In the 21st century, life has become increasingly inhospitable for Christians and other minorities in the Middle East. But, even against this backdrop, the last few months have witnessed an alarming increase in violence. Most of the recent large attacks have been by Sunni terrorists in Iraq and Egypt (see here, here, and here), but now the Iranian government seems determined to match that record.
After arresting Iranian Christian pastor Behrouz Sadegh-Khanjani and passing a death sentence for apostasy on Yousef Nadarkhani, pastor of the Full Gospel Church of Iran congregation in Rasht, the Iranian government is now conducting a massive roundup of Christians, often converts from Islam and including evangelical and ethnic Armenian Christians. As is becoming common in the region, it started its latest repression on a Christian holy day, Christmas.
Beginning on December 26, security forces raided Christian homes in Tehran and elsewhere, abused and handcuffed their occupants, and dragged 25 people off to prison and interrogation. Amongst those taken were married couples, at least two of whom were forced to leave babies behind. Police raided another dozen houses but the occupants were not at home — the homes were ransacked, looted, and sealed, and their occupants ordered to turn themselves in to the authorities.
Since these Christmas attacks, the regime has arrested at least another 30 or 40 Christians in a series of ongoing raids — some sources say as many as 601. Some of those detained have been released, but most have been detained without charge or explanation, and without access to lawyers or family. Middle East Concern reports that on January 4, the governor general of Tehran Province, Morteza Tamadon, acknowledged that Christians had been arrested because of their “corrupting” influence and warned that there would be further arrests.
This is the largest targeted Iranian violence against Christians since the government assassination campaign against Protestant leaders in the mid-1990s, and perhaps since the earliest years of the revolution. It comes while the regime also attacks Iran’s ancient faith of Zoroastrianism, the leadership of Iran’s Baha’i community are already condemned to decade-long sentences, and there are renewed attacks on Iran’s Sufis, especially the Nimatullahi-Gonabadi Sufis, and on dissident Shia ayatollahs.
These arrests reveal a great deal about Iran’s rulers. First, they still takes religion utterly seriously: Even as they face internal political challenges and the bite of external economic sanctions, and while worms chew the innards of their nuclear program, they still resolutely divert resources to repressing peaceful religious rivals. With all due allowance to the ineradicable political constants of personal venality, partisan rivalry, state ambitions to regional hegemony, and realist drives for security, the Iranian regime remains committed to its perverted religious goals, and for them will sacrifice economic advantage and bourgeois comforts.
Second, they are weak. They are panicked by growing but peaceful and usually apolitical religious movements comprising a tiny percent of the population. Iran’s religious minorities are growing because many Muslims can no longer tolerate the regime’s version of Islam. The regime lacks confidence that it can appeal to or persuade people any longer, so it resorts instead to beating or killing them, or burying them in cells. Many such regimes can survive decades, but few have survived generations.
All too many American policymakers still suffer from the 19th-century conceit that political religion is passé and ineffectual. We need to learn that the Iranian regime’s daily actions reveal it as deeply religious, repressive, and weak.
— Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. His Silenced: How Freedoms are Curtailed from Cairo to Copenhagen by New Restrictions on Apostasy and Blasphemy, authored with Nina Shea, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2011.