Harassment of Christians in Iran increasing, says Article 18

TEHRAN — In its latest annual report, non-profit organization Article 18, in partnership with three other non-profit organizations that advocate for persecuted Christians worldwide, revealed that Iranian Christians continue to face oppression, arrest, and imprisonment for practicing their faith, in addition to a violent crackdown over the recent protests.

The report, Violations to the Rights of Christians in Iran, highlights that religious minorities in Iran, including Christians, are systematically deprived of their right to practice their religion freely.

The study was recently released to coincide with the 44th anniversary of the murder of Arastoo Sayyah, an Anglican pastor who was the first Christian killed for his faith in the Islamic Republic, just eight days after the Islamic Revolution in February 1979.

The report confirms that religious freedom is still non-existent in Iran, although it is no longer common for Iranian Christians to be killed for their beliefs.

The report detailed 134 Christians arrested in 2022 for faith-related reasons, more than double the 59 arrests that were recorded in 2021. At least 30 individuals were either imprisoned or forced into exile. The number of detained Christians also increased significantly from 34 in 2021 to 61 in 2022. The report noted that 17 Christians were still in prison at the end of 2022 and serving sentences of up to 10 years on charges such as “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the regime”.

File Photo: Iranian Christians attend Christmas Mass at a church in Tehran in 2007. (Image: Vahid Salemi / AP)

Article 18 highlighted that practicing a belief other than Shia Islam is considered a threat to the Islamic Republic and its values. As an example, in 2022, two Iranian Armenian Christians were sentenced to 10 years in prison for holding church services in a private home.

The report also explores the issue of places of worship, revealing that only four Farsi-speaking churches are currently permitted to operate within the borders of the Islamic Republic. However, despite the suspension of in-person religious services during the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities have not yet authorized their definitive reopening.

Iran’s recognized Christian community is mostly comprised of Syriac–Assyrians and Armenians, estimated to be around 300,000 individuals out of a total population of over 87 million people, although recent estimates indicate a significant decline in numbers due to emigration in recent years. The Islamic Republic recognizes several churches, including the Armenian Apostolic, Russian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Anglican, Presbyterian, and the Armenian, Chaldean, and Roman Catholic churches.

Another significant group of Christians is comprised of individuals who have converted from Islam, but they do not have official status. According to Article 18, their population is conservatively estimated to be between 500,000 and 800,000.

Although the Penal Code does not mandate the death penalty for apostasy (a proposal to include such a law was not approved in the 2013 amendments), Article 167 of the Constitution empowers judges to rely on authoritative Islamic sources in cases not covered by the codified law. This provision provides scope for Islamic law sanctions to be applied for apostasy.