Iran has reportedly arrested dozens of Christians, many of them converts from Islam, in a crackdown that began around Christmas. An Iranian official is accusing Protestant evangelical groups of causing a cultural invasion.
Iranian opposition groups are reporting the arrests of dozens of evangelical Christians, many of whom are converts from Islam. Christian groups inside Iran say that the country’s Ministry of Islamic Guidance has also grilled dozens of Christians it accuses of proselytizing.
Armed security officers forcibly entered the homes of Christians, verbally and physically abused them, before handcuffing them and taking them for interrogation," reports the Cyprus-based group Middle East Concern. It adds that some were released after intense questioning and forcibly coerced statements that they would no longer participate in Christian activities.
Seeking to convert Muslims to Christianity or other religions is considered a crime in Iran and many other Islamic countries. Christian missionaries are routinely expelled and sometimes jailed for distributing Bibles and other religious material.
The governor of Tehran province, Morteza Tamadon, confirmed the arrests several days ago, complaining that Protestant evangelicals were conducting an "enemy cultural invasion." He likened Protestants to the Taliban, whom he referred to as "parasites."
Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran says that the names and photos of a number of those arrested have been published, and most appear to be young evangelical Christians who have converted from Islam.
Ghaemi says that the evangelical Christian movement has gained popularity in recent years, along with other non-Islamic religions, due to disaffection with Iran’s state-sponsored Shi’ism:
"The government in the name of religion has caused so much mistrust of many people from the official religion of the country. I am seeing a lot of people looking for alternatives to state-sanctioned religion. That's what they are really afraid of. They know that within the society there is a large movement of turning away from official religion and even within Shi'ism alternative approaches are coming up,” Ghaemi explained. “But they find it very threatening when people completely go to a different religion and I think it is because it's happening in large segments of society."
Ghaemi notes that the Tehran governor demonstrated a clear lack of understanding of evangelical Christianity, by calling it a British-inspired conspiracy. He adds that the Iranian government is using fear, intimidation, detention and prosecution to bring a halt to conversions.
Mohammed Javad Larijani, the Secretary General of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, complained recently that the West was "unfairly targeting Iran for human rights abuses. He claims that Iran tolerates other religions, so long as they are "not cults:
"The Jews are a minority, and they even have members in parliament. The Christians, they are a minority, they have a member in the parliament [and] Zoroastrians are a minority,” Larijani said. “Bahais are a cult. As far as these cults are not preventing followers from going out of the cult, they are tolerated… Any cult will be prevented by law. "
Some minority groups inside Iran, like Armenians, say that they are allowed to worship, provided that they do not seek to convert non-Christians.
Converts to Christianity from Islam, however, are often harassed and persecuted. Two evangelical Christian pastors, whom the government says converted from Islam, were arrested last June. One, Youssef Nadarkhani has been sentenced to death for apostasy and the other’s case is still pending.