On September 16, 2022, the Islamic Republic’s “chastity police” arrested Mahsa Amini for not wearing the mandatory dress code. Mahsa died in custody after being beaten; her death inspired millions of Iranians, including Iranian Christians, to rise up against the theocratic dictatorship and change the regime.
Millions of people around the world responded with outrage against the brutal treatment of Iranian citizens. The Christians among them have a special burden because their brethren in Iran have been harshly oppressed since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the new regime, had a dim view of Christianity. Khomeini and his former student, the arch-conservative Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, postulated that Jews and Christians deserved little protection because of their enmity toward Islam and their persistent efforts to distort Quran. According to Khomeini’s novel reading of the Quran, every aspect of non-Muslims’ existence was not clean; he called to cleanse Islam and Iran of Judeo-Christian impurity.
Khomeini and Mesbah-Yazdi formulated policies to persecute the Christians. For starters, Khomeini rejected the concept of universal human rights, which he described as “the secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition.” He found them incompatible with Islam's principles as articulated in his version of Islamic Human Rights and Obligations. Noteworthy, the document stated that Muslims have the right to kill their religious enemies, however broadly defined.
The Islamist regime severely limited Christians’ functioning, ranging from certification of church property to condoning mob violence against churches and holy sites. Christians in Iran have limited rights to worship. Worship should be within the limits of Islamic law. For instance, there should be no alcohol for Holy Communion or no preaching in Farsi but only in the original language of the Church. Publishing, buying, selling, and even holding a copy of a Christian Bible is banned. Proselytizing is strictly forbidden and converting to Christianity is considered apostasy. Apostates could receive long-term prison and, in some cases, can face the death penalty. Christians are routinely arrested and undergo intensive and abusive interrogations. The notorious Islamic Revolutionary Courts charge them with vague security-related offenses such as “crime against humanity,” “acting against the Islamic regime,” or “espionage.” Many of the prominent evangelical Christian figures were executed. Booksellers who sold copies of the Bible in bookstores were arrested and given prison terms.
Ayatollah Khamenei, the current supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, linked conversion and house churches to “Zionists and other enemies of Islam.” He told senior clerics in Qom that the “enemies of Islam” intend to weaken religion and promote and expand evangelical churches. Other high-rank Ayatollahs blamed Christianity for polluting the Islamic faith calling Christians “najis,” ritually unclean according to Islam.
As I pointed out in the Invisible Jihad, persecution of Christians by the Islamic Republic is not limited to Iran. The regime, acting through its proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, has been responsible for a good share of the Christian suffering in the region.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah created hybrid sovereignty that hit the Christians particularly hard. It limited Christians’ freedom of worship, imposed an Islamic lifestyle on them, and discriminated in the allocation of public resources, massively diverting state resources away from Christians to the Shiite population. In Iraq, Iran-backed Shiite militias have carried out numerous abductions, killings, and sexual assaults against Christians. The Shiite militia seized large areas of land belonging to Christians and burnt their farmland and shops. In Syria, the Shiite militias have carried out at least 75 attacks on places of worship, with at least nine instances of using a church as a military base. In Yemen, the Houthis were responsible for the persecution and expulsions of Christians. Before the civil war, Yemen was considered a hospitable environment for Christians. The Houthis' takeover of the country brought Christians to the precipice.
It is not surprising then that the Christian community in Iran is supporting the anti-regime protests in the country. The Council of Iranian Churches, Hamgaam, the Article-18 Organization, and the Pars Theological Center recently published a statement and said they stand in solidarity with Iranian protesters. Similarly, a petition signed by more than 300 Iranian Christians called on the world to “take necessary and practical action against the morally corrupt Islamic Republic.”
As the Iranian people are fighting to overthrow the ruthless theocracy, it is our moral responsibility to help them. As long as the Islamic Republic remains in power, Christians in the region will continue to suffer. We need to speak out because, as Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “the ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”
Christian organizations in the United States should also act. For instance, they can lobby elected officials and call on the Biden Administration to refrain from making a nuclear deal with Iran.If the nuclear program is revived, most of the sanctions would be lifted, and the regime would receive billions of dollars from selling oil. The Islamic Republic would spend this money on supporting proxies, which means there would be more pressure on Christians.
Farhad Rezaei is a Senior Fellow at the Philos Project.