A change in legislation passed by the Parliament of Iran could make it easier to arrest and imprison Christians and other religious minorities in that country.
According to Article18, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of religious freedom in Iran, amendments to articles 499 and 500 of the Islamic Penal Code passed through Iran’s parliament in May; meaning anyone found guilty of “deviant psychological manipulation” or “propaganda contrary to Islam”—whether in the real or virtual sphere—can now be labeled as “sects” and punished with imprisonment, flogging, fines, or even the death penalty.
The law should protect citizens, including Christian converts and Baha’is, against the government, human rights lawyer Hossein Ahmadiniaz told Article18. But in Iran the law has become a tool to justify the government’s violent treatment of converts and other unrecognized minorities, he said.
“I have seen it many times when defending religious prisoners of conscience, like Sunni Muslims or Christian converts, when they can use laws like this to carry out their oppression and then say, ‘We are acting according to the law.’”
Mansour Borji, advocacy director of Article18, says in bringing forward the new measures, the Iranian government was responding to its “lost monopoly.”
“They’ve lost the hearts and minds of people and therefore they impose further controls to ensure their longevity and survival in power,” he said, “which means there’s fear, and there’s weakness. And there’s also hope, that the further we expose these hypocritical attitudes, policies and laws—not just to the elite but also to the general public and international community, and the people around the world—it further forces this government to either review its attitudes, policies and practices, or we have given a voice to people who long to see the right to religious freedom established.”
Christians already live in secret in Iran, Saghar Erica Kasraie, an Iran-born American Middle East expert and activist, told Decision.
“They practice their faith in secret. They learn in secret,” she said. “They don’t have access. I know many Christians who go on Skype to hear pastors that speak Farsi or can preach in Farsi. So, it’s already hard enough.
“This law is going to make it even harder and inject further fear into Christians who don’t have access to church, who don’t have access to spiritual development. The regime is trying to legitimize their crackdown by saying, ‘Well, this is the law; you can’t do it.’ So, it’s going to further infringe on civil liberties that they already don’t have.”
According to Open Doors USA, Iranian society is governed by Islamic law, which means the rights of Christians are heavily restricted. Christians are forbidden from sharing their faith with non-Christians, and it is illegal to produce Christian literature or hold church services in Farsi, the most common language in Iran. Converts from Islam face persecution from the government. If Christians attend an underground house church, they face the constant threat of arrest.
“The way Iran treats religious minorities in their country is sub-human,” Kasraie said, adding it’s time for the international community to hold Iran accountable.
“The international community needs to send a very strong message that this is a human right, to be able to have freedom of conscience and freedom of choice,” Kasraie said. “I’m frustrated that there’s no accountability, that we continue to sweep their behavior under the rug. Religious freedom is the No. 1 pillar of a free society. If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything.”
Kasraie lauded the Trump administration for promoting religious freedom internationally.
“Most people don’t understand that the Iranian people really do welcome and appreciate the fact that President Trump has put pressure on the regime,” she said. “For those who disagree with his policies, they say, ‘Oh, it’s hurting the Iranian people.’ Well, the Iranian people have been hurting for 41 years.
“I think President Trump’s No. 1 policy coming in was religious freedom, advancing religious freedom and working … to identify the countries that are violating human rights and basically to put them on notice. That’s the way to do it.”
Iran is ranked ninth on the 2020 Open Doors World Watch List of 50 countries where Christians suffer the worst persecution.