I met Mori in the basement of a Lutheran church in Berlin’s Zehlendorf district. A 28-year-old refugee who once ran a small business in Iran, he converted to Christianity five years ago and spoke to me on condition that I use only his first name in order to protect his identity. In 2011, delayed on the way to a secret Bible study session, he narrowly escaped when Revolutionary Guards raided his underground Evangelical church. He watched as his friends disappeared into Iran’s prison system; Mori suspects they’ve been killed.
“When you’re Christian in Iran, you can’t speak. You have to keep quiet and not talk about the truth that you know and that you believe in,” he told me. “There is no such thing as a comfortable life in Iran.”
Christianity of course is not alien to Iran. It arrived in ancient Persia not long after the death of Christ and has waxed and waned ever since. But in recent decades, especially in the last few years, things have grown worse. As Washington seeks rapprochement with Tehran over Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions, the Obama administration must not let its protests over cruel treatment of Christians and other religious minorities fall by the wayside.
Christians make up roughly less than half of 1 percent of Iran’s roughly 80 million people. Numbers are difficult to determine: There could be as many as half a million Christians in the country, according to a report by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. It cites research by the World Christian Database indicating that there were 270,000 living there in 2010. Most of them are ethnic Armenians and Assyrians who, though closely monitored, are able to practice their own Orthodox faith. It is the other denominations — mostly converts from Islam to Evangelical Protestantism — that are more likely to be harassed, imprisoned or even murdered.
The World Christian Database counted 66,000 Protestants in Iran in 2010. Open Doors, a nondenominational organization tracking Christian persecution, estimates that Iran has 370,000 “new Christians from a Muslim background.” In the last decade, televised proselytizing, often by ministers from the Iranian Diaspora, has fueled the rise of Evangelical Christianity. Tehran’s ruling ayatollahs see the trend as foreign meddling meant to undermine the regime. Under Shariah law, defection from Islam is not only a sin: It is a criminal offense. Legal and ex-judicial punishment can be severe, yet refugees say that Christians have boldly begun discussing their faith with Muslim neighbors.
Persecution is well-documented. In 2004, Hamid Pourmand, the lay leader of Jama’at-e Rabbani, the Iranian branch of the evangelical Assemblies of God, was arrested with more than 80 other members, charged with apostasy and imprisoned for years before his release. A report last year by Ahmed Shaheed, a United Nations special rapporteur, talks of Christians being “prosecuted on vaguely worded national security crimes for exercising their beliefs,” with more than 300 having been arrested since 2010.
Mori was one of the lucky ones. In 2011, he got a fake passport, paid 7,000 euros to a smuggler and joined the rising flow of refugees. The numbers entering Germany, known for its strong record for granting asylum, have soared in recent years, from 815 in 2008 to 4,348 in 2012, and will likely well exceed that figure this year, according to the Association of Iranian Refugees in Berlin. It is difficult to say how many of these people are Christian. A spokeswoman for the federal refugee office told me the government does not keep records on the religious affiliation of applicants.
Moreover, Iranians living in cramped conditions in converted schools and barracks are careful to keep their distance from one other, wary of talking about their cases or their lives back home. Many fear that Iranian government spies have been planted among them, a regular practice of Iran’s secret police.
Meanwhile, Iran’s crackdown on religious freedom continues. Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor and ex-Muslim was arrested in 2012 on a visit to Iran and sentenced last year to eight years in prison for helping to build the country’s underground Christian church network. Though President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have both called for his release, the dream of better relations with Iran has clouded over sobering realities.
President Hassan Rouhani, often portrayed in the West as a reform-minded moderate, has urged an end to meddling in Iranians’ private lives. Last December, he sent his best wishes to those celebrating Christmas via Twitter, “especially Iranian Christians.”
But Mr. Abedini and others languish in prison. As a signatory of international human rights declarations, Iran must be held accountable for the appalling treatment of its citizens if it wants to normalize relations with the West.
Liana Aghajanian is a freelance journalist. This article was made possible through a grant from the International Reporting Project.