A major spike in the harassment and arrest of Iranian Christians in recent months is re-vealing just how nervous the Islamic republic is about the prodigious success of house churches, say Iranian Christian leaders.
At least 202 Christians in 24 cities faced "arbitrary" arrest between June 2010 and January 2011, according to Elam Ministries. Elam, run by Iranian expatriates, counted 80 arrests over 2008 and 2009 combined.
"[Iran] has been substantially more public in its oppression of Christianity," said Todd Nettleton, a spokesman for Voice of the Martyrs. "Announcing it on the news, having the mullahs talk about it in their Friday sermons--it's just become a lot more out in the open."
"Persecution has escalated to an unprecedented level," said Abe Ghaffari, executive director of Iranian Christians International. While Iran's historic Armenian and Assyrian congregations usually enjoy freedom of worship, Farsi-speaking house churches hosting converts from Islam work under significant threat.
"In effect, recognition of Christians in the laws of Iran has now become basically recognition of an ethnicity rather than faith," said Hussein Jadidi, a human rights lawyer who recently fled Iran after he became a target in a Christmas sweep that caught 70 other Christians.
The government is concerned, observers say, because more and more Iranian Muslims are converting to Christianity. The house church movement is booming, with converts estimated in the hundreds of thousands. Evangelists are distributing large numbers of New Testaments, and satellite television continually beams Christian programs into the country.
"The government always used to deny that Iranians become Christians," said Elam's David Yeghnazar, but now the church has become too strong to ignore. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei declared the house church network "enemies of Iran" in an October speech, which analysts labeled a rare public acknowledgement of the movement.
"Religion is regarded as part of your national identity," said Issa Dibaj, an Iranian Christian who works as an Elam translator. "If you turn away from your religion … it's as if you have betrayed your country."
"In the past, [the government] would emphasize apostasy as the crime," Jadidi said. "They've changed their tactics; now evangelism, witnessing, and changing religion have become a security crime."
But now analysts say Islam is losing credibility after 30 years of theocracy. Resentment against the reigning regime is spreading and deepening--especially since the disputed 2009 national elections.
"Before the  revolution, the clerics were promising that once Iran becomes an Islamic state, it would be utopia, it would be brotherhood, and everything would be fine," Dibaj said. But since then, Iranians "have seen nothing but war and fighting and international isolation and hatred, [and] they are thirsting for change."
"The Iranian public basically doesn't trust the government anymore," Ghaffari said, "and they don't trust the Muslim clergy anymore, because they have seen a lot of double standards and hypocrisy."
Converts in smaller communities still risk persecution from their own families, but tolerance is growing in urban areas and among the younger generation. "In fact," said Dibaj, "in places like Tehran and more educated communities, if you say, 'I have become a Christian,' they will respect you because of your courage and your independent thinking."
If anything, government persecution has made Christianity much more attractive, said Yegh-nazar. "When government officials are on television telling people not to read the Scriptures, that generates more interest in the Scriptures."
By Trevor Persaud