Politics & Policy

Freedom to Believe

Iran's Christians have a high price to pay.

On Sundays after I return from transatlantic travels, I joke with friends at church that Communion somehow becomes more meaningful after a stay in “formerly Christian” Europe.

It’s meant as a gentle rebuke, an admonition of one possible future that could be ours should we bow too far to the secularists who would ban expression of praise and thanksgiving from our societies.

The leaders of today’s Islamic Republic of Iran, however, take their religion very seriously. They resemble a dark chapter in Europe’s distant past–except that they are living it today, without repentance.

A few weeks ago in Iran, an Iranian convert to Christianity was kidnapped from his home in northeastern Iran and stabbed to death. The vigilantes who took him tossed his bleeding body in front of his home a few hours later, a stark warning against any who would follow his example.

Within hours of the November 22 murder, secret police officers arrived at the martyred pastor’s home, searching for Bibles and other banned Christian books he had been distributing in Persian translations.

News of the martyrdom of pastor Ghorban Tori, 50, was broadcast by Compass Direct, a website dedicated to bringing “news of Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith.” As I write this, no print or broadcast media in the United States has bothered to report this.

According to their sources in Iran, representatives of the ministry of information and security (MOIS), part of Iran’s dreaded secret police, have arrested and severely tortured ten other Christians in several cities, including Tehran.

In addition, MOIS officials have reportedly visited known Christian leaders since Tori’s murder and have instructed them to warn acquaintances in the secret “house churches” that “the government knows what you are doing, and we will come for you soon.”

Tori is the fifth Protestant pastor assassinated in Iran in the past eleven years. Three of the five were former Muslims, making them subject under Iranian law to the death penalty for having committed apostasy.

Tori’s murder came just days after Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called an open meeting with the nation’s 30 provincial governors, and vowed to crack down on the burgeoning movement of house churches across Iran.

“I will stop Christianity in this country,” Ahmadinejad reportedly said.

This is not the first time that the Islamic Republic authorities have harassed, jailed, or murdered fellow Iranians because of their faith.

Mina Nevisa, another convert from Islam, was forced to flee Iran in the early 1980s after members of her house church were arrested, tortured, and executed. Today, she and her husband are based in northern Virginia, where they proselytize to the Muslim community.

She tells the story of her escape from Iran in a powerful book, Miracle of Miracles , and continues to work with house churches in Iran today.

Christians are not the only victims of religious persecution in today’s Iran. The State Department’s latest report on International Religious Freedom paints a devastating picture of religious persecution that makes Torquemada’s Spanish Inquisition look like a liberal revival. Just a few highlights:

‐Iranian members of the Bahai faith, which began in the 1840s as a reformist movement within Shia islam, are regularly arrested, tortured, and jailed because of their beliefs. Since 1979, more than 10,000 Bahais have been dismissed from government and university jobs. Bahais are not allowed to attend state-run universities. Over the past eighteen months, Bahai holy sites and cemeteries have been destroyed, community leaders arrested, and their property seized. “The Government considers Bahais to be apostates,” the report states. Under Islamic sharia law, in force in Iran, apostasy is punishable by death.

‐Numerous Sunni Muslim clerics have been killed in recent years. Sunnis are routinely discriminated against when it comes to government jobs, and are barred from running for president. As a sign of this discrimination, “Sunnis cite the lack of a Sunni mosque in Tehran, despite the presence of over 1 million adherents there,” the report states.

‐Iran’s Jewish community has regularly been subject to arbitrary arrests and collective punishment. More than three quarters of the 80,000 Jews who lived in Iran before the Revolution have fled.

‐Even Iran’s Shiite Muslim clerics are under close supervision, to ensure they do not deviate from the ruling orthodoxy. Former Supreme Leader designate, Ayatollah Hossein Montazeri, remains under house arrest after openly challenging regime leaders. Other dissident Shiite clerics are routinely arrested and accused of “insulting Islam” or “calling into question the Islamic foundation of the Republic” if they dare to promote political reform.

Many Americans today believe that religious freedom means freedom from religion. In today’s Iran, religious freedom means keeping your mouth shut and your heart sealed, and praying that government thugs ignore you.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is executive director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran and author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran.

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