John Pritchard on Mass Arrest of Iranian Christians and Crackdown on Christianity Deserves International Attention

An Iranian flag flies in an Abyaneh mountain village. | Wikimedia Commons/Nick Taylor

At the end of June, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) conducted a coordinated operation in Tehran and two other Iranian cities, aimed at disrupting the country’s “house church” movement and sweeping up members of the Iranian Christian community. Intelligence agents raided the home of one recent convert and arrested several of the other Christians who had gathered there. The rest were ordered to forfeit their mobile phones and leave identifying information with the agents, meaning that the threat of arbitrary arrest will likely haunt them for the foreseeable future.

That threat was underscored by the fact that persons not present at the gathering were issued summons and arrested at their homes in another leg of the operation, bringing the total number of arrests up to 12. This crackdown was by no means unique in the recent history of the Iranian regime’s treatment of religious minorities. It was, however, the largest mass arrest of Christians to be publicly reported in recent months. And it may be a warning sign of things to come.

It may not be possible to say with certainty until the charges against the arrestees have been revealed, but the June 30 arrests may prove to be an early example of Tehran’s implementation of new laws that have been highlighted by advocates for Iranian Christians and other persecuted religious groups. Passed in mid-May, amendments to Articles 449 and 500 of the Islamic Penal Code broaden the judiciary’s conception of what may be deemed a criminal “sect.”

Anyone who is convicted of “deviant psychological manipulation” or “propaganda contrary to Islam” can be deemed a member of such a sect. This in turn can lead to additional charges that the sect as a whole is working to undermine national security or is committed to “enmity against God.” Conviction on either of these charges can result in lengthy prison sentences or even capital punishment. The same is true of several other religious or political charges that are vaguely defined and are routinely used to justify punishment for anyone who seems to challenge the status quo or the hardline ideology behind Iran’s theocratic system.

By changing the law to make harsh punishment even easier, the regime may be adding new religious dimensions to a crackdown on dissent that has been escalating in response to more open challenges of this kind. Opposition to the clerical dictatorship has never been in short supply, but for much of the Islamic Republic’s 41-year history, it has remained largely underground, much like the house church movement. However, these and other movements for change have developed wide-ranging networks in recent years, leading to a sense of something like mainstream acceptance.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, John Pritchard