RELEASE International welcomes the victory by reformists in the Iranian elections. ‘Release hopes this will signal an end to the current crackdown on Christians in the Islamic Republic and pave the way for true religious freedom,’ says Release chief executive, Paul Robinson.
‘Ninety prisoners are in jail for their faith, including Behnam Irani. This pastor has been beaten, abused and threatened with death. As have others. With Iran now voting for reform, now is the time to end the crackdown on the church and set free prisoners who are behind bars for their religious beliefs.’
Release International supports persecuted Christians around the world, including in Iran, where the crackdown on Christians and activists was stepped up in 2015.
Pastor Behnam Irani was jailed in 2011 for leading a Church of Iran congregation in Karaj. Like others, he was accused of ‘offences against national security’. He was badly beaten in jail, both by his captors and other prisoners. He suffered a bleeding ulcer and herniated disc.
He was warned he would not leave prison alive because of his faith. He was put in a cell with violent offenders in Ghezal Prison, where there was not even enough room to lie down.
‘We call on Iran to show the world it is serious about reform, and set free Pastor Behnam Irani – and other prisoners of faith.’ says Paul Robinson.
A resounding victory has given President Rouhani a fresh mandate and a secure platform for reform. ‘These reforms should include much-needed freedom of religion – not just in theory, but in practice, in a country where the church is under constant pressure,’ says Paul Robinson.
Iranian officials continue to make group arrests, often targeting evangelical house groups. Repression has increased since 2010 when Ayatollah Khamenei branded house churches a threat to national security. Christians are often accused of ‘undermining national security’.
In Iran, freedom for all faiths other than Shia Islam is limited, despite constitutional guarantees of religious liberty. Evangelising Muslims is illegal and the official penalty for apostasy (conversion from Islam) is death, although the sentence is rarely carried out.
Christians make up just half of one per cent of the population. Most are discriminated against in education, employment and property ownership.
Many of Iran’s Christians are ethnic Armenians or Assyrians. To limit the spread of the faith, many churches have been closed or restricted to conducting services in Armenian or Assyrian. This has driven churches underground.
Most Christians in Iran now meet in private homes. Prominent figures such as pastors may come under the scrutiny of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Many are forced out of the country.
Christians from a Muslim background pay a particularly high price. A number of Iranian Christians who were raised as Muslims remain in detention. Some suffer from severe ill-health due to lack of medical treatment and beatings from prison staff and other inmates.
Yet despite everything, Iran’s church is growing.
Through its international network of missions Release International serves persecuted Christians in more than 30 countries around the world, by: supporting pastors and Christian prisoners, and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles; and working for justice.