The hardline Iranian regime is responding to a new wave of sanctions imposed by the United States by increasing its grip on the nation's oppressed Christian community, activists are warning.
Citing human rights experts with knowledge of the situation facing Christians in Iran, Benjamin Weinthal, a fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote a recent article highlighting how the economic sanctions re-imposed on Iran by the U.S. last week has "inadvertently led to a crackdown on its persecuted Christian community."
With the Iranian ayatollahs looking to "consolidate their power" as the economic sanctions will further stoke unrest across the country, that has left Christians to face some of the "worst" persecution at the hands of the government.
Over the last few weeks, Weinthal noted, the plight of Iran's Christian community "has become significantly worse" because the Iranian regime is using its judicial powers to persecute converts.
"Today, some of the worst persecution against Christians is meted out by the regime in Iran," Peter Kohanloo, the president of the U.S.-based Iranian American Majority advocacy group, told Weinthal. "The new round of sanctions is putting the ruling mullahs under pressure, and they are lashing out by arresting evangelical converts."
Last week, an organization that advocates on behalf of persecuted Iranian Christians, announced that about 12 Christian converts who were arrested in April 2015 were sentenced to one year in prison for "propagating against the Islamic Republic in favour of Christianity."
Jeff King, president of the Washington-based International Christian Concern, told Weinthal that based on the Iranian cases his organization has followed, "this is the first time this year that we've seen a jail sentence being given based on the charge of 'inclination to the land of Christianity.'"
"Poor economic conditions combined with the harshness of their Islamic rule has led to massive unrest that has defined the country for months," King said. "There are many reports that this has contributed to the government's ever-increasing dependence on hardline Islamic ayatollahs, who naturally see Christianity as a threat to their power. For this reason, it's not surprising that we're seeing an increase in Christian persecution."
Iran currently ranks as the 10th worst nation in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA's World Watch List.
The Trump administration's decision to reinstate the sanctions against Iran come after Trump decided to pull the U.S. out of the international Iranian nuclear agreement finalized under President Barack Obama. In January 2016, Obama lifted 37-year-old sanctions against the Islamic Republic after it was reported that Tehran was complying with the deal.
At the time of Trump's decision, at least one Christian ministry voiced concern about how the decision might impact Iranian Christian ministries.
"The biggest issue with the sanctions that are coming down on Iran right now are financial transactions," a worker named David with Heart4Iran told Mission Network News. "So ministries are trying to get work done or do something that would impact Iran, they have to be aware of how the money is getting into the country or how it is influencing activities that are going on in the country and the regulations that are in place."
David warned that Christians could also face more backlash from the regime as a result of the sanctions.
"Pray for the people of Iran, because they do suffer under things like sanctions ... and the average person may have problems getting food on the table," David was quoted as saying. "So there is a lot of pressure. But in that pressure, there is also a lot of God's work that is happening as a result of that. People are looking for solutions, they are looking for help and so the ministry world is actually moving forward."
Alireza Miryousefi, head of press for the Iranian Mission to the United Nations, told Fox News that Iran "does not discriminate against or persecute any recognized religious minority, including the large Christian community inside Iran who are free to worship in the many churches that can be found across Iran."
"In fact, as is the case with Iranian Jews, Iranian Christians are constitutionally guaranteed parliamentary representation," she claimed. "Major cities such as Tehran and Isfahan are home to large Christian communities with centuries-old churches."
However, Open Doors USA, which monitors persecution in over 60 nations around the globe, reports that "hardliners within the regime are vehemently opposed to Christianity, and create severe problems for Christians."
"While the government is anti-Christian, it does grant some limited freedoms to historical Christian churches. They are allowed to preach to fellow countrymen in their own language but are forbidden from ministering to people from Muslim backgrounds," an Open Doors USA fact sheet on Iran states. "Members of these historical churches are treated as second-class citizens, and they have reported imprisonment, physical abuse, harassment and discrimination, and jail terms, particularly for reaching out to Muslims."
"Converts from Islam and non-traditional Christian denominations (including Evangelical, Baptist and Pentecostal communities) experience the worst of the persecution," the fact sheet added. "Leaders and church members have been arrested and imprisoned long-term for "crimes against the national security."
Last month, it was reported that Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for "collusion against national security" and promoting "Zionist Christianity," was beaten in his own home in front of his family by Iranian security agents. In fact, the pastor's 10-year-old son was tasered by one of the agents. Over 82,000 people have signed a petition for his release.
Despite crackdowns on the Christian faith, the Christian community in Iran has continued to grow as hundreds of thousands of Iranians participate in the country's underground home church movement. In 2016, experts estimated that there was between 450,000 Christians to 1 million Christians in Iran.