A Sydney-based evangelist as well as the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), both recently condemned the crackdown on Christians under Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who had promised better treatment of religious minorities before taking office, and called for the release of prisoners of conscience, including Iranian American pastor Saeed Abedini.
"The Iranian government actively pursues Christian ministers and believers, placing them in prison under trumped up political charges, or simply killing them in accordance with their law," asserted Christian worker Marlene Mathew, who works with immigrants from the Middle East, to The Christian Post on Monday. "These people are innocent and need to be set free....In recent weeks the Iranian government has openly declared that 'Christians are enemies' who are a major threat to the state."
The USCIRF also condemned the detention of prisoners of conscience, and called for their immediate release, adding that since President Rouhani assumed office, he has failed to fulfill his promise to improve the climate for religious freedom, despite sparking hopes in 2013 when he said, "All ethnicities, all religions, even religious minorities, must feel justice," as reported by The Jerusalem Post. August marks the second anniversary of Rouhani's presidency.
The situation for religious minority groups, such as Christians, Baha'is and Sufi Muslims, remains dire, notes USCIRF Chairman Robert P. George in an Aug. 3 press report. "Christian church services continue to be raided and worshippers arrested, and dissenting Muslims continue to be imprisoned and tortured."
Iranian church leaders also confirm that Christians are always under constant surveillance by the religious police (Basji), and gatherings are often prohibited. Even secret house churches are restricted from inviting new Christians or seekers, and if they do, are punished or members are killed. "Iran has one of the highest number of spies per capita in the world, believers are often in fear of speaking openly lest they awaken the wrath of the religious police," Mathew explains.
One of several Americans currently detained by the Iranian regime includes Pastor Saeed Abedini, who was born and raised a Muslim in Iran, but converted to Christianity in 2000. He was arrested in 2012 when he returned to Iran on a U.S. humanitarian mission trip. Despite protests and petitions for his release, he is still serving an eight year prison sentence, falsely convicted of threatening national security in Iran, and has been "viciously beaten," according to the American Center for Law and Justice, which represents his wife and children in the United States.
"Since August 2013, an increasing number of members of religious minority communities languish in prison solely because of their beliefs. The United States and other governments must continue to speak out publicly and frequently at the highest levels about the severe religious freedom abuses in Iran and hold accountable those Iranian government agencies and officials who are culpable for severe violations of religious freedom by continuing to freeze their assets and refuse them visas," said USCIRF Chairman Robert P. George in the press statement.
According to Christian persecution watchdog group Open Doors, Sharia-compliant Iran's official religion is Shia Islam, and only native Armenians and Assyrians in the country can be Christian. Those who convert to Christianity face persecution, torture and imprisonment. Open Doors confirmed the arrest of 75 Christians in 2014 and ranks Iran as the number seven country where Christians face the most persecution in the world.
Christian workers in the country say that Iranians' disillusionment with their government for various issues, including its hardline religious stances on domestic and foreign policies, has caused many to search deeply beyond their valued traditions. Many Iranians share testimonies of choosing atheism but end up finding the emptiness unbearable.
"The new tsunami of Persians entering into the freedom and love of Christ heralds a new era of hope for the Middle East and the world. The Church beyond Iran would do well to awaken and welcome these precious lost sons and daughters to the heart and home of our loving God in whom alone is Salvation," says Mathew.
"When they see Jesus they see freedom, and though a very costly freedom, many have flocked to Jesus as their Truth and their Hope. In fact, statistics indicate that the present conversion rate of Persian Muslims to Christianity is by far the greatest harvest of Muslims ever, anywhere in world history."