In a recent survey of about 50,000 Iranians over the age of 20, a Netherlands-based secular research group found that 1.5% of respondents identify as Christian.
Applied across Iran’s population of more than 80 million, the number of Christians in Iran is “without doubt in the order of magnitude of several hundreds of thousands and growing beyond a million,” the research group GAMAAN said after the study.
Open Doors USA, a global persecution watchdog organization, says until now, there was no in-depth research to substantiate the claims about the number of Christians in Iran. “Given the high-stakes consequences of leaving Islam in Iran, estimates by Christian organizations in the past decade have been based only on extrapolations of the small known number of conversions—largely based on contact with Christian satellite television channels.”
The nonprofit watchdog group Article 18 noted, “If this figure is extrapolated across Iran’s over 80 million people, then even taking into account the approximately 300,000 ‘recognized’ Christians of Armenian and Assyrian descent, this would suggest an additional one million converts to Christianity.”
Mike Ansari of Mohabat TV, a ministry that broadcasts the Gospel into Iran, was quoted as saying, “Iranians are turning their back [on] their faith, [on] their institutional faith, and receiving Christianity as their new faith. One-point-five percent becoming Christian may not seem a big number. But for a country that is closed and persecutes Christianity, that number is a huge indication of the gospel growth.”
Ansari told The Christian Post in 2018 that Iran had "one of the fastest growing underground church movements in the world" and that hundreds were asking about Jesus on a daily basis. But the growth has also led to ongoing persecution.
Iran is an Islamic republic and Shia Islam is the official religion of the country. It is illegal for Muslim citizens to convert or renounce their religious beliefs. Conversion from Islam is considered a crime punishable by death. It is also illegal for Christians to share the Gospel with Muslims. Proselytizing is punishable by death.
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Those who convert to Christianity usually practice their faith in secret. House churches are often monitored and raided and dozens of Christians are imprisoned, Open Doors noted in its annual World Watch List, which ranked Iran as the ninth worst county when it comes to Christian persecution.
That ranking comes as several house churches were raided during the World Watch List reporting period — Nov. 1, 2018, to Oct. 31, 2019. During that period, Open Doors reports that at least 169 Christians were arrested in Iran.
In June, Article 18, which promotes religious freedom and tolerance for Christians in Iran, released a report in collaboration with its partner organizations Open Doors, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Middle East Concern and The World Evangelical Alliance, listing five ways Iran violates Christians’ right to religious freedom.
Iran prohibits Persian-language church services and religious materials, and forces closure of those that fail to comply, the report pointed out, adding that the country’s Penal Code is used to prosecute Christians for their peaceful religious activities.
“Iranian authorities prosecute — and in one case executed — Iranians who leave Islam on charges of 'apostasy,' and justifies it through the use of Article 220 of the Iranian Penal Code and Article 167 of the Constitution, which allows judges to rely on non-codified Islamic law,” the report pointed out.
This month, three Iranian Christian converts, who were facing a combined 35 years in prison because of their faith, fled the country after a court rejected their appeal.
The three converts, identified as Kvian Fallah-Mohammadi, Hadi Asgari and Amin Afshar-Naderi, were charged due to their connection to a December 2014 Christmas celebration, according to the U.S.-based International Christian Concern.
The three men fled the Islamic country just weeks after two other Christians — a pastor and his wife — were forced to flee after their appeals were rejected, ICC reported, noting that “the flight of five Christians from within a space of a few weeks is noteworthy, especially as their cases were some of the most publicized among Iran’s persecuted Christian community.”