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Rising Threat to Christians in Iran

Lela Gilbert

Nearly every day, international news headlines continue to focus on the Islamic Republic of Iran.
For one thing, the highly controversial JCPOA — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions — is being weighed in the world’s balances and found wanting — by more than a few.

In mid-October, President Donald Trump is required to re-certify that America believes Iran is compliant with the JCPOA. Will he continue to sign off on their certification?

At the same time, Iran’s military and Iran-sponsored militias are clearing the way for Shiite domination across a broad sweep of Middle East territory, defying numerous Sunni nations. Will America and her allies block the emerging “land-bridge” Tehran is attempting to complete?

Perhaps even more alarming is evidence of strategic cooperation between Iran and North Korea on nuclear weapons development. When and how will that danse macabre end?

Meanwhile, Christian believers inside Iran — and especially converts from Islam — face their own troublesome news reports.

Accounts of human rights abuses under Iran’s radical mullahs persist. Since 1999, Iran has been declared a “Country of Particular Concern” by the United States State Department.

“During the past year [2016], the government of Iran engaged in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused….”

Jeff Cimmino writes in National Review: “As of December 2016, approximately 90 Christians were in prison, detained, or awaiting trial because of their religious beliefs and activities.”

Churches and homes are raided, Bibles and other religious materials confiscated, and faith leaders bullied, arrested, and imprisoned. Anti-Christian reports are published regularly by Shiite religious leaders, warning Muslims against Christian missionaries who seek to convert them.

Those ex-Muslims who have converted to Christianity face particular pressure. They are closely monitored, interrogated, spied upon and sometimes imprisoned on false charges.

Cimmino writes, “Estimates of the total number of Christians in Iran vary. The USCIRF and State Department suggest there around 300,000, of which most are of Armenian origin…”

Fox News went much further in a 2016 report, “The number of Muslim converts who are risking prison or death by secretly worshipping as Christians in Iran’s house church movement has grown to as many as 1 million people, according to watchdog groups.”

In fact, the Iranian government has recently cracked down very emphatically against Christians, particularly ex-Muslims, indicating rising alarm among the country’s leadership over exponential Christian growth.

Last month Mohabat Christian News Service wrote, “One of the visible effects of the Iranian government’s crackdown on Christians has been the closure of numerous churches, including the Central Assemblies of God (AOG) church and Janat Abad church in Tehran and the AOG church in Ahwaz.

“Additionally, Christian converts were banned from entering official churches and Farsi services were forced to cancel permanently across the country in all churches. Publication of anything related to Christianity or any material referring to Christianity was also restricted and books about Christianity already in the market were confiscated.”

Not surprisingly, growing numbers of new converts to Christianity are leaving Iran. Some are fleeing into Turkey; many are young and disillusioned with the Islamic path they’ve been expected to follow.

A reporter from Kurdistan’s Rudaw news site interviewed several young Iranians in Van, Turkey. One said that hundreds of Kurdish youth in Iran have abandoned Islam and embraced Christianity. “I changed my religion because I did not see anything in Islam. Whatever I saw was wrong.”

Another explained that he did not think he could be the person he wanted to be if he remained Muslim. He did not want to give his name or appear on camera, but said that he is now feeling “comfortable as a Christian.”

In a separate conversation, one convert described Shi’a Islam as “depressing,” while Christianity offered him joy, hope and love.

Some say that fleeing to Turkey to avoid Christian persecution embodies the familiar frying pan/fire adage. Turkey’s Christians are experiencing their own difficulties under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly Islamist regime.

But the ongoing Christian flights from Iran underscore the believers’ desperation, and the perilous despotism they are leaving behind.

Nina Shea, Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, sums up the situation. “Iran is one of the world’s most repressive states concerning religious freedom. The government restricts and regulates a wide range of religious activity from the language of worship, the use of communion wine, to Christian education and media. Those who evangelize or convert to Christianity are subject to arrest and harsh punishment, including the death penalty.”

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