Iranian Christians at a worship service. The authorities have been cracking down on Farsi-language believers, many of whom are converts from Islam. (Photo: Barnabas Fund)
January 2, 2014 – 5:35 AM
By Patrick Goodenough
(CNSNews.com) – One of the few Iranian churches still serving Christians who are not from minority ethnic groups – and are therefore more likely to be converts from Islam –reportedly has told these Farsi-speaking believers that they are no longer welcome.
The announcement at St. Peter Church in Tehran, reported by the independent Iranian Christian news agency Mohabat News, is the latest in a stepped-up campaign by the regime aimed at curbing the growth of Christianity in Iran, especially among former Muslims.
Mohabat News said churches in Iran are coming under pressure to stop all activities in Farsi, including sermons.
Critics say that despite the election of a president last year viewed as reform-minded, the situation has, if anything, gotten worse.
“Conditions are at levels not seen since the early years of the  revolution,” U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom chair Katrina Lantos Swett wrote in an op-ed last weekend.
Iran claims to uphold religious freedom in line with a constitutional recognition of five faiths – Shia Islam, Sunni Islam, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity – whose adherents, “within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.”
The Christian minority has traditionally comprised mostly ethnic minorities which have their own language, Armenians and Assyrians, who attend various Catholic and Protestant denominations.
But the growth in the number of non ethnic-minority Christians, converts from Islam, is viewed by authorities as a worrying phenomenon, hence the attempt to prevent churches from using Farsi. (Most Iranians do not understand the minority languages.)
Mohabat News said that the Farsi-speakers who have been told they may no longer attend St. Peter Church include elders and Sunday school teachers, and that some have been going there for more than 20 years.
“Since 2011, pressure and restrictions on Iranian churches have increased dramatically,” it said. “Many Christians, especially newly converted Christians, have faced imprisonment, pressure and harassment in the past few years. Iranian intelligence and security forces have recently focused their efforts to close down more churches around the country.”
Among those closed was the largest Farsi-speaking church in the country, the Central Assemblies of God Church in Tehran, which was shut down during the presidential election campaign early last year. Assemblies of God U.S. general superintendent George Wood said at the time that closing all Farsi-language churches in Iran “would essentially remove all open witness of the gospel of Christ in the country.”
President Hasan Rouhani, who won that election, pledged while campaigning to improve human rights in Iran, including the conditions faced by religious minorities. Last week, he sent Christmas greeting messages to Pope Francis and to Christians in Iran and around the world.
But the harassment of Christian converts has not stopped. On Christmas Eve, five converts were arrested during a police raid on a house in Tehran where they were meeting to celebrate Christmas.
The Committee of Human Rights Reporters, an Iranian group, reported that security officers had seized Christian books and CDs found in the house, as well as laptops and a satellite TV receiver.
‘An increasing number of Muslims’
In its annual report on people imprisoned for their faith around the world, released this week, the Brussels-based organization Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) named Iran as one of five countries with the largest number of “freedom of religion or belief prisoners.”
“Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are attracting an increasing number of Muslims, and converts develop missionary activities among their former co-religionists despite the harsh repression and the threat of imprisonment,” says the report, which also recorded Baha’i adherents among those in Iranian prisons.
Of the more than 40 Iranian Christians listed in the report as having been arrested or convicted during 2013, some faced charges including “conversion from Islam to Christianity, encouraging the conversion to Christianity of other Muslims, and propaganda against the regime by promoting Christianity as missionaries.”
Other charges included launching a Christian website, distributing Bibles, attending a house church, and “being in contact with foreign organizations.”
Prison terms handed down ranged from several months to eight years – the sentence given last January to Saeed Abedini, the Iranian-American pastor and convert from Islam convicted of “crimes against national security,” and incarcerated in one of Iran’s most dangerous prisons.
HRWF also cited cases in which Christians were beaten during interrogations and put under pressure to recant their new faith and return to Islam.
“While conversion to or from a faith is an internationally guaranteed right, Iran’s leaders deem conversion from Islam an act of apostasy against Islam and Iran’s character as an Islamic state, punishable by death,” USCIRF chair Lantos Swett wrote in the op-ed for Real Clear World.
“Revolutionary courts also charge converts with political crimes such as harming national security or contact with a foreign enemy,” she said. “These courts apply such unfounded charges to innocent religious activities such as meetings with foreign Christians, associations with overseas Christian organizations or attending Christian seminars outside of Iran.”
In keeping with his campaign pledges to improve rights, Rouhani in November launched a draft “charter of citizens’ rights,” inviting responses and submissions over a one-month period before a revised and final version is released.
Some human rights advocates who studied the Farsi-language draft called it seriously deficient in the area of religious freedom.
The document refers to Iranians enjoying “rights and guarantees” irrespective of race, culture, language, ethnicity, social status, gender or Islamic doctrine – but is silent on minority faith groups.
“A large group of our society follows other religions and beliefs,” Iranian rights activist Narges Mohammadi told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “The main question is whether other than Shia and Sunni, other religious minorities should be deprived of their citizenship rights.”