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Evangelical Alliance Accepts Iran Invite. Critics Claim Broken Engagement.

Wise as serpents or naïve as doves? WEA defends why it co-sponsored a UN human rights forum organized by the Islamic Republic, after accusations of legitimizing a persecutor.
Evangelical Alliance Accepts Iran Invite. Critics Claim Broken Engagement.
Image: Fabrice Coffrini / AFP / Getty
The 53rd UN Human Rights Council meets in Geneva on June 19, 2023.

Last June, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) received a peculiar invitation. On the sidelines of the 53rd meeting of the United Nation’s Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, the government of Iran organized a forum entitled “The Role of Religions in Promoting Human Rights.”

The WEA was the only Christian group invited.

Upon its acceptance, the alliance—representing 600 million evangelicals—under UN protocol became an official forum co-sponsor with the Islamic Republic, designated by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984.

Ranked No. 8 on Open Doors’ World Watch List (WWL) of the 50 nations where Christians experience the most persecution, Iran also partnered on the event with Pakistan, ranked No. 7 (both are considered “severe” offenders). Another co-sponsor was the Organization of Islamic Cooperation; 35 of its 57 members rank on the 2023 watchlist.

The intersection of topics, however, secured the participation of the HRC itself, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Geneva School of Diplomacy. The official title of the WEA presentation was diplomatically bland: “Harnessing the immense potential of religions in cultivating pluralistic societal cohesion and global peace.”

But behind the scenes, Iran wanted something different.

“They asked us to explain: What can evangelicals contribute to the good of society?” said Thomas Schirrmacher, WEA secretary general. “I would have a bad conscience if we did not use such opportunities to testify in the court of the world.”

American critics of the UN, however, believe “kangaroo” is this court’s most suitable adjective. One month after President Donald Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the Iran Deal, the US similarly withdrew from the HRC—protesting the hypocrisy of electing China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and other dictatorships among its 47 member nations. (Three years later, President Joe Biden reversed Trump’s decision.)

The WEA presentation was delivered by Gaetan Roy, the WEA’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva. Citing the propriety of his role as a behind-the-scenes actor, Roy declined to be interviewed about his interactions with Iranian diplomats. But Schirrmacher summarized Roy’s remarks as giving specific examples of what evangelicals believe and how they defend the freedom of religion or belief for all.

“It was amazing, a result of our diligent work over many years,” he said. “In many of these countries we are seen as troublemakers, if not terrorists.”

But did the message translate? Iranian press summarized Roy’s remarks as emphasizing “the importance of the role of dialogue.” And some critics lambasted the WEA for “legitimizing” Iran in the public arena, seeming to support its propaganda as a purported defender of human rights.

“The UN is where human rights concerns should be most addressed, and the WEA should be a prophetic voice there,” said Johnnie Moore, who formerly served on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). “But they are hobnobbing with diplomats and drinking tea, becoming part of the problem.”

Moore co-authored a book about Islamic terrorism in Nigeria, called The Next Jihad, together with current USCIRF chair Abraham Cooper, a Jewish rabbi. Cooper’s associated Simon Wiesenthal Center stated it was “difficult to put into words the damage done” by the WEA.

Coming in the waning days of anti-hijab, women-led protests, the WEA’s public co-sponsorship has emboldened a “murderous” Iranian regime, the center stated. And contrary to the title of the forum, it stated evangelical leaders demonstrated instead how religion can “degrade” human rights.

“For Iran, it means business as usual,” Cooper told CT. “And for the beleaguered innocents, it means their martyrdom, suffering, and muffled pleas are forsaken—by a group they were counting on for public support.”

One such Iranian woman called the WEA’s participation a “comedic drama.”

She requested anonymity as a formerly imprisoned convert from Islam. Though she is now in asylum in Europe, Iranian agents have continued to harass her.

“Every day Christians are arrested, in every corner of Iran,” she said. “WEA participation was not wise, and does not help Christianity at all.”

Also in opposition is Hormoz Shariat, president of the US-based Iran Alive ministry. If the WEA were to engage Iran in such a forum, he said, it should only be if Christian persecution is at the top of the agenda, with a pre-negotiated agreement on the principles of religious freedom.

But even then, it likely would not make a difference.

“Iranians are the masters of deception and manipulation,” Shariat said, himself a convert to Christianity. “And evangelicals are naïve when dealing with Muslims, thinking everyone behaves according to a similar moral code.”

He cited the practice of taqiyya, which he said permits a Shiite Muslim to lie.

Yes, the theological concept exists in Shiite Islam, said Sasan Tavassoli, senior lecturer at the London-based Pars Theological Institute. But its application is disputed and Christians should not be overly concerned. He is a “huge advocate” for dialogue with Iran, and lauds the WEA for seeking to build a positive relationship.

“We can hold Iranian Muslims accountable for their statements, just like everyone else,” he said. “Jesus commands us to love our enemies, and by showing respect in these gatherings, we are following him.”

Having been involved in evangelical interfaith dialogue with Iran since 2004, Tavassoli said the WEA can help “tone down” the common accusations that converts from Islam are part of a deviant cult, an imperialist tool of “Zionist Christianity.” And for former Muslims imprisoned for this reason, such connections can help quietly advocate on their behalf.

Schirrmacher said the WEA has performed this role already, securing the release of several pastors and other believers in Iran.

“Such success only follows when you have a personal connection,” he said. “Protesting itself does not change anything, because once you are heard, you need people who can negotiate a solution.”

Moore agrees in principle. The ministry of advocacy, he said, involves many private meetings that are part and parcel of diplomatic tradecraft. But he says the WEA crossed the line by making its engagement public.

Moore has interacted with Middle East governments since 2005. Among the most controversial is the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which he first visited—then privately—in 2013. His first public visit took place in 2017, when the kingdom lifted its ban on women drivers. But it was also the year the new crown prince purged political and business leadership to consolidate his hold on power.

Open Doors ranks the kingdom No. 13 on its watchlist, in the “very high” rather than “severe” category of persecution, reflecting a slight decrease in violence against Christians. The Pew Research Center also rates Iran somewhat worse than Saudi Arabia in terms of government restrictions against religion. But while Freedom House considers both countries “not free,” Iran rates poorer in terms of overall access to political rights and civil liberties.

The difference is a “once in a century” opening in Saudi Arabia, Moore said. While the Wahhabi kingdom sidelined its religious police in 2016, last month Iran announced a new campaign to enforce compulsory veiling. More than a million women have reportedly received SMS warnings since then that their cars will be confiscated if they are found driving with improper attire.

“Far more than legitimization, this is collaboration with the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism,” he said. “This is what makes Iran different from other countries.”

Like Moore, Schirrmacher also sees a Saudi opening. In 2022 he represented the WEA in Riyadh.

John Girgis, the WEA representative to the UN in New York, said it was vital for evangelicals to work together. But there are two different jobs to do, and the WEA has assigned roles for both.

“Behind-the-scenes ‘soft diplomacy’ only works when there is also a voice in the public arena that speaks clearly about issues,” he said. “In our polarized world, the enemy wants to divide us into silos.”

Unlike the office in Geneva, Girgis’ task is to build long-term relationships with as many of the world’s 196 sovereign nations as possible. After three years of prioritizing countries where Christians are oppressed—including Iran—in November 2022 he was granted an hour-long sit-down with the newly-appointed Iranian ambassador.

“We know that meeting with certain diplomatic missions can be used to harm us,” Girgis said. “But Jesus said to be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves,’ so we take care not to be used to further anyone’s agenda.”

The critical voice often falls to Wissam al-Saliby. Director of the WEA’s Geneva office, his relational work has also won him the position of vice president of the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief at the UN. But while his colleague Roy joined the Iranians on the sidelines of the HRC meetings, at the same convocation Saliby hosted the fifth-annual joint report on rights violations against Christians in Iran.

Compiled by Open Doors, Middle East Concern, CSW (Christian Solidarity Worldwide), and Article18, their featured witness was Iranian pastor Victor Bet Tamraz. Hailing from Iran’s recognized Assyrian Christian minority, in 2014 he was nonetheless arrested for allowing Muslim-born, Persian-speaking Iranians to attend his Pentecostal church.

The joint report tallied 134 wrongly arrested Christians in 2022, including 61 detained, 49 subjected to psychological torture, and 30 given prison sentences. And apart from converts, members of Iran’s historic churches face unfair discrimination in public employment, treated as second-class citizens.

“We advocate publicly for justice, and call on nations to right what is wrong,” said Saliby. “It yields results with some and fails with others.”

Every nation also receives the voice of WEA national alliances before the entire UN body, at four-year intervals, in the Universal Periodic Review. But Saliby also nurtures relations with diplomats, and sometimes reports a breakthrough. One Iranian official complained against the WEA accusation that his government closed churches. Upon seeing Saliby’s evidence, he reviewed the accusation with his colleagues, who then collectively told him it should not have happened.

“We ask prayer for discernment,” Saliby said, “to influence the hearts and minds of diplomats, and plant the seeds for systemic change.”

Denise Godwin values the sentiment, but she doubts the Iranians’ sincerity.

“Anyone can be touched by the gospel, but these people are trained with an agenda,” said the president of the Spain-based International Media Ministries (IMM). “Jesus was clear: Shake the dust off your feet if the message is rejected. And Iran gives no peace to anyone not aligned with the regime.”

IMM first prepared Persian-language evangelistic material a few decades ago, and more recently began translating its eight 30-minute history videos on North African church history into Farsi. But its major project, due to release in 2025, is the creation of a miniseries on the life of Esther, connecting Iranian female protestors with their historical—and biblical—antecedent.

Empower Women Media (EWM) has a similar focus. Its multifaith team has organized a yearly short-film festival to promote women’s rights and freedom of religion and belief since 2018, eight of which have been directed by members of the Iranian diaspora. The 2023 first runner-up, Unity, is a direct appeal to support the protestors seeking democratic change.

Shirin Taber, EWM’s Iranian-American director, is a Christian. She commends the WEA engagement as “bold and brilliant.”

“We must provide education about the benefits of interreligious harmony,” Taber said. “If Iranian leaders are smart, they will listen to their people and learn how to build a religiously free society.”

She hailed nations like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for recent concessions and for reaching out to engage faith communities. Afghanistan and Iran show the opposite inclination—and as a result, she said, millions of Muslims are walking away from their faith.

In June, a senior Shiite cleric stated 50,000 of Iran’s 75,000 mosques have closed over declining attendance.

Two months earlier, Schirrmacher attended the Stephanus Foundation’s presentation of the St. Stephen’s Award for Persecuted Christians, given to Iran’s Mary Mohammadi. The 24-year-old convert was arrested five times and imprisoned twice, once at age 19 for attending house church, and again in 2020 for her participation in street protests. She endured inhumane conditions in prison, she said, and has since fled to the United States.

But she was unaware of the WEA’s forum appearance, and reacted negatively when told by CT.

“In my post-speech interview, I emphasized that the only way to change Iran is to make a complete revolution,” Mohammadi said. “I am seriously opposed to any kind of relationship with the regime.”

Meanwhile, Mansour Borji seeks a middle road.

The advocacy director for the London-based Article18, dedicated to the promotion of religious freedom in Iran, “understands” why the WEA accepted the government invitation in hope that dialogue could improve the situation for local Christian converts. But overall, he was “dismayed” that Iran took center stage at a UN meeting to falsely present itself as a defender of human rights.

In principle, Borji supports a “constructive engagement” that can challenge a government on serious rights violations beyond diplomatic pleasantries. But he is “highly skeptical” of success with Iran.

“Over the past 44 years, the regime has clearly illustrated that it is unwilling to reform,” Borji said. “We hope that our friends at the WEA will ensure that pressing issues are addressed during any future engagements.”

But for Schirrmacher, engagement is the only way forward.

His visits with the pope do not legitimize papal infallibility, he told CT, nor do meetings with the German government reward its lack of concern for international religious freedom. And diplomats, he said, are rarely robots. Consider a 2021 Supreme Court of Iran decision, declaring house churches are not illegal, as evidence that a regime is never monolithic.

In fact, the evangelical ethos demands such engagement, he said. Personal relationship with God is witnessed through personal stories, within the personal approach believers should take with everyone. Paul likely appeared before Nero, the great Roman persecutor of Christians. And Jesus dined regularly with the Pharisees.

“The tools of power are outside our reach,” said Schirrmacher. “Ours are the tools of the church: prayer, words, and friendship.”

This includes the necessary rebuke, and the WEA has three red lines it will never cross: No whitewashing. No hobnobbing. And no initiative apart from the will of national alliances.

As for the Islamic Republic, the church there is growing, which will lead either to more problems or to an official acceptance of reality. In either case, the presence of the WEA will support the evangelical and convert churches.

So should the world. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Iran is still an official signatory, states that all citizens have the right to change their religion and to manifest it publicly. From its history (see sidebar below), the WEA believes international diplomacy ensures the best chance of success.

But only God can judge sincerity.

“There is no alternative for political engagement with governments worldwide,” said Schirrmacher. “But to know the future of Iran, you have to know the heart of the Ayatollah.”

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