Wall Street Journal: Iranian authorities have arrested dozens of Christians in the two weeks since Christmas, the latest challenge to the Mideast’s small but vibrant Christian communities.
The Wall Street Journal
By FARNAZ FASSIHI in Beirut and MATT BRADLEY in Cairo
Iranian authorities have arrested dozens of Christians in the two weeks since Christmas, the latest challenge to the Mideast’s small but vibrant Christian communities.
The arrests around the country appear focused on individuals who have converted from Islam or sought to convert others from Islam—actions considered sins under Islamic law and punishable by death in Iran.
Tehran’s governor, Morteza Tamadon, confirmed there have been detentions and said more arrests were on the way, state media reported.
Mr. Tamadon suggested the roundup hadn’t targeted the mainstream Armenian Christians or Catholics, which make up most of the small Christian population in Iran. Instead, he suggested the arrests targeted Protestant evangelicals, who have run into trouble elsewhere in the Mideast.
Mr. Tamadon said missionary evangelicals had stepped up their activity in Iran, calling it a “cultural invasion of the enemy.”
“Just like the Taliban, who have inserted themselves into Islam like a parasite, [evangelicals] have crafted a movement in the name of Christianity,” he said, according to state media outlet IRNA. He didn’t give further details about the arrests.
About 1% of the population in majority-Muslim Iran is Christian. Sanctioned sects have mostly co-existed peacefully with Muslims since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.
The Iranian Christian News Agency, a Toronto evangelical Christian organization dedicated to news about Christians in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, said the recent roundups targeted individuals who have converted to Christianity from Islam, as well as some who have been trying to win over converts.
According to the ICNA, armed plainclothes Iranian security agents have been raiding the homes of Christians in the early hours, including on the mornings of Dec. 25 and 26, searching houses for pictures, CDs, Bibles and religious books. In addition to making arrests, they confiscated computers and personal documents, according to the group.
ICNA director Saman Kamvar, a 40-year-old convert to Christianity, said Thursday that curiosity and interest in Christianity is growing among Iranian Muslims.
However, Iran prohibits Bibles and sermons in Persian, the country’s official language, and Christian churches don’t allow Muslims to attend services. While Armenian Christians, for example, can attend services conducted in Armenian at sanctioned churches, Persian speakers must resort to underground organizations that serve Iranian converts.
In June, evangelical priest Yousef Nadrkhani and his wife, both converts, were arrested in the northern city of Rasht. Mr. Nadrkhani was convicted of Islamic apostasy, organizing meetings and inviting others to Christianity, establishing a house church, baptizing people and openly expressing his distaste for Islam, according to the court documents.
Mr. Nadrkhani was sentenced to death, while his wife was given a life sentence, according to a copy of his court papers. In September, a court of appeals upheld the death sentence—the first in decades for apostasy in Iran, according to Iranian rights groups.
A second priest, Behrouz Sadegh Khanjani, arrested in June 2010 with his wife and eight members of his congregation in the southern city of Shiraz, has been indicted for apostasy and crimes against national security, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, an organization based in New York. Those arrested with him were released.
Officials have since stepped up calls for vigilance against unsanctioned Christian organizations. Iran’s intelligence minister said in October that his agents had discovered hundreds of underground church groups, including 200 in the Muslim holy city of Mashad. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in an October speech that Iran’s enemies were behind the underground churches.
“Since officials gave these comments, pressure has increased on our community, and the crackdowns have taken a more organized shape,” said Mr. Kamvar.
The Iranian crackdowns follow a recent wave of unrelated attacks against Christians in the Middle East, notably in Iraq and Egypt, which have triggered a sense of siege among Christians across the region.
On Jan. 1, a bomb attack targeting a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt, killed 23 people, stoking riots and demonstrations by young Christians.
Late last year, an al Qaeda affiliate claimed responsibility for the siege of a Catholic church in Baghdad that killed dozens. Deadly attacks against Christians in Iraq have continued since then.
The violence has stoked worry and anger among Christians across the region. “We are very angry because we don’t harm anyone,” said Daisy Sarkis, a 26-year-old Christian Orthodox Lebanese.
Egyptian Copts celebrated Christmas on Thursday evening, amid tight security at churches across the country.
At Cairo’s main Coptic cathedral, police blocked off a perimeter around the building, forbidding cars and pedestrians from entering without written permission from church authorities.
Some Christians from more-established Mideast churches, including in Egypt and Iraq, have accused evangelicals of unnecessarily stoking religious tensions by overtly trying to win over converts. Evangelicals deny this; in Egypt, for example, representatives say they only proselytize to lapsed Egyptian Christians.
—Sam Dagher in Baghdad contributed to this article.