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The Persecution of Christians in Iran

INFORMATION SHEET
The persecution of Christians in Iran today is not a series of isolated events or the result of individual prejudices but rather a state policy implemented at all levels in various forms. It affects both individuals as well as the church as a whole.

Under the present Islamic regime, Christians and their institutions are intensely regulated, and subjected to intrusive questioning through the management of more than three Ministries and their Departments: the Ministry of Information and Islamic Guidance, The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments, the Ministry of the Interior and its notorious State Secret police.  

1. IRANIAN DECREE RESTRICTING CHURCH WORSHIP AND MEMBERSHIP

About two years ago, the late Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr and the denomination he represented, the Assemblies of God, were ordered to comply with the following directives:

"No church service must be conducted in Persian language (the language of the people) all members must be issued with membership cards and their admittance to the services would be on production of the appropriate card.

Photocopies of these cards and appropriate membership lists with their addresses to be given to the competent authorities.

Sunday meetings were to be for members only. No meetings to be held on any other day, in particular Friday.

No new members to be admitted without informing the appropriate department of the Ministry of Information and Islamic Guidance."

The late bishop boldly defied them saying, "Never would he or his ministers bow down and comply with such inhumane and unjust demands" and that "our churches are open to all who want to come in."  

2. IRANIAN GOVERNMENT CLOSES CHURCHES

The continued existence of the church in Iran today is at grave risk. This is due to the fact that the Islamic regime appears to have adopted a deliberate policy of gradual eradication of existing churches under legal pretenses.

The following churches have been forced to close by the Iranian regime: 1. A building in Kerman and another in Ahwaz , both used by the Anglican and Presbyterian congregations in those cities; and the Assemblies of God Church in Gorgan. (This was the only evangelical church in the whole of Mazanderan province, and with its closure, there is nowhere for evangelical Christians to worship.) Various church house-groups have also been closed down in Sari and Mashad and Ahwaz and the Christians there are strictly forbidden to meet.  

3. IRANIAN OFFICIALS CLOSE BIBLE SOCIETY AND CONFISCATE BIBLES

Despite guarantees of religious freedom for Christians in Article 13 of the Iranian constitution, it remains an offence to sell a copy of the Bible in Iran , which is practically impossible anyway, since the offices of the Iranian Bible Society were closed in 1980 and all its stocks confiscated by the State authorities.  

4. IRANIAN COURTS ENFORCE LAW ON "APOSTASY"

Despite all denials at the official level the Law on Apostasy is practiced and remains in force. It is under this law that converts from Islam to other religions are subject to capital punishment.

Some examples of the application of this law are as follows:

1. In 1989, Rev. Hossein Soodmand was executed for apostasy. Although born a Muslim, by 1989 Hossein had been a Christian for 25 years. He was an evangelist and the pastor of the Assemblies of God (AOG) Church in Mashad. Despite pleas for clemency by fellow pastors to the Dayro-E-Tasalamat (an Ombudsman and Muslim cleric-literally, "he who hears the cries of the oppressed"), Hossein was hanged on 3rd December 1989 at the insistence of the Ombudsman. He left a blind wife and four children.

2. Mehdi Dibaj, a Muslim convert to Christianity, was in prison for nearly 9 years. During that time, he endured 2 years in solitary confinement and was subjected to mock executions. He was imprisoned by the Sharia court in Sari on three charges: 1.That he had "insulted Islam, the prophet Muhammad and Ayatollah Khomeini" in a letter; 2. That he was acting as a spy for the West; and 3. That he was an apostate.

Iran 's Supreme Court on two occasions dismissed the first charge on grounds that the letter was not proved to be in Hossein's handwriting and the second charge as unfounded. He continued to remain in prison solely on grounds of apostasy. In 1994, he was sentenced to death for apostasy and only after an international campaign for his release was he allowed out of prison on 16 January 1995.  

5. ASSASSINATION OF CHRISTIAN LEADERS

The torture and murder of Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr, the leading figure of the Protestant community in Iran , took place almost immediately after he had worked for the release of Mehdi Dibaj. The Iranian authorities had many reasons for wanting to kill Haik. As mentioned above, he had refused to comply with directives restricting church worship and membership. He had also been active in the campaign for the release of Mehdi Dibaj. Furthermore, in 1993 Haik had publicly appealed to the United Nations to investigate the countless and dreadful abuses of human rights against Christians in Iran .

Bishop Haik disappeared on Wednesday 19 January 1994. Eleven days later his family was informed by the Tehran Office of Investigation that his body had been found on 20 January and, in the absence of identification, he had been buried in Beheshte Zahra (Muslim) cemetery. The only explanation to emerge from the authorities is that Bishop Haik was killed by 'unknown assailants'.

Mehdi Dibaj was last seen alive six months later on 24 June. On that day he left a Christian retreat which was held in Karaj . He was traveling alone to Tehran . According to a press release by the official Islamic Republic News Agency on 5th July, his body was found by police buried in a forested area of the capital and he had been stabbed to death. However, independent sources add that rope burns around his neck indicated that he could also have been hung or strangled.

After Bishop Haik's death, Tateos Michaelian, the senior pastor of St. John's Armenian Evangelical (Presbyterian) church, succeeded him as chairman of the Council of Protestant Ministers.

Michaelian was last seen alive leaving his home in Tehran during the afternoon of 29 June in response to a telephone call. The call reportedly came from his self-confessed assassin Farahnaz Anami (female) who had, on earlier occasions, attended his church professing an interest in Christianity. According to official reports, his body was found inside a freezer in a private house in Majidiyeh rented by Anami and she, allegedly, implicated at least one other female accomplice to the murder. The cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds to the head. Members of his family positively identified the body at the public morgue on 2nd July.

Middle East Concern reports that its sources have revealed that Tateos's body had in fact been dismembered and that a copy of a "hit list" of prominent Christians was found with his body. This document is now in the possession of a western government agency. MEC's sources, who have access to high-level government contacts, categorically state that they believe that all 3 murders of the Christian leaders were carried out by a death-squad operating within the Iranian security structures and sanctioned by orders from the highest political levels. They further believe that Anami (if she was the killer) is, in fact, a government agent and not a member of the MKO (Mujahedin Khalq Organization, an armed group attempting to overthrow the Iranian regime) as the authorities allege.

On 21st March 1994, TIME magazine published an investigative report into the deaths of Iranian dissidents living outside the country and states: "According to western intelligence and Iranian dissident sources, decisions to assassinate opponents at home or abroad are made at the highest level of the Iranian government: The Supreme National Security Council. The top political decision-making body is chaired by (President) Rafsanjani and includes among others, (Minister of Intelligence) Fallahian, (Foreign minister) Velayati and (Supreme Guide) Ali Khamenei."

On 2nd March 1994, the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group published its report, "The Tehran Murder Machine", sub-titled, "An account of terrorist assassinations by Iranian agents". In the conclusion to this report, it is written, "The pattern of assassinations described here, in which opponents of the Iranian regime were killed by terrorists, provides the strongest imaginable grounds for believing that these appalling crimes are planned in Tehran, and many well-informed sources directly accuse the regime; yet the international community has yet to present a solid and united front against those who threaten to spread their rule of the gun and the knife across the whole world."

It is therefore not surprising that assassinations would be carried out by the Iranian regime against perceived threats to their power within Iran itself. Furthermore, despite denials of government complicity in the assassinations, the Iranian regime continues to refuse to allow any of the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on human rights issues to visit the country to investigate the murders.  

6. CONCLUSIONS

The persecution of Christians in Iran has decimated the leadership of the Protestant evangelical community in that country and created an atmosphere of terror under which the church is presently suffering. The evidence points to a deliberate campaign of persecution against the church in Iran , orchestrated at the highest political levels. The Jubilee Campaign has been in close consultation with the writer of MEC's report and is aware of the identities and backgrounds of the sources of information for that report. Jubilee Campaign agrees with MEC's conclusions that the assassinations of Bishop Haik Hovespian Mehr, Rev. Tateos Michaelian and Rev. Mehdi Dibaj were carried out by a death squad under the direct instructions from the highest Iranian political circles.

Jubilee Campaign is concerned that such a death squad could strike at the Iranian church again and believes that an important step towards preventing such a recurrence is to take the following action:

1. Individuals and governments making it known to the Iranian authorities that they are aware of the existence and operation of such a death squad, and of the death squad's responsibility for the assassination of the three Iranian Christian leaders.

The Iranian regime's accusation against the MKO appears to be an attempt to both discredit an active opponent of the regime while at the same time disposing of "troublesome Christians".

2. Governments backing their human rights rhetoric with practical measures such as trade sanctions against Iran . The 34 - nation Council of Europe voted unanimously on March 15th 1995 in favor of a resolution calling on European governments to reject any closer trade or political relations with Iran until Tehran lifts its fatwa against British writer, Salman Rushdie. Jubilee hopes that Western governments will take such action, based not only on the fatwa against Rushdie but also because of the harsh religious persecution taking place in Iran today.  

7. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

1. Middle East Concern

2. "The Tehran Murder Machine, An account of terrorist assassinations by Iranian agents." Published by the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group.  

ACTION SHEET ON PERSECUTION OF THE CHURCH IN IRAN

WHAT YOU CAN DO

1. Write to your MP at House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA, briefly describing the desperate situation of Christians in Iran , mentioning the points in the information sheet concerning: a. Restrictions on church worship and membership. b. Forced closure of churches. c. Forced closure of Iranian Bible Society and ban on publishing and distribution of Bibles. d. Persecution of converts from Islam to Christianity. e. Assassination of Christian leaders in Iran by government-operated death squads.

Urge him/her to write to the Foreign Secretary, urging the British government to reject any closer trade or political relations with Iran until Iran takes action to improve its treatment of the Christian community and other religious minorities in the country, such action to include: a) Allowing the 3 United Nations Special Rapporteurs on 1. Iran 2. Religious Intolerance and 3. Summary, arbitrary and extrajudicial executions to visit Iran to carry out their respective mandates. b) Allowing an independent investigation by the U.N Special Rapporteurs into the deaths of the three Christian leaders. c) Lifting the ban on Bible production and distribution. d) Lifting restrictions on church worship and membership. e) Allowing churches closed by the government to re-open and permitting the construction and operation of new churches. f) Permitting people to convert from Islam to a non-Islamic religion of their own free will without any state sanctions against them.

2. Urge your MP to also write to the Iranian Charge d'Affaires in London , raising the above-mentioned points. Ask your MP to write to: The Charge d'Affaires, Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 16 Prince's Gate, London SW7 1PX.

3. Write to your MEP, encouraging him/her to take the action mentioned in points 1 and 2. If you do not know who your MEP is, you can call the European Parliament Information Offices on 020 7222 0411

4. Get other people to take similar action, writing to their MPs and MEPs and to the Iranian Embassy in London and to pray about the issues.

5. Ask your local church leader (and bishop/archbishop if you belong to a denomination with such a structure) to write to the Iranian Embassy as well.  

PRAYER FOR PERSECUTED CHRISTIANS IN IRAN

Please pray:

1. That the production and distribution of Bibles in Iran will be freely permitted and the Bible Society allowed to re-open.

2. That churches which have been forcibly closed will be allowed to re-open and that the Iranian authorities will allow churches to be freely constructed and operated throughout the country.

3. That the regime will refrain from punishing those who convert from Islam to Christianity.

4. For the families of all those Christians who have died for the faith, including the families of Hossein Soodmand, Tateos Michaelian, Haik Hovespian Mehr and Mehdi Dibaj.

5. That God will strengthen, encourage and guide the Iranian church at this time of severe persecution and provide for their spiritual and material needs.

6. That despite its many problems, the Iranian church will be able to be a vibrant and active witness for the Gospel.

7. That those responsible for the murders of Haik Hovsepian Mehr, Mehdi Dibaj and Tateos Michaelian will be brought to justice.

8. That the international community will take more effective action to communicate to the Iranian government its concern over religious persecution.

9. That religious freedom, peace and justice will prevail in Iran .

 

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