Punishment of Christians in Iran extends beyond prison, report says

By Edward Ross |
Imam Sadegh Mosque in Tehran, Iran.
Imam Sadegh Mosque in Tehran, Iran. | (Orijentolog, Creative Commons)

At least 17 of the more than 100 Christians arrested for their faith in a crackdown in Iran last summer received prison sentences of between three months and five years, or fines and floggings, by the end of 2023, advocacy group Article 18 reported.

The Christians were imprisoned under laws against “establishing and leading a house church” under Article 498 or “propaganda against the state” under Iran’s amended Article 500, Article 18 stated in its annual report.

Authorities also made a significant number of arrests over the Christmas season, with 46 Christians taken into custody in Tehran, Karaj, Isfahan, Shiraz, Ahvaz, Dezful, Izeh and Khorramabad.

“The arbitrary nature of these arrests is illustrated by the fact that arrestees who were eventually coerced into signing commitments to refrain from Christian activities no longer faced further legal action,” the report states.

Among those arrested in December were Milad Goodarzi and Alireza Nourmohammadi, who had been released from prison in March, and Esmaeil Narimanpour, one of 10 converts from Islam forced to attend religious “re-education” sessions in 2022 after a prior arrest.

“A Christian convert from Afghanistan was also arrested, leading to fears he may be deported,” the reported states. “In three other unpublicized cases in 2023, three members of one family – a husband, wife and son – were sentenced to a combined nine years in prison for ‘establishing and leading a house-church.’”

A Christian whose named could not be revealed spent the entire year in prison following his arrest in December 2022, according to Article 18.

“He had been charged with ‘propaganda against the state by promoting Christianity among Muslims’ and was unable to afford the bail subsequently demanded of him, which exceeded $70,000,” the group reported.

The 166 Christians arrested in 2023 marked a small increase over the 134 arrested the previous year. In 2023, fewer of those arrested allowed their names or photos to be publicized out of fears that doing so would hurt their legal cases, the report states.

Some Christians released from prison said they were summoned days later for further questioning or were ordered to leave Iran. One said his employment was terminated at the request of intelligence agents.

Most of those arrested were converts from Islam, according to Article 18.

“Meanwhile, a number of Christians were pardoned and released from prison in 2023, though it should be noted that the majority were already nearing the end of their sentences,” the report states. “Moreover, these sentences related to the peaceful practice of their faith and therefore should never have been issued in the first place.”

Converts from Islam account for the most Christians in Iran, but Iran does not recognize them and frequently targets them, according to the report. Unable to attend existing churches of the legally recognized Armenian and Assyrian communities, converts either meet in private homes or remain isolated from other Christians.

Iran has never codified apostasy, and different interpretations of how Islamic law is to treat those who leave Islam contributes to a lack of certainty and consistency, the report notes.

“In late 2022, a retired Iranian judge involved in approving the penal code said, ‘Apostasy was supposed to be included in our criminal code, but it was left out for fear of international pressure.’”

Researchers estimate there could be as many as 800,000 Christians in Iran, based on a 2020 survey by a secular, Netherlands-based research group in which 1.5 percent of Iranians from a sample size of 50,000 self-identified as Christians.

“Ethnic Assyrian and Armenian Christians account for approximately 50,000-80,000, the remainder being converts from Islam,” Article 18 stated. “The Rev. Hossein Soodmand remains the only Iranian Christian to have been officially executed [in 1990] for his ‘apostasy,’ though others have been sentenced to death or killed extra-judicially.”

Mistreatment of Christians from both recognized and unrecognized churches violates Iran’s obligations as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Iran ratified in 1975 and is obliged to uphold, along with other international treaties to which it is a signatory, the report states.

The UN Human Rights Committee in October assessed Iran’s compliance with the ICCPR and recommended the Islamic Republic “should ensure respect for the right to freedom of religion or belief, including by ensuring that legislation and practices conform to Article 18 of the Covenant [regarding freedom or religion or belief], taking into account general comments No. 22 (1993) on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and No. 34 (2011) on freedoms of opinion and expression…guarantee the right of everyone to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his or her choice and to change his or her religion; [and] ensure the freedom to manifest this religion or belief, either individually or in community with others, and in public or private, without being penalized.”

Iran violated Article 7 of the ICCPR, which prohibits torture or “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment,” as many Christians reported severe mistreatment during arrest and detention, the report states.

Article 18 reported convert Ali Kazemian testifying in January 2023 that his interrogators “discovered that I had a metal implant in my left leg from an historic break,” and “for this reason, one of the agents kicked my left leg several times. Then they put me on a chair, tied my hands together, and the interrogator said: ‘You are now in an electric chair,’ then they violently punched me several times.

“In addition to this physical torture, they inflicted a lot of mental and emotional torture on me, and it was easier for me to endure the physical torture than the mental. They threatened me that: ‘We’ll harm your wife and children…We’ll bring your wife to the interrogation room and strip her naked in front of everyone, to see if you can really resist and stay quiet.’”

Release from prison does not end the prosecuted Christians’ ordeal, as authorities afterward monitor and harass many while others are denied employment, the report states. Many Christians reported that they had been fired from their jobs following arrest, usually after employers bowed to pressure from Ministry of Intelligence agents.

“Christians will receive distressing and disturbing telephone calls from their interrogator, which remind them of the psychological torture they experienced during their detention,” Article 18 reported. “Often, the Christians are also summoned back to see their interrogator and give an account of their activities following their release.”

Elaheh Kiani, wife of Christian prisoner Touraj Shirani, told Article 18 that after her husband’s release, intelligence agents still followed them, and an interrogator regularly called them from an unknown number.

“Every time he called, we trembled with fear and sadness,” she said. “And he always asked the same questions, like, ‘Have you been in contact with anyone?’ And, ‘Which of the Christians have you seen?’ He told us: ‘We are watching you!’”