composed of more than two people with the purpose of disrupting national security.”
Their charges revolve around their alleged involvement in converting Muslims to Christianity.
Under Sharia Law, it is illegal to convert from Islam to any other religion, and Iran considers those Muslims who convert to be apostates, and are regularly harassed by state authorities.
This has pushed Iran’s thousands of Christians to practice their faith in secret.
The four recently imprisoned Christians’ charges center around organizing and leading networks of underground churches, which are also called ‘house churches.’ They function largely out of reach from the state, and form as a response to state authorities seeking to monopolize and tightly control the way Christianity is practiced.
Often hosted inside living rooms, house church sessions typically cater to converts of Christianity, or practitioners of Christianity who seek a religious space outside of a controlling state.
In China, for example, half of the country’s Christians practice their faith in extralegal house churches, because the only legally approved churches are those that are state-approved and thus co-opted.
In the majority-Muslim country of Iran, house churches has been a growing trend since 2002, when they were first formulated.
Though numbers vary, house churches typically have 4-12 congregants; a few have slightly more, but as a general rule to protect them from the eye of the state, they are broken up and divided if they attract too many. They are also constantly on the run, moving from one house to another to keep one step ahead of state authorities.
While many are able to function out of reach from state authorities, converts who are caught can face severe punishments: in 2013, 13 Christian converts were found and arrested in a house church. They were charged with advancing ‘propaganda against the State,’ ‘advocating for evangelical Christianity,’ and ‘establishing house Churches.’
Many house churches receive outside help from international Christian missionary and theological organizations, which dispense Christian material to the churches. For example, the London-based Pars Theological Center reportedly provides Farsi-language religious instructions to Iranian students via video lectures, workbooks and other digital resources.
Other organizations broadcast Christian education lessons and religious services in Farsi so that satellite TVs in Iran can receive and watch them. Elam Ministries, another-London based missionary organization says these satellite broadcasts have become a critical resource to Iran’s Christian converts and the house churches. Many of the organizations seeking to convert Iranians to Christianity are Pentecostal and Evangelical.
A State-based Definition of Persian Identity
The Dzor Church in Iran (Wikimedia Commons)
Iran’s ongoing crackdown on underground churches and Christian converts relates to the regime’s broader goal of defining and enforcing a state-approved national identity, one that is Muslim and loyal to the Ayatollah regime.
Victor Bet-Tamraz, one of those four sentenced to ten years in jail, was a prominent leader of the Pentecostal Assyrian Church in Tehran, a church that was forcibly shut down by authorities for conducting services in Farsi.
Holding even state-approved church services in Farsi is becoming increasingly forbidden. As of now, Iran’s handful of ‘official’ churches are forced to provide services languages such as Armenian, which is broadly understood by Iran’s Armenian Christian minority.
That Christian religious services cannot be held in Farsi speaks to Iran’s desire to separate Iran’s national Persian identity from Christianity.
Iran’s official churches are often well preserved, have museums attached to them and are generally celebrated as artifact from Persia’s rich and cosmopolitan past. But the steadily growing number of Christians inside Iran likely has the state worried that it cannot contain them effectively and continue controlling the narrative of what it means to be Persian.
This is also not helped by the fact that many of the converts are being educated and guided by foreign organizations operating from abroad, meaning many converts are the direct result of a kind of foreign involvement in Iran.
Iran’s ruling regime wants Christianity in Iran to be a well-preserved historical relic, not something that defines contemporary Persian identity and by extension, the regime of Iran.
But its hyper-securitized tactics of cracking down on house churches and arresting pastors while violating their rights in the process, has not stopped Irans’ Christian minority from practicing their faith. It has only succeeded in pushing them into the dark, with mobile church services, secret prayers, and a profound sense of isolation.
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