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Iran’s Islamic regime wages ‘full-on attack’ against Christians

August 22, 2021 by Abigail Hart in Asia

A few months later, Iranian police summoned a member of each of the families for interrogation. There, each family member was ordered to sign commitments to give up meeting together, both in person or online. Though such demands are common when Iranian Christians are interrogated, this was the first example of intelligence officials demanding they agree to have no further social interaction together at all, including online.

The wording was a direct result of Iran’s newly amended Article 500 law. The new amendment to Article 500 adds vague terms, prohibiting “psychological manipulation” or so-called “mind control” by members of “sects” in the “real or virtual sphere (in person or online).”

When Iranian believers Amin Khaki, Milad Goodarzi and Alireza Nourmohammadi refused to sign the papers, the three men were quickly threatened with long-term prison sentences.

“It would be better for you if you left the country,” Iranian police told them.

Some 18 months later in May 2021, Amin, Milad and Alireza were officially charged, forced to pay bail of 250 million tomans (around $12,000 each) and were required to report weekly to the intelligence branch of Iran’s police force for the next six months.

When the three believers recently stood before an Islamic court in June, they were forced to defend themselves without representation. The judge told them they weren’t entitled to a lawyer—a breach of their rights under Iran’s constitution.

Each of the three men received the maximum sentence of five years in prison and were fined for “engaging in propaganda that educates in a deviant way contrary to the holy religion of Islam.”

Even greater persecution

In Iran, it’s against the law to leave Islam. It is illegal to gather as a house church, or for any purpose related to Christian worship or fellowship. Believers can be—and are—arrested for being part of a house church and for sharing their faith.

This has been the norm in Iran since the 1979 Iranian revolution established a hardline Islamic regime. At that time, missionaries were expelled, evangelism was outlawed, Bibles in Persian or Farsi languages were banned, and several pastors were killed.

Since that time, persecution of Christians has continued non-stop, but now additional amendments to the legal code give far greater latitude to prosecutors and judges to increase sentences of Christians just for believing something other than strict Islam. Amin, Milad and Alireza—now working to appeal their sentences—are examples of how this new law sets up believers for even greater persecution in Iran.

What are Articles 499 and 500?

The Iranian Penal Code includes two articles routinely used in the prosecution of converts from Islam:

-Article 499 relates to membership or organization of “anti-security groups,” which has been used to arrest and prosecute members of house churches.

-Article 500 deals with “propaganda” against the state or in support of opposition groups. This can include anything from being against the government to believing anything other than Islam.

In Iran, the right to be free to change their beliefs, and to propagate them is enshrined in Article 18 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political rights, which Iran signed without reservation, and is therefore legally bound to uphold.

But what happens in practice—and now in law—is completely different.

These amendments have been called “a full-on attack on the right to freedom of religion and belief” by Article 19, an organization dedicated to protection of free speech in Iran. The new Article 500 amendment provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity” by members of so-called “sects” that “contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam” through “mind-control methods and psychological indoctrination” or “making false claims or lying in religious and Islamic spheres, such as claiming divinity.”

Iran’s judiciary has begun referring to imprisoned house church members as belonging to “cults,” making it much easier under the new, vaguely worded law to clamp down on Christians. The law refers to house churches as “enemy groups” with “anti-security purposes,” while at the same time claiming that “nobody is prosecuted on religious grounds.”

After internal wrangling, the final version of the amendment reads:

Article 500 amendment

“Anyone who insults Iranian ethnicities or divine religions or Islamic schools of thought recognized under the Constitution, with the intent to cause violence or tensions in the society; or, with the knowledge that such [consequences] will follow, will be sentenced to a degree-five imprisonment and/or fine if the [offense] does not fall under hudud [punishment fixed by God] and causes violence or tension. Otherwise, (s)he will be sentenced to a degree-six imprisonment or fine.”

And for any group in question that has received financial or organizational help from outside Iran, punishment can be doubled up to 10 years under the new legislation.

A license to persecute

Introducing language that allows for increased punishment and persecution of Christians or other minority faiths other than Islam is an even more dangerous direction for Iran to take against religious minorities.

Global Christian Relief CEO David Curry called the amendment a “tragic disaster” for Iranian believers, stressing that the law basically prohibits anyone from changing their mind, or determining for themselves what they believe.

“This is the way countries overtly persecute Christians—by making laws to legally raid, prosecute and sentence anyone who exercises their right to follow the religion they choose,” Curry said. “This new amendment in Iran essentially gives the state a license to persecute and will no doubt result in more Christians receiving longer prison sentences.”

Mansour Borji, advocacy director of Article 18, added that the amendment will “bring more ambiguity to an already ambiguous set of charges and decrease the chance that a judge may act in a more tolerant way toward house church members, by providing greater scope within the law to bring charges on these vaguely defined grounds.”

Such undefined charges are almost impossible to defend against, putting those arrested for them at a distinct disadvantage in the judicial process.

The changes to the law will reach beyond just the suppression of Christian voices in Iran. “By making it a crime to be part of a sect, and banning a group as a ‘sect’, it gives them an open hand to crush any form of uprising or dissatisfaction with the government,” said Hamid Gharagozloo of the International Organization to Preserve Human Rights. “Any form of defiance will be labeled as a ‘sect,’ and then it will be punishable by law.”

Pray with persecuted Christians in Iran

  • Our brothers and sisters in Iran face a very real threat just by standing up for their Lord. Continue to pray for them.
  • Thank God for all who have come and are coming to faith in Christ in Iran, in part because of the way Christians have handled persecution there.
  • Ask God to uphold their faith, embolden their outreach, and bless their efforts to bring others to Christ.
  • Pray for physical stamina and comfort for those behind bars in awful conditions, and for the peace and courage of their families as they await their release.

The end of the church in Iran, or just the beginning?

Fourth-century Christian apologist wrote, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”—reinforcing the evidence we find in the Book of Acts. From the stoning of Stephen, to the persecution and deaths of the Church’s founding apostles, martyrdom is a powerful statement: no one willingly dies for something they don’t believe to their very core.

The ongoing and unrelenting persecution of Christians in Iran is having a similar effect. Islamic clerics are alarmed by the number of Christian conversions taking place, many because the new believers watched others continue to believe, profess and endure even under violent opposition.

Iran’s Intelligence Minister Mahnoud Alavi has openly admitted that mass conversions “are happening right under our eyes.” There is great concern that young people in the city of Qom, the epicenter of Islamic teaching, are turning to Jesus in great numbers. “Whole families are converting,” Article 18’s Borji said, adding that this is “an admission that such conversions are far from a rare event; rather, they are happening en masse, and across the country.”

The evidence of growth isn’t only anecdotal. A recent survey of 50,000 Iranians age 20 and up by GAMAAN, a Netherlands-based research group, found that 1.5 percent of respondents identified as Christian. If we extrapolate out this finding for the entire population, researchers estimate there may be as many as 1.2 million Christians in Iran.

We continue to hear reports and stories that God is working in Iran—through passionate believers who left Islam to follow Jesus.

House churches are regularly raided. But they keep popping up. Believers are arrested, imprisoned and fined, yet they speak out for Christ even from their prison cells. People in prison for other offenses are exposed to the gospel in ways they never would be if Christians were not also behind bars.

Converts like Amin Khaki, Milad Goodarzi and Alireza Nourmohammadi who refused to give up meeting. Or Hamed Ashouri who was recently beaten and imprisoned when he turned down a large monthly salary to work with Iranian secret agents and spy on Christians. Or Iranian refugees Taher and Donya who were forced to flee Iran with nothing. In prison, Taher refused to name names even when police interrogators threatened to jail his daughters in a cell block with murderers, rapists and dangerous criminals.

The stories and examples of believers risking their lives to worship and share the gospel are both numerous and powerful. They should encourage our faith and challenge us to pray as our sisters and brothers face ongoing attacks on their faith.

“Jesus is worth everything,” Donya said. “And in my opinion, we have not paid any price yet.”

Taher added: “I would give even more. It’s still worth it.”