Recurring Arrests of Christians Indicate Iran’s Overall Religious Persecution

The Islamic Republic is widely regarded as one of the countries with the lowest index of press freedom and internet freedom. It reportedly spends more money than any other country on satellite jamming and broadcast filtering equipment, and various regime authorities have repeatedly teased plans to cut off the Iranian internet from the rest of the world, establishing a “halal net” in which the only available information is that which has been determined to be no threat to Islamic values.

At the same time, the Islamic Republic of Iran is understood to have some of the lowest religious freedom in the world, and the highest incidences of persecution of Christians and other minorities. This is perhaps unsurprising given the country’s theocratic governance, but the Iranian constitution technically defends the rights of traditional communities of Christians, Jews, and other religious that are accepted as being generally compatible with Shiite Islam.

In practice, however, these communities are often subject to pressure from the government and its hardline supporters. And persons who are believed to have converted to another religion from Islam are subject to arrest, prosecution, and sentences that may even include the death penalty. On Monday, the Christian Times reported that Iranian authorities had re-arrested a Christian pastor who had previously been sentenced to death for apostasy in 2010.

Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani eventually had that sentence overturned, but he served three years in prison for allegedly proselytizing to Muslims. This is the same crime that landed Iranian-American Pastor Saeed Abedini in prison when he was visiting Iran in 2012. Abedini was also accused of undermining state security through his supposed evangelizing, and he was sentenced to eight years in prison. After spending approximately four years as an activist cause for Christians and opponents of the Iranian regime in the US, he was released as part of a prisoner swap coinciding with the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal.

Nadarkhani’s case and those of various other Iranian Christians indicates that the regime’s targeting of such individuals has been ongoing throughout that time, and may even be accelerating along with reported crackdowns on journalists, artists, and others who are accused of deviating from the regime’s official ideology.

Nadarkhani’s arrest on Friday was the third of its kind. During the previous detentions and when he was serving his proselytization sentence, he was reportedly put under pressure to convert back to Islam. Similar accounts have been given of Pastor Abedini and other members of religious minorities who have served time in prison.

Nadarkhani’s wife was also taken into custody on Friday. And although both were released after several hours of interrogation, three other Christians were arrested alongside them and they remained in custody at the time of the Christian Times report.

That report quoted Christian Solidarity Worldwide as saying in a statement, “While CSW is relieved that Pastor and Mrs. Nadarkhani have been freed, we remain deeply concerned for the welfare of Yasser Mossayebzadeh, Saheb Fadaie and Mohammadreza Omidi, who are still being held. The government must be held to account for its harassment of Iran’s Christian community, in particular the constant raids on homes and repeated arrests which are without basis.”

Naturally, other activist organizations have issued similar calls regarding other religious minorities. And at times, foreign governments have contributed to this pressure on the Islamist regime. As recently as Saturday, the US State Department called upon Tehran to release seven political prisoners who were prominent members of the Baha’i faith, which was founded in Iran in the 19th century.

That statement was highlighted by Agence-France Presse in a report on a controversial meeting between the daughter of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and several female leaders of the Baha’i community. One of these leaders was on a five-day furlough from prison when she met with Faezeh Hashemi, who claimed to simply be visiting with a friend.

But the Baha’i identity of that friend subjected Hashemi to criticism from hardliners and Iranian clerics, one of whom happened to be her own father. According to AFP, Rafsanjani said his daughter had “made a mistake that needs to be corrected.” He also disavowed Baha’i as a “deviant sect” that was “created by the colonialists.”

In keeping with such disavowals, the Iranian authorities routinely persecute the Baha’i community and keep its members under pressure to convert. Specific and recurrent tactics include razing Baha’i burial sites, forcing the closure of Baha’i-owned shops and places of business, and preventing Baha’i youth from having access to higher education or jobs.

Rafsanjani’s commentary on his daughter’s visit underscores the persistence of this persecution, but it also serves to highlight the limits to what has been regarded by foreign powers as Iranian “moderation.” That is to say, when Rafsanjani occupied the presidency, he was widely regarded as a moderate alternative to other elements of the regime, just as President Hassan Rouhani is today. But at least with regard to Iran’s essentially Islamic identity, Rafsanjani has demonstrated himself to be in line with the country’s traditional leadership.

Staunch critics of the Iranian regime have variously suggested that the Rouhani administration has taken advantage of Western optimism about moderation in order to gain leeway from Western governments while maintaining the same familiar hardline attitudes toward religious minorities and other human rights issues.