Nearly 100 Christians have been arrested in Iran in the past month and arrests are expected to continue over the Christmas holiday.
Christian leaders in Iran have said that pressure on Christians increases every year around Christmas but that this year it is particularly severe.
Sources explain that these arrests in the officially Shia Muslim country normally spike during December when more Iranians are attracted to Christianity, as Iran hopes to intimidate potential converts away from the religion. However, arrests have been especially severe this year, with some speculating that security branches who fear losing money in the new budget are trying to show how effective they can be.
Miles Windsor, advocacy and development manager at Middle East Concern (MEC), said: “The current situation has been described by some as unprecedented. There are a huge number of arrests and detentions. Recently it seems there is definitely a coordinated and determined campaign to decimate the Christian community and to spread fear and intimidation.”
While Shia Islam is Iran’s official religion and bases its laws on the mullahs’ interpretation of Sharia, the constitution recognizes Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity as official religious minorities. However, according to the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report, it also specifies the death penalty for “proselytizing”, attempting to convert Muslims, “enmity against God”, and “insulting the prophet [Muhammad]”.
Iranian Christians recently arrested include:
Those arrested include Shima Zanganeh, 27, and her sister, Shokoufeh, 30, are among those Christian converts who have been targeted.
They were arrested by Intelligence Service officials in their homes in Ahvaz, capital of Iran’s western Khuzestan province, on December 2, reports Mohabat News, a website that exclusively reflects the news concerning Iranians converted to Christianity.
The sisters told their family in a phone call that they had been beaten during one of the interrogation sessions.
On the same day the Zanganeh sisters were arrested, security authorities also raided the homes of Farzad Behzadizadeh, 30, and Abdollah Yousefi, 34, and confiscated Christian books, phones and computers.
Behzadizadeh was first apprehended while at work in a customer-support center for Tejarat Bank and Yousefi was arrested at his home.
After their homes were searched they were both taken in for interrogation and are currently held at a prison in Mollasani, 43km north of Ahvaz.
Meanwhile, on 6 December, intelligence agents arrested Amir Taleipour, 39, and his wife Mahnaz Harati, 36, at their home in Mashhad, northeast Iran, in front of their seven-year-old daughter, according to Middle East Concern.
The couple have been held in detention and have not been allowed to contact their family or to access legal assistance. Their family is taking care of their daughter.
On 30 November, 64-year-old Jamshid Derakhshan from Karaj, 36km west of Tehran, was arrested.
Mr. Derakhshan had arranged to meet in Hashtgerd, where he plannedd to attend a prayer gathering in house church. On December 12, he called his family to say he was being held in Rajaee Shahr prison and would be released soon.
Derakhshan has been a convert for 30 years and was fired from his job with a government agency because of his Christian faith, according to Mohabat News.
Windsor said that these continuing arrests are increasing fear and limiting the flow of information, noting that most Christian arrestees are falsely charged with vague national security crimes, including espionage. These charges, often followed by sham trials, carry prison sentences of 10-15 years.
He said: “There is no doubt that it’s the Christian faith of these individuals that is the reason behind their arrests and detentions.”
The US State Department yet again listed Iran as a Country of Particular Concern for severe violations of religious freedom earlier this month. Despite the crackdown, Christianity is growing in Iran with estimates of between 800,000 and 1 million Christian Iranians.