Religious freedom violations persist in Iran

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Christians continue to suffer as a result of widespread religious freedom abuses in Iran, human rights organisations have warned. 

A new joint report by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Article 18, Middle East Concern and Open Doors International found that violations persisted in Iran in 2021, with at least 59 Christians arrested over the course of the year.

Thirty Christians endured some form of imprisonment last year while 34 were detained by the authorities. 

At least 209 individuals were affected by judicial rulings, 35 of whom reported "intense psychological torture".

The actual numbers are likely to be higher as many cases go unreported "either because no-one raises awareness — arresting authorities frequently issue threats to prevent publicity — or because those involved request confidentiality", the organisations warned. 

The report notes some positive developments. In November, the Supreme Court said that the prison sentences of nine converts should be reviewed because "promoting Christianity and 'Zionist evangelism' in private homes is not an example of gathering and collusion against internal or external security as decided in the original verdict".

"According to this decree, house-church activities and the promotion even of the pejoratively termed 'Zionist' Christianity are not crimes," the report said.

"It remains to be seen how this ruling will be applied by the Revolutionary courts, but the Christians have at least since been released while their cases are reviewed."

In another positive development, officials in the western city of Dezful decided not to press charges against eight Christian converts on the grounds that although apostasy is a crime under Sharia, it is not an offence according to the laws of Iran.

Despite these positive developments, the report warned of "inconsistencies" in the Iranian judicial system after the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of a Christian couple sentenced to 10 years in prison over their involvement in a house church.

"The differing decisions highlight the inconsistencies that plague the judicial system in Iran and suggest that favourable rulings reflect the views of individual judges rather than systemic improvements at the heart of the judiciary," the report said. 

Recommendations in the report include a call to the Iranian government to uphold freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) for all citizens, and the release of Christians detained on "spurious charges" relating to their faith or religious activities. 

The report also calls for an end to the criminalisation of house church organisation and membership, and asks the international community to hold Iran accountable on FoRB by raising the issue during political and trade discussions involving the country. 

CSW's Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: "Once again, this report provides an important reminder of the continuing violations faced by Christians in Iran.

"We urge the Iranian government to take heed of its recommendations and to end what amounts to the criminalisation of the practice of a religion the Iranian constitution claims to recognise.

"We also call for the government to ensure that all citizens, including members of the Baha'i, Gonabadi Dervishe, Humanist and Sunni communities, are free to enjoy the full right to freedom of religion or belief as articulated in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a signatory."