By Karmel Melamed
As an Iranian American journalist, I am frequently contacted on social media on almost regular basis by Iranian new converts to Christianity living in Iran who have curiosity about Israel and non-Muslim Iranians living in the U.S. These Christian converts in Iran face potential imprisonment, torture and even death by the current radical Islamic regime for leaving the Shiite Islamic faith and embracing Christianity. While their numbers are growing exponentially every day in Iran, they are looking to the evangelical Christian communities in America for help and support. As Iran’s regime is seeking to gain nuclear weapons to threaten the free world, we in the West must at same time never forget the crimes the regime is committing against Christians and other religious minorities living in Iran today.
According to various groups of Iranian converts to Christianity living in Europe and America today, in 1979 Iran had about 400 to 500 Christian converts, yet today there are between 800,000 to a million converts to Christianity in Iran. The majority of these converts are former Muslims who have been disillusioned with the “cult of death” and message of violence and hate preached by Iran’s Islamic theocracy. These Christian converts meet in various cities across Iran secretly in a fast-growing house churches under the threat of arrest and imprisonment. The house churches operate illegally in Iran and those attending services in such house churches risk torture and imprisonment in Iran. If arrested, they are pressured to recant their allegiances to Christ and if they do not, they are criminally charged with the crime of “enmity against God” or under Iran’s penal code, the crime of “insulting the prophet” which has a punishment of the death penalty. While apostasy is not specifically criminalized, the Islamic regime’s constitution specifies that any cases not covered by civil laws are tried under Islamic Shariah law which calls for the death penalty for those converting out of Islam. Over the years the house churches for new Christian converts in Iran have frequently been raided by the Iranian regime’s security forces and just last December, 114 Christian converts were arrested in one week after raids on house churches in the country. In fact, the Iranian regime has regularly launched wars on Christmas celebrations in the country as well. In December 2015, the Iranian Trade Development Organization, a department under the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Trade issued a list of 227 banned items from the United States which included “things for Christmas celebrations”, such as Christmas tree ornaments, lights, Christian symbols, nativity displays, religious pictures and statues. Likewise, on a regular basis the Iranian regime’s thugs confiscate and burn truckloads of Bibles sent to Iran by Christians abroad, calling them “contraband”.
While Iran permits Christians of Assyrian and Armenian background to practice their faith in restricted conditions and have registered church buildings for their own communities, the regime strictly prohibits former Muslims who have secretly converted to Christianity inside these churches. If members of these existing churches help out the Christian converts by providing them with pamphlets or Bibles in Farsi, those clergy or parishioners are imprisoned or may even face the death penalty. In fact, the Iranian regime does not allow any Christian materials in Farsi language in the country and those caught with such materials or Bibles translated into Farsi are arrested and imprisoned. The threat to those born into the Christian faith in Iran is quite real. According to Iranian Armenians I have interviewed in recent years, the registered churches in Iran are under close scrutiny by the regime’s security apparatus which monitors the lists of church members in order to pick out Muslims who go to churches, or who are inclined to convert. Iranian American activists who advocate on behalf of religious minorities in Iran have reported that currently at least two major church properties in Tehran have been taken over by Islamic entities supported by the Iranian regime. Such takeovers are not uncommon and in addition to their economic impact, are extremely humiliating traditions which are designed by the regime to help push Christians out of the country.
One might wonder why the Iranian regime has cracked down so hard on Muslim converts to Christianity in the last few decades? The best answer to that question came to me last year from an Iranian convert to Christianity who had fled Iran for Turkey and contacted me via social media. He said; “the greatest threat the Iranian regime today is not the U.S. or Israeli armies, but the gospel of Jesus Christ!” His comments reflect the very real fear the Iranian regime has of the mass population of Iran increasingly rejecting their radical Shiite Islamic theology which the regime bases their power on. Essentially the regime fears that if more and more average Iranians embrace other religions such as Christianity or Zoroastrianism, while rejecting radical Shiite Islamic dogma from the ayatollahs in power, then the population will eventually revolt against and depose the oppressive regime altogether. In fact, in an October 2010 speech before a religious a crowd in the Iranian city of Qom, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned against the “network of house churches” that “threaten Islamic faith and deceive young Muslims.” Clearly the Iranian regime today fears the spread of the Christian faith among the Iranian population and especially the younger generation of Iranians which may one day ultimately lead to their demise.
As many know, the Iranian population is already increasingly opposed to this regime because of their poor economic situation, their crumbling infrastructure, their lack of freedoms and the rampant corruption from the regime’s ruling elite. Therefore when a message of peace, love, tolerance and hope for a brighter future comes from an alternative religious source, without a doubt the Iranian population will likely gravitate towards it. Of times Americans and Europeans forget the fact that nearly sixty percent of Iran’s population is under the age of 30 and have never experienced a life of freedom, economic stability or hope for a better future. Many of these young people Iran have been drawn increasingly to the gospel of Christ which has given them some hope of a path towards a better life and a message of peace instead of the cult of death and martyrdom which the current radical Islamic regime in Iran offers them. Interestingly an ever increasing number of Iranian refugees who have fled Iran for Turkey have set up scores of evangelical churches in Turkey to worship their new faith more freely.
While I do not hail from the Christian faith, as an Iranian American my heart breaks for these freedom and peace loving Christian converts in Iran. It is sad that Iran, a country which for most of the 20th century offered a safe home for thousands of non-Muslims, since 1979 has turned into a totalitarian regime that oppresses Jews, Christians, Bahai’s, Zoroastrians and even Sunni Muslims. The politically active and socially conscious Evangelical Christian community in America has a duty to speak up and stand in solidarity with Iranian converts to Christianity, not only because doing so would help undermine the power base of Iran’s radical regime, but because it would be the moral thing to do. All freedom loving members of humanity also have a responsibility to call for an end to the oppressive rule of the ayatollahs in Iran who not only constantly threaten Iran’s population, but also threaten the peace of the world.