(Photo: Reuters/Fars News/Sina Shiri)
Reports in Western media about the victory of a moderate cleric in Iran's presidential election have raised expectations for change in the Islamic republic, but local Christians doubt the next president, Hassan Rouhani, will be able to alleviate Christian persecution.
"In your Western media, the candidates are divided into conservatives and reformers, as if there is a choice, but let me tell you this: there is no choice. All of the candidates are from Ayatollah Khamenei's team," Open Doors ministry said in a statement, quoting an Iranian Christian believer.
Rouhani, who was Iran's nuclear negotiator during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami before that of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, can be expected to have a say only in the country's economic affairs and a few other civil matters, while matters that concern national security are solely the domain of Iran's supreme leader Khamenei.
"The question is can Rouhani make a change?" the Open Doors source asked. "At least he is an intellectual, who graduated in the United Kingdom and has called for less confrontational relations with the West. I guess we just have to see in order to know, according to Iranian standards, how moderate he is," the local believer said.
"I really don't know what will be next," the source added. "I pray for a lasting joy for all Iranians, freedom for prisoners of conscience, comfort for the victims of political violence, justice, liberty, equality and prosperity for the future of our land."
The United States was prompt to acknowledge the election results during the weekend. "We respect the vote of the Iranian people and congratulate them for their participation in the political process, and their courage in making their voices heard," the White House said in a statement, following the victory of Rouhani over conservative hardliners eight years after the repressive rule of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Rouhani has indicated he will not go for confrontation with hardliners. "This victory is a victory of wisdom, a victory of moderation, a victory of growth and awareness and a victory of commitment over extremism and ill-temper," Rouhani told state television. But he also pledged to work for all Iranians, even the hardline "Principlists." "I warmly shake the hands of all moderates, reformists and Principlists," he said.
Iranian Christians are often imprisoned for threatening "national security" by speaking to others about Jesus or running a house church. Iran's notorious Islamic Revolutionary Court in January convicted an Iranian-born American pastor, Saeed Abedini, on the same charges by leading house churches years ago.
While Christian persecution grew after Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, he became authoritarian particularly following mass protests, known as the Green Revolution, over his claimed victory in the 2009 elections that were believed to be rigged. He began to curtail civil liberties, including religious freedom in an attempt to tighten control over all aspects of people's lives in the face of domestic insecurity.
Ethnic Persians are by definition Muslim, and therefore, ethnic Persian Christians are seen as apostates, Open Doors said, adding that even officially registered churches of the Armenian and Assyrian groups face harsh treatment when conducting activities in Farsi, the country's national tongue.
Iran is ranked No. 8 on the Open Doors 2013 World Watch List of the worst persecutors of Christians around the world.