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Iran’s tightening grip on religious minorities

There are roughly 300,000 Christians in Iran. Most of them are members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, an ancient Church that broke off communion with Holy Orthodoxy over the fourth Ecumenical Council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Other Christians in Iran are members of the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, and the Roman Catholic Church; there is also a growing number of Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and other Protestants. 

For previous coverage of Iran, see here.

“Iran’s tightening grip on religious minorities,” Article 18, December 8, 2021:

For thousands of years, Iran has stood out as a culture that prized diversity and a place where religious minorities have flourished as independent communities. The Islamic Republic now seeks to change that, however, by implanting its own leaders inside different faith groups to protect and advance its interests. This approach could doom these ancient minorities to a future that includes altered traditions and even the risk of disappearing from Iran altogether.

The Islamic Republic formally banned conversion from Islam decades ago. This powerful tool prevented minority communities from growing beyond their birthrates. But today Iran takes a more active role in the affairs of religious minorities, imposing inconsistent regulations, draining their assets, and anointing successors to weaken the traditional leadership and gain control of these populations. These influencers typically have been given incentives such as funds, access to power, safety, and other privileges in exchange for collaborating with the Iranian government….

The regime’s malign influence on Iran’s Christian leadership is not sufficiently well known among the international community. In 2014, Victor Bet Tamraz, the long-time Iranian-Assyrian pastor of the Pentecostal Church of Shahrara in Tehran, was violently deposed from his pulpit. He endured solitary confinement for 65 days and faced a 10-year prison sentence for exercising his religious leadership. The church was shut down and the congregation was stripped of its sanctuary and clergy.

But the state’s grip on the religious leadership of minorities persists among surviving churches. “We know there’s always a government agent or dual agent who monitors the speeches, sermons, and activities of the church to make sure we’re not speaking out against the government and not expressing negative sentiments about the regime,” said Juliana Taimourazy, 2021 Nobel Peace Prize nominee and the president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, who left Iran because of the difficulties and discrimination she faced as a practicing Christian.

The millennia-old Christian Assyrian community in Iran had around 90,000 members before the Islamic Revolution. However, in its aftermath, the pressures on the community, primarily driven by their second-class citizenship and the hostile environment, prompted many to leave the country and join the diaspora, reducing its numbers to less than 7,000 people. “This mass exodus speaks for itself,” Taimourazy said. “This is a form of religious genocide,” where no blood is shed but a civilisation is gradually eliminated because its people are “oppressed, mocked, and harassed for their faith.” Those who stayed behind were the aged and infirm, along with a small number of younger Christians who had never seen their community enjoy any measure of freedom and thus lack the vision to restore its rights.

The Assyrian population is not the only Christian group oppressed by the regime either. Other communities are forced to abide by restrictions such as bans on worshiping in Persian and proselytising or engaging in external conversations about their faith, as well as being forced to include non-Christians in their celebrations.

Mansour Borji, the advocacy director of the religious rights organisation Article18, indicated that on several occasions community-elected Christian leaders were not allowed to serve their duties and had to step down in favour of government-appointed figures. Borji also explained a surprising nuance in the oppression of religious minorities: Despite the mass exodus of Christians, the “Iranian regime would prefer to have some presence of Christians in Iran, provided that they would comply with their demands and perpetuate the state propaganda that they have tolerance toward other faiths.”

To position itself as maintaining the country’s longstanding traditions of religious tolerance, the Islamic Republic has allowed faith groups to have limited representation in the Iranian parliament, but their powers are severely constrained. Most notoriously, Yonatan Betkolia, Iran’s Assyrian Christian MP, projects an image of tolerance and pluralism in Iran; defends its foreign ambitions; and criticises everything from countries like the US and Israel to MPs in the Netherlands and religious groups in Australia. Leaders like Betkolia play a role on the global stage by falsely attesting to the freedom of religion in Iran, and their domestic function is to enforce the restrictions imposed by the Islamic Republic. The most visible example is their participation in the unpopular Iranian elections, which are widely boycotted by citizens of all religions. In maintaining the regime’s status quo, Borji explains that “any [Christian leader] who crosses this line would fall out of favour and soon be banished.”…

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