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Iran: What will re-election of Rouhani mean for Christians?

22 May 2017

Iranians have voted overwhelmingly to return Hassan Rouhani to power. But what does that mean for Christians in Iran?

Iran is currently ranked number 8 on the Open Doors 2017 World Watch List of countries where Christians face the greatest persecution.

The election of President Hassan Rouhani four years ago was seen as a decisive message that Iranians wanted better relations with the wider world. Rouhani was much more of a moderate than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

To some extent, he has succeeded in improving relations with the West - notably with the nuclear deal which led to a removal of sanctions on Iran. However, Rouhani was also supposed to be the President who would improve Iran's human rights record, and on that score he has surely failed.

"Despite Rouhani's promises to improve human rights in Iran, during his presidency the treatment of Christians, especially converts [from Islam], has not improved," says Christian charity, Middle East Concern (MEC). "The number of Christians who were arrested and detained increased, as did the amounts required for release on bail. Rouhani's Charter on Citizens' Rights, which was published in December 2016, falls short of internationally recognised standards of Freedom of Religion and Belief."

Mansour Borji, from human-rights group Article 18, adds: "There have been an increasing number of Christians arrested, harsh prison sentences issued, churches still under a lot of restrictions and the closure of churches, and many of the long-term church leaders have been arrested and forced to leave the country. So despite some expressed goodwill from President Rouhani ... and although he's been successful in economic improvements and international relations, internally he hasn't achieved so much."

Ultimate authority with Supreme Leader

Part of the problem is that the President's powers are limited by the powers of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For example, a record number of applicants (1636) hoped to run for President, but only six were approved by the Guardian Council, highlighting that the ultimate power in Iran lies with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

As Middle East Concern explains, "The President - appointed by the vote of people, as opposed to the Supreme Leader, who is not appointed by people's vote - cannot make tangible or drastic changes to Iran's domestic and international affairs ... without the approval of the Supreme Leader.

"It is unlikely that Christians, or religious minorities in general, will see a change in Iran's legal system and practise opposing freedom of religion while the Supreme Leader remains in power."

However, despite this apparently bleak picture, Borji says the President still possesses some power to influence - both inside and outside Iran.

"There is a complex power structure in Iran and the President doesn't have ultimate authority over many things, but he can still have a major effect on the lives of people inside the country," Borji says.

Christians arrested and on trial

Certainly for Christians, the situation in Iran remains very difficult. At least 193 Christians were arrested or imprisoned in Iran in 2016, many of them converts.

"According to the Iranian state, only Armenians and Assyrians can be Christian," explains an Open Doors specialist. "Ethnic Persians are by definition Muslim, and, therefore, ethnic Persian Christians are considered apostates. This makes almost all Christian activity illegal, especially when it occurs in Farsi - from evangelism to Bible training, to publishing Scripture and Christian books, or preaching in Farsi."

Indeed, just two days after the elections, the trial of two Christians, Victor Bet-Tamraz and Amin Afshar Naderi, will continue in Tehran.

They were first arrested in December 2014 - alongside a third Christian who has since left the country - as they celebrated Christmas at Bet-Tamraz's home. They were charged with conducting illegal evangelism.

They were later released on bail, but Naderi was then one of five Christians arrested during a picnic in the Alborz Mountains, north of Tehran, in August last year. Victor Bet-Tamraz led the Tehran Pentecostal Assyrian Church before it was shut down by Iran's Ministry of Interior in March 2009. He had previously found it difficult to find a lawyer willing to act as his defence counsel. Some lawyers have experienced a backlash after representing Christians in court.

Source: World Watch Monitor; MEC

Please pray:

  • That President Rouhani will be able to relax the laws prohibiting freedom of religion
  • For comfort and justice for imprisoned Christians in Iran, especially for Victor Bet-Tamraz and Amin Afshar Naderi
  • For protection for Christians who have to meet in secret.

More News from Iran:

Find out more about persecution in Iran.