In march of last year, paramilitary vigilantes in Tehran forced an Iranian convert to Christianity and his friends into a car. Iranian authorities allow these Islamic fundamentalists, known as Basijis, to enforce religious law. They detained the convert for three weeks and tortured him.
To ensure the safety of his Christian friends, a December 2001 report by Iranian Christians International (ICI) identifies the Iranian only as R. B. When he returned home, he was unable to speak, write, or walk. His wife took him to a doctor to treat his injuries, which included internal bleeding. The couple then went into hiding at a friend's house, planning to leave Iran as soon as R. B. became well enough to travel. They have not been heard from since.
The government elected in May 1997 claims it has improved religious rights, but persecution of Christians has worsened, according to ICI. Religion police from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance increasingly threaten, imprison, and torture Christians because of their faith. Other authorities deny them jobs and education, ICI says.
The Colorado Springs-based organization reports that since the 1997 election of President Hojjatoleslam Seyed Mohammad Khatami, religion police have shifted tactics. They no longer arrest only key church leaders. Instead, Khatami's so-called moderate government harasses ordinary Christians and entire house churches, arresting groups of 20 to 40 people at a time.
The number of Christians fleeing Iran under its Shi'a Islam regime has grown since 1997. One Iranian pastor who visited Turkey in 2000 reported that 21 families from a single congregation in Tehran had left the country, according to ICI.
Given Iran's climate of fear, it is hard to obtain solid facts, says Abe Ghaffari, ICI's executive director. In addition, the government regularly forces religious minorities to lie about human rights conditions, he says.
But ICI has collected confidential reports and signed affidavits, often from refugees. It describes the Khatami government's policy as "the most recent wave of terror."
"We can confirm eight deaths since 1988, and between 15 and 22 disappearances in 1997 and 1998—one must presume that most or all were murdered—and three disappearances in 2000," Ghaffari says.
A February 2001 U.S. Department of State report concurs. Iran has become "increasingly vigilant" of "proselytizing" by Christians, it says. It also notes that Muslims who convert to another religion may face the death penalty. The State Department report adds that Iran has closed evangelical churches and arrested converts.
In the fall of 1997, authorities released several Iranian Christians whom they had injected with radioactive material. They apparently wanted the Christians to die but not on police premises, according to International Christian Concern. The radioactive material was detected when one of the men had an x-ray and received treatment. The other prisoners have since disappeared.
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The 2001 State Department report on International Religious Freedom reports that Iran's "constitution declares that the official religion of Iran is Islam and the doctrine followed is that of Ja'fari (Twelver) Shi'ism."
Christianity Today articles on Iran include:
Books & Culture Corner: Keeping the Dust on Your BootsRemembering the Afghan refugees—and the church in Iran. (Jan. 14, 2002)
Church Officials Optimistic that Iran Is Changing Its Views of ChristiansVatican official, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei talk about improving Muslim-Christian relations. (March 8, 2001)
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