Heydar Moslehi, Minister of Intelligence in Iran, has declared that house churches are a threat to youth, Mohaba News, an Iranian Christian News Agency, reported Monday. Moslehi's statement raises anxiety over new persecution among the Christian community.
Moslehi reportedly acknowledged that a new series of efforts will be made to fight the growth of the house church movement in Iran, the agency reports.The government is also reportedly shifting toward a policy of preventing young people from becoming Christians.
"The house churches are a threat to the youth and the Ministry of Intelligence has already started a serious effort to oppose this movement," Moslehi was quoted as saying.
Only a year ago, a major raid on Iran's house churches took place on Dec. 26. The Christian community in Iran is now reportedly experiencing anxiety after Moslehi's statement.
The Iranian regime has been known especially for its anti-Christian attitude for a while.
In September, the Iranian ambassador to the Vatican reportedly indicated that evangelical Christianity is a political phenomenon which the "imperialist system" uses to create enmity between Islam and Christianity.
"Today, improper Hijab and anarchy are political tools to oppose the Islamic regime and in just the same way, the imperialists are working with political anger and prejudice to break the relation between Iran and Vatican," the ambassador reportedly said at the time, during a conference called "Islamic awakening and the world of Christianity" in Vatican City.
Iran is an overwhelmingly Shia Muslim country, with the followers of Islam (Shia at 89 and Sunni at 9 percent) constituting together 98 percent of the population. Christian, Zoroastrian, Jewish and Baha’i people together constitute only 2 percent of the population.
According to U.S.-based organization Iranian Christians International, Inc. (ICI), the persecution of the Christian community started in Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, after foreign missionaries were chased out of the country.
Since then, "If an Iranian called himself a Christian, he now had to be willing to pay a high price for his faith," the organization states on its website.
"This has led many Iranian youth to seek answers outside of Islam. Thousands are now finding the hope and joy they had been longing for in the Christian fait," Aidan Clay, ICC's regional manager for the Middle East told The Christian Post Tuesday. "The increasing growth of Christianity in Iran is of course viewed as a threat to the Iranian regime which uses Islam to control its people. In order to maintain control, the regime continues to try to weed Christianity out of the country."
That is why Moslehi issued the statement, Clay said. The house church movement in Iran is viewed as a threat to the country’s youth.
"If Iran’s regime loses the control of its youth – which is already happening – than it also loses control of Iran’s future," Clay told CP. "For that reason, the regime has attempted to use propaganda to discredit the powerful house church movement in Iran and to persuade youth to avoid it."
However, the authorities' action seems to have the opposite effect, the expert says. Rather than fighting persecution, Iranian church leaders have accepted it and are using it to their advantage.
"In fact, an Iranian pastor recently told me that the church is thriving under persecution," Clay told CP. "And, it is the youth who are among those the God is using to spread this incredible movement that is leading thousands of people to Christ in Iran."
By 2002, ICI estimated, the number of Iranian Christians worldwide was over 60,000, half being Muslim converts and the other half from various religious minorities.
The Iranian government and its religious elite have been the target of criticism from the international Christian community for one more reason recently.
The Iranian authorities have been holding Iranian Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani in jail after his arrest in Dec. 2006. Nadarkhani was charged with apostasy, that is, leaving the Muslim faith, and with evangelizing to Muslims.
He was released two weeks later, without being charged, but then arrested again in 2009 and sentenced to death in Sept. 2010 after a court of appeals in Rasht, Iran, found him guilty of leaving Islam. The pastor remains imprisoned and reports coming from Iran say his health has been deteriorating.