Evangelical Christians in Iran “have crafted a movement in the name of Christianity” in the same way that members of the Taliban “have inserted themselves into Islam like…parasite[s],” Tehran governor, Morteza Tamaddon recently declared. Tamaddon praised the arrest of over 70 Iranian Christians and vowed to identify and arrest more Christians, whom he labeled “deviant” and “corrupt,” according to a January 7 press statement from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
Elam, a ministry to the church in Iran, reported that armed, plain-clothed security forces broke into the homes of sleeping Christians from the evangelical house church and Armenian Christian communities early on the morning of December 26. Eleven of the twenty-five Christians known to be arrested were released after days of intense interrogation. The other fourteen remain in prison and have not been heard from since the arrest, although no official charges have been brought against them. Elam also reported that these Christians are probably being held in Interrogation Block 209 in the basement of Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. This is the common practice for dealing with Christians under arrest, according to Iranian sources. Reports of as many as 60 further arrests have also come from Tehran, Mashhad, Isfahan and Urumieh. These Christian prisoners join others such as Pastor Vahik Abrahamian and his wife Sonia Keshish-Avanesian, and Arash Kermanjani and his wife Arezo Teymouri, who were arrested in September.
Long before the rest of the world began to get insomnia thinking about a “nuclear Iran,” Christians in the Islamic Republic were losing more than just sleep. For decades, Iranian Christians have lost their human rights, their freedom, and their lives. In the late 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s, Christian persecution in Iran was directed at the Anglican Church. In the 1990’s the Islamic regime targeted the broader church, murdering many top Christian leaders in an attempt to destroy Christianity in Iran. The danger continues today. Iranian Christians are persecuted, discriminated against, arrested, and even killed. But the Iranian church continues to grow, and reports surface of spiritual revival going on in Iran’s underground churches.
Soon after the Islamic Revolution, the Anglican Church in Iran was specifically targeted because so many Anglicans were converts from Islam. The Episcopal Church USA of the same era and other western expressions of Anglicanism, such as the Church of England, were enamored by religious pluralism. Evangelism was viewed with embarrassment or even hostility. But Anglicans in Iran welcomed Muslims who wanted to know Jesus. For this the church paid a high price.
The first post-Islamic Revolution martyrs were Anglicans. Islamists cut the throat of the Reverend Arastoo Sayyah, a Muslim convert, in his own office in Shiraz, southwest Iran, on February 19, 1979. In October of that same year, the Rt. Reverend Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, also a Muslim convert, and his wife, Margaret, miraculously survived an assassination attempt in their own bedroom. Dehqani-Tafti, the first Persian Anglican bishop in Iran, was forced into exile for the last ten years of his episcopate after the attack. But in May of 1980, the Dehqani-Taftis’ twenty-four year old son, Bahram, was shot to death on the street in Tehran. Bishop Dehqani-Tafti believed that the Islamic Revolution felt threatened because the Christians were building “a Persian church,” and “a strong and intelligent Christianity” complemented an authentic Persian culture more than Islam. Church property was confiscated, and other clergy, both Persian and British, were arrested and imprisoned. Many more of the Iranian clergy and church members were killed for their faith, and Anglican and other Christian churches in Iran were forced to go underground.
The Iranian regime attempted to intimidate and suppress the church, but persecution produced the opposite effect. Whereas before the Islamic Revolution there were only some 200-300 Iranian converts from Islam, by 1992 Iranian Christians International (ICI) reported that there were 13,300 Iranian converts from Islam around the world, with 6,700 living right in Iran.
As the church grew in the 1990’s, the regime began a concerted effort to eliminate all of the church’s top evangelical Christian leaders. Most were targeted by a death squad, widely believed to be operating on behalf of the official government, even to the level of the President, according to the analysis of testimony received by Middle East Concern, a human rights organization. Time in March 1994 reported that the decisions “to assassinate opponents at home or abroad” were made by “The Supreme National Security Council” chaired by the then President of Iran, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Islamic law (Shari’a) became a weapon to eliminate influential Christians. One of Iran’s key evangelical leaders, Pastor Hossein Soodmand, was killed, not by a death squad, but through execution. In December 1990, Soodmand, 55, was sentenced to death in a Shari’a court in Mashad, northern Iran, charged with apostasy and with operating a Christian bookstore and an illegal church. He had converted from Islam in 1964 and had been an evangelist and Assemblies of God minister for twenty-four years.
Soodmand’s fellow pastors pleaded for clemency with the Dayro-E-Tasalamat (an Ombudsman/Muslim cleric whose title means “he who hears the cries of the oppressed”).
But it became increasingly clear that the Islamists in Iran were more interested in oppressing Christians than in hearing their cries. At the insistence of the Ombudsman, Pastor Soodmand was hanged on December 3, 1990 in Mashad, which in Farsi means “place of martyrdom.” He left behind a wife who going blind, and four children.
In late 1993, another pastor, Mehdi Dibaj, was sentenced to death for apostasy. Dibaj was born to a wealthy, influential Muslim family, but became a Christian as a teenager. An Assemblies of God minister, he was imprisoned for more than nine years for his faith. During those years he was beaten, subjected to “mock executions,” and spent two full years in solitary confinement in a tiny, unlit cell. In addition, his wife had been forced to divorce him and marry a Muslim.