Christian school children in two towns in Iran have been told they must study Islam or leave school, a leading Christian persecution watchdog has reported.
According to a report from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, second generation Christian children in the cities of Rasht and Shiraz whose families belong to the Church of Iran house church denomination have been told by school officials that they must learn Shia Islam or be kicked out of school.
According to CSW, which is accredited by the United Nations, the children are by law allowed to opt out of being taught Islam and receive religious instruction designed by Christians. However, their families' requests for them to be taught Christian religious instruction has been denied.
"Until recently, their families were able to present a signed letter from the denomination that exempted them from studying Shia Islam," the CSW release explains. "However, the authorities are now rejecting this letter on the grounds that the Church is an 'illegal organisation,' and are insisting the children either agree to study Islam, or go home."
Sources within the denomination who have knowledge of the situation told CSW "the message is clear: convert or leave."
CSW's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas explained in a statement that the education of "many children will be unduly interrupted until their parents agree for them to study a religion different to their own."
"Education is a basic right which Iran has undertaken to guarantee to all of its citizens," Thomas stressed. "Children should not be victimised in an effort to penalise their parents for exercising the right to adopt a religion of their choice."
According to CSW, Article 30 of the Iranian Constitution requires the government to provide free education for all children. CSW argues that the action of school officials in Rasht and Shiraz "deprives children who are currently in primary and secondary school of education unless they agree to religious instruction that does not conform with their own faith."
Iran is also party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been in force since 1976. Article 18 of that covenant states that parents and guardians have the right to "ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions."
"Since education is the responsibility of central government, we urge the Special Rapporteur on the right to education and other key international human rights experts to make urgent representations with President Rouhani, with a view to ensuring the country fulfils its national and international obligations to respect the right of the child to education, and particularly to religious education commensurate with the convictions and beliefs of their parents," Thomas' statement adds.
Iran, which is a 99 percent Muslim nation, ranks as the eighth worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA's 2017 World Watch List.
Last month, it was reported that about 500 Christian converts in Iran have fled the country and are now living as refugees in Turkey because of the fear of persecution at the hands of Iranian authorities.
"I changed my religion because I did not see anything in Islam. Whatever I saw was wrong," one convert who traveled to Turkey told the Kurdish news site Rudaw. "It is a fact that the government of Iran is an Islamic one, yet our youth are getting executed. In Iraq [it's] the same."
Also in August, it was reported that a judge who sentenced pastor Yousef Nadarkhani and three other Christians to 10 years in prison on charges of acting against national security has demanded that they no longer recognize Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
BosNews cited a local church source who said that ahead of the four Christians' appeal hearing on Oct. 4, the head of the 26th Branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran, Judge Mashallah Ahmadzadeh, ordered the men to stop believing that Jesus is Lord.
Considering that most Muslims believe Jesus was only a prophet, the Christian belief that Christ was the son and image of God is blasphemous, according to the judge.
According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Nadarkhani and the three others were charged with "acting against national security" in June. Judge Ahmadzadeh accused the Church of receiving about $650,000 from the British government on an annual basis. Nadarkhani and the three others were later given 10-year-sentences in early July.
According to BosNews, court documents indicate that the judge linked the harsher sentences for the four Christians to their theological belief of Christ.
"According to the verdict, the very point is that the Church of Iran is saying that Jesus is God and Lord," Church of Iran council member Firouz Khandjani told BosNews. "In other words, this verdict is against all Christians."
Four other Christian converts were later handed 10-year prison prison sentences from Judge Ahmadzadeh "in a trial completely lacking due process" in July.
"In less than two months, since June 2017, Judge Mashallah Ahmadzadeh of Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran has issued long prison sentences to at least 11 Christian converts and the former leader of the Assyrian Pentecostal Church in Iran," the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran said in a report.