Are Iran’s Christian converts at greater risk after Soleimani’s demise?

On January 3, the United States eliminated Soleimani, a powerful figure who coordinated the Iranian proxy militias responsible for mayhem and violence across the Middle East.

A CHURCH in central Tehran.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A CHURCH in central Tehran.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Following the death of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, the international spotlight is once again on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s many human rights violations, particularly its incessant persecution of Christian converts.
On January 3, the United States eliminated Soleimani, a powerful figure who coordinated the Iranian proxy militias responsible for mayhem and violence across the Middle East.
Well before the death of Soleimani, ever-increasing numbers of Iranian protesters had taken to the streets in dozens of cities. Emboldened by his death, more demonstrators have taken to the streets in recent weeks, voicing their frustration with Iran’s leadership.
Unsurprisingly, authorities used the chaos to arrest at least one well-known Christian human rights activist. Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi was detained January 12 in Tehran after criticizing the “soft repression” of the Iranian regime on Twitter. Her location and status remain unknown.
Iranian converts to Christianity bear the brunt of the regime’s disdain. When the Iranian government feels threatened, Iran’s beleaguered Christians, particularly converts from Islam, feel the backlash of increased scrutiny and harassment from the government.
As a convert from a Muslim background, Mohammadi is no exception. In July of 2019, she was arrested after she was physically assaulted by a woman who took offense to the way she was dressed. Last month, she was expelled from her university in Tehran without explanation. The Iranian regime’s crackdown on Mohammadi is just a small close-up of the mullahs’ large-scale attempt to repress the growth of Christianity in Iran.
A new report released in January by Christian Solidarity Worldwide found that over the last year, Christians in Iran were regularly subjected to hate speech from government officials, invasive government surveillance, and harassment by authorities. Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List reported that at least 169 Christians were arrested during the most recent annual reporting period. The relatives of Christians often face public humiliation while their family members await trial and serve long prison sentence.
Conservative estimates place the number of Christians in Iran between 500,000 to 800,000 believers, but others claim there are more than one million. Traditionally, Christian families amount to around 250,000, while the remainder consists of converts from Islam. Most converts from Islam belong to the underground Protestant house-church movement, which Iran considers to be illegal. Meanwhile, according to Islamic and Iranian law, conversion from Islam is a capital offense.
The Iranian regime conducts mass arrests of Christians during the Christmas season to intimidate believers and prevent the spread of Christianity. This year was no exception. Reports indicate that at least nine Christians were arrested on December 30, 2019, on charges of “affiliation with Christian Zionists and recruitment of Muslims to home churches.”
Dabrina Bet Tamraz, an Iranian Christian and persecution survivor, explains, “Christmas celebrations make it easier for Iranian authorities to arrest a group of Christians at one time.”
One reason that Iran’s Islamist leaders so aggressively target Christians is because of their own apocalyptic religious views. These beliefs include the reappearance of the “hidden imam,” a messianic figure who is expected to reemerge and conquer the world.
But there is, perhaps, another reason as well. Another belief claims that increasing violence and war against America, Israel and their Western allies will hasten the “end of days.”
This past summer, according to a MEMRI news report, senior Iranian Ayatollah Mohammad Mehdi Mirbagheri embraced this apocalyptic vision titled “In Order for the Hidden Imam to Reappear we Must Engage in Widespread Fighting with the West.” That fighting is believed to include, as is often said, “wiping the state of Israel off the map.”
It is noteworthy that Iran’s Christian converts are accused, among other things, of “affiliation with Christian Zionists.” This is suggested because of their newfound devotion to the Bible and their awareness of the sacred role of Israel in Jewish and Christian scriptures.
Meanwhile, despite the regime’s effort to crack down on the spread of Christianity, reports from Iran suggest that the number of Christian converts is growing rapidly. Clearly this distresses Iran’s leaders. Christianity is considered an existential threat to the Islamic Republic of Iran. That is reason enough for authorities to imprison new converts to Christianity and to persecute those who share their Christian faith with others.
Lela Gilbert is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. Arielle Del Turco works for the Family Research Council’s Center for Religious Liberty.