WASHINGTON — In Iran, conversion to Christianity can be a crime meriting a sentence of more than 10 years’ imprisonment.
Catholic churches within the country are closely monitored with surveillance cameras to ensure that Muslims do not enter, and religious schools are limited in what they can teach, an Iranian-born journalist, Sohrab Ahmari, explained to CNA.
Ahmari is currently writing a spiritual memoir about his own journey to the Catholic faith for Ignatius Press. He converted in 2016, after living in the U.S. for more than two decades. His conversion would have been nearly impossible had he still been living in Iran.
“In Iran, Catholicism is primarily an ethnic phenomenon. There are Armenian Catholics and Assyrian. They have their own churches, but they can’t evangelize, and they can’t have Bibles in any languages but their own,” said Ahmari, who worked for The Wall Street Journal for several years before becoming a senior editor for Commentary magazine.
“The Iranian Constitution enshrines Shiite Islam as the state religion, and it relegates certain other religious minorities to protected, but second-class, status, so that is Jews and Christians, mainly, people of the Abrahamic religions,” he continued. “These people have a certain degree of limited rights, but they also have all sorts of social handicaps.”
The Islamic republic’s population is 99% Muslim, and its recognized religious minorities are strictly controlled.
“The treatment gets far worse for groups that the regime does not recognize as legitimate,” explained Ahmari. This includes evangelical Christianity and the Baha’i religion.
After facing trial as apostates, Christian converts from Islam have been subject to increasingly harsh sentencing, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)’s 2018 report, which noted that “many were sentenced to at least 10 years in prison for their religious activities.”
Maryam Naghash Zargaran, a Christian convert from Islam, was released from prison in August 2017, after serving more than her full four-year sentence. Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, was among those who advocated for her release.
In May 2017, four evangelical Christians were sentenced to 10 years in prison each for their evangelizing efforts.
The U.S. State Department has designated Iran as a “Country of Particular Concern” for religious freedom since 1999.
The Iranian government’s growing ability to censor and monitor internet users increases their capacity to enforce official religious interpretations and crackdown on activists.
During Iran’s democracy protests in January 2018, the government disrupted internet access, including social-media communication tools, according to USCIRF. Iranians protested economic and social grievances.
While Christians have fared much better off in Iran than in neighboring Iraq, Ahmani thinks it is important for Catholics to realize that these protests were different from other Middle-Eastern uprisings.
“There is a tendency among some conservative Catholics to see any uprising or any democratic ferment in a democratic country as automatically bad now, precisely because they worry about those communities. They look at what happened with Iraq, at what’s happening with the Copts in Egypt, and they think ‘no more uprisings,’” said Ahmari.
“The case in Iran is different because the regime itself enshrines a kind of Islamic supremacy and suppresses minorities in various ways. The people who are rising up want religious freedom,” he continued.
Religious freedom and human rights were the focus of Pope Francis’ meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in January 2016. Iran and the Holy See have had continuous diplomatic relations since 1954.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis and Rouhani also discussed the application of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the “Iran nuclear deal,” which had gone into effect just 10 days before the meeting.
On May 8, U.S. President Donald Trump terminated the JCPOA and reimposed the sanctions that had previously been lifted.
“The JCPOA failed to deal with the threat of Iran’s missile program and did not include a strong enough mechanism for inspections and verification,” according to a White House statement.
The Iranian regime’s human-rights abuses and crackdown against protestors were also condemned in the May 8 statement announcing the end of U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear deal.