The Iranian government is actively inciting "derogatory public opinion" against Christianity and other faiths by using Iranian media outlets to spread religious propaganda, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
A new report from the bipartisan federal advisory committee says Iran's government uses official media, government-linked media and social media to spread "falsehoods and misconceptions" about religious minorities to turn public opinion against these communities.
The report "Religious Propaganda in Iran" attributes the effort to a "systematic campaign to deny freedom of religion or belief to groups that do not conform to the government's singular interpretation of Ja'afri Shi'a Islam."
For instance, the government describes some Christians as belonging to an "Evangelical Zionist cult" and uses vague national security accusations to target Christian converts.
The phrase was referenced in the Nov. 3, 2021 ruling by Iran's Supreme Court, declaring that promoting Christianity and establishing home churches are not crimes and do not amount to national security crimes.
The court's opinion used the phrase "Evangelical Zionist cult" to refer to the Christian converts whose case it was addressing.
Under Iran's legal system, a ruling by a Supreme Court branch is not necessarily binding on lower courts.
"This misinformation campaign restricts freedom of religion or belief for religious minorities in Iran," USCIRF Commissioner Sharon Kleinbaum told The Christian Post.
According to USCIRF, Iranian state propaganda against Christian converts is often disguised as anti-Zionism, and Christian converts are regularly referred to as members of a "Zionist" network.
Officials say the reference to Zionism in this context does not refer to specific allegations of links between Christian converts in Iran and the state of Israel but rather "a broad conspiracy in which Evangelical Christians across the world promote political viewpoints that serve Zionist ideology."
The report also cites what USCIRF called "Iran's misinformation campaign against Christian converts," which officials say seeks to differentiate Christian converts from Armenians and Assyrians as recognized religious minority groups.
Hojjat al-Islam Kashani, a Muslim cleric who serves as the secretary of the Islam-Christianity Dialog Association, told an Iranian media outlet, "What is being promoted today as Christianity is not traditional Christianity, but rather it is Evangelical and colonial Christianity.
"Evangelical Christianity is not a religion. It is a policy-oriented towards colonialism."
According to the report, Kashani accused Evangelical Christian Iranians of pursuing a political agenda of expansion designed to undermine Iran's government.
Those political aims of Evangelical Christians have "resulted in their alienation from other Christians, and that Iranian Armenians are opposed to Evangelical Christians," Kashani said.
Iran's history is replete with examples of outside intervention by colonial powers in its domestic affairs, so this comment appeals to the sense of injustice some Iranians may feel about foreign meddling in Iranian politics, Kleinbaum said.
"The impact on Iranian Christians is that they cannot rely on the government to uphold its obligations under international law to protect freedom of religion or belief, and are more likely to face discrimination from Iranians who internalize the government's false messaging," she added.
In addition to Christian converts, the USCIRF report identifies and reviews the significant themes Iran's government deploys against Jews, Sunni Muslims, Gonabadi Sufis and Baha'is.
Besides providing data and analysis on religious freedom abroad, USCIRF also provides foreign policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state and U.S. Congress to fight religious persecution and promote freedom of religion and belief. Iran is one of 10 countries recognized by the U.S. State Department as a country of particular concern for tolerating and engaging in religious freedom abuses.
Just one year after Iran signed a historic nuclear deal with the U.S. and other Western nations in 2015, USCIRF reported that religious minorities in Iran, including Christians, continue experiencing severe human rights abuses.
The report found that religious freedom conditions "continued to deteriorate," with Christians, Baha'is and the minority Sunni Muslims facing the most persecution in the form of harassment, arrests and imprisonment.
Open Doors USA, a watchdog group that monitors religious freedom abuses in over 60 countries, ranks Iran as the ninth-worst country regarding Christian persecution.