Even as Iranian Christians face intensified persecution, arrest and potential execution, an increasing number of Iranians are turning to Christianity and other religions. Clearly there is an emergent trend among Iranians to seek new social and religious outlets. Since the Presidential Election of 2009, there has been a surge in Muslims leaving the faith; most of them have joined branches of Christianity, while others have also shown interest in Sufism, Zoroastrianism, Bahaism, and Buddhism.
Daily pressures from the Islamic Republic and their Revolutionary Guard tentacles have created a reactionary movement among the Iranian people, who are turning to various practices to distract them from harsh governmental restrictions. Similar to parallel movements in other countries with hard line Sharia-practising governments, Iranians are opting to experiment with different ideologies and religions to find release.
This new trend of religion surfing and underground worship has greatly agitated the Iranian regime, which does not have the best track record for practicing what it preaches. For a government that has often claimed that it has tolerance for different religions, and that even has provisions in its Constitution protecting minority groups, the recent crackdowns on Iranian Christians demonstrate the inability of the Islamic Republic to make space for differing ideologies.
Since Christmas, reports say more than 70 of Iran's Christian minority have been taken into custody, making it the most significant and widespread attack on this minority group in Iran's history. State television reported that Tehran's governor, Morteza Tamadon, confirmed more arrests would be made.
In a series of government raids, Grassroots Christian groups and organizations have been targeted for posing a threat to the government, which suspects these groups of attempting to convert Muslims and spreading Western influence.
The roundups have been specifically targeted toward Christian converts, one of Iran's three major Christian communities, consisting of the Armenian Christians who migrated to Iranian Azerbaijan in the 11th century, Assyrian Christians who have lived in Iran since the time of the Assyrian Empire, and a large and growing web of Christian Converts who have left Islam and have converted to various sects of Christianity.
The targeted Christians belong to a small community who gather for prayer and Bible classes in private homes instead of churches and other institutions. They are similar to other "house church" movements in places such as China and Indonesia, where government restrictions are present.
Christians in the West are drawn to home churches that create a deeper sense of community and intimacy, but Iranian Christians, who have felt government vigilance on their community, opt to meet at these houses instead of churches in an effort to avoid the authorities.
Armenians and Assyrian Christians have certain rights and are recognized under the Iranian Constitution, but converting, or more specifically, the act of turning from Islam, is punishable by death. To leave the Islamic faith or to attempt to convert others away from the faith warrants capital punishment under Sharia Law. Under this law, a Muslim who becomes Christian is called a mortad, meaning one who leaves Islam. If the convert attempts to convert others, he is called a mortad harbi, or a convert who is waging war against Islam. Killing such a person is deemed a good deed and is the obligation of all Muslims, both according to the fatwa and reinforced in the Islamic Republic's penal code.
New Christians are therefore forced to print any books, pamphlets or other literature in covert fashion to avoid arrests. While Armenians can have Bibles printed in Armenian and services conducted in their language, converts are prohibited from printing Bibles or conducting Christian services in Farsi. This forces Christian Farsi speakers to practice in underground Church groups.
Though the Iranian constitution grants protection to religious minorities born into religions such as Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews, namely religions who have a sacred scripture, over the last year and a half, individuals in these minority communities have reported increased pressure and clashes with government officials and Revolutionary Guards as their influence continues to mount throughout the country.
Inherent to Iran's theocratic social code is the unfair treatment of all religious minorities, regardless of their recognition in the Constitution. Armenians, Jews and Zoroastrians are considered half citizens. This means that if a member of any one of these minorities wants to testify in court, his testimony is equivalent to half that of a Muslim man. When speaking about minority women, their worth is 1/4 that of a Muslim man. If a Christian or any other religious minority is wet and a Muslim man touches him, he has to go wash as he is now considered najess (impure).
Historically, the Armenian and Assyrian Christian communities flourished for centuries in Iran, but from the onset of the Islamic Revolution, religious persecution and social marginalization set off a mass exodus in cultural and religious minority groups.
Under the Pahlavi dynasty, the Armenian community thrived, as a result of the modernization efforts of Reza Shah from 1924 to 1941 and Mohammad Reza Shah from 1941 to 1979. The Armenians advanced and established themselves in the arts, sciences, economy and entrepreneurship. They settled in Tehran, Tabriz and Isfahan and had a growing population of about 3,000,000.
They were politically independent with their own senator and member of parliament. They had churches, schools, cultural centers and libraries that catered to their community.
Armenian books, newspapers and other literature was published and freely circulated throughout Iran.
The history of religion within Iran, clearly parallels their political timeline. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iranians connected again with Islam. This was particularly the trend a couple of years later when Iran entered a bloody religious war of Shiite versus Sunni with neighboring Iraq. Naturally, Iranians became increasingly patriotic, rallying around the flag of their new Islamic country.
The Islamic Revolution and the years following brought a sudden end to a thriving era for the Armenians. Facing religious pressure, increased religious propaganda surrounding the Iran-Iraq War and subsequent economic struggles induced a sudden emigration of more than 1,000,000 Armenians from Iran who settled in Europe, North America and Australia.
The plight of Christian converts, very few in number at the time, became even more precarious. The Iranian government expelled all Western missionaries and in the backdrop of a fiercely fundamentalist Islamic influence that was quickly spreading throughout the country, those who wished to continue living as Christians, were forced to face the consequences.
Christian converts have faced brutal persecution for three decades, yet, as the crackdowns increase, the Iranian people are still drawn to Christianity as a way to communicate with God and routinely attend prayers and Bible readings.
Christian activists around the globe have cried out against the recent arrests, claiming that these Iranians are being persecuted merely for practicing a religion outside the dictated Islamic faith.
The Iranian crackdowns have coincided with a sweep of unrelated attacks against other Christian communities in the Middle East, including Egypt and Iraq, which also began around Christmas time.