WASHINGTON - An Iranian Christian rights activist whose 46-day detention earlier this year drew words of concern from U.S. President Donald Trump says Iran has detained 15 other Christians as part of its long-running repression of the religious minority in the Islamic republic.
Mary Mohammadi, a Tehran-based Christian convert in her early 20s, made the comments to VOA Persian in her first interview since being granted a temporary release from prison on February 26. Iranian authorities had arrested her in the Iranian capital on January 12 after she joined street protests against Iranian security forces’ downing of a Ukrainian plane carrying mostly Iranian passengers four days earlier. Iran said its forces mistook the plane for an enemy threat.
Mohammadi said her domestic contacts told her that at least 15 Christians were in detention in Iran’s overcrowded and unsanitary prisons as of June 11.
Iran has granted temporary releases to tens of thousands of detainees in recent months in part to curb the spread of the coronavirus in its prisons. But it has refused to furlough dissidents sentenced to more than five-year prison terms for security offenses and has continued to jail other Iranians for peaceful activities deemed threatening to national security.
Mohammadi said at least 20 Iranian Christians also were free on bail while awaiting trial. London-based Iranian Christian rights group Article 18 has described her as a rare voice for persecuted Christians inside Iran.
The U.S. State Department’s 2019 report on religious freedom in Iran, released June 10, cited a report by several rights groups including Article 18 as saying that at least 17 Iranian Christians were in prison on charges related to their religion at the end of last year.
President Trump raised Mohammadi’s profile by expressing concern about her detention in a February 6 speech to a National Prayer Breakfast gathering in Washington. “Mary was seized and imprisoned in Iran because she converted to Christianity and shared the Gospel with others,” Trump said.
Days later, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told an interviewer that he was “deeply concerned” by reports of Mohammadi’s arrest by Iranian authorities. “The United States will … continue to … do our level best to hold them accountable for this terrible repression of someone who simply wanted to exercise her own conscience and her desire to be a Christian,” he said.
Iran prohibits its Muslim citizens from converting to another religion. Muslims comprise 99.4 percent of Iran’s 84 million people, according to U.S. government estimates.
Iran’s refusal to recognize the Christianity of converts means it only recognizes two main categories of Christians. The government recognizes the faith of Armenian and Assyrian Christians because the presence of these ethnic groups in Iran predates Islam, and also recognizes the faith of citizens who can prove they or their families were Christian prior to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Iran’s post-1979 constitution recognizes Christians as one of only three authorized religious minorities, along with Jews and Zoroastrians. It requires members of these minorities to register as such but bars converts from doing so. As a result, Iranian converts long have been denied the same rights as recognized members of Christian communities.
The State Department’s report cited human rights activists as saying Iran continued to target Christian converts last year with arbitrary arrests, physical abuse and other forms of harsh treatment.
Mohammadi told her Instagram followers on April 21 that she had spent 46 days in “terrible conditions” in Tehran’s Vozara detention center and Qarchak women’s prison. She also said authorities had sentenced her to three months in prison and 10 lashes for participating in the January protests but suspended the punishments for one year, allowing her to remain free.
The activist was expelled from her Tehran university last December and told the Article 18 group at the time that she believed Iranian authorities were retaliating against her for her use of social media platforms to highlight rights abuses against fellow Christian converts in Iran.
“Iran’s Islamist rulers don't need to use guns and tanks to uproot Iranian Christians,” she told VOA. “They use imprisonment, expulsion from university, internal exile, social deprivation and economic isolation. If that is not tantamount to killing Christians, what do you call it?”
Mohammadi also called on the international community to pressure Tehran to reconsider its approach toward Iranian Christians.
In an annual report released in January, the international Christian charity organization Open Doors said Iran was the 9th most repressive country for Christians in 2019, the same as its ranking a year earlier.