The Trump administration commendably made Christian persecution in the Middle East a priority. Vice President Mike Pence is a chief advocate in the administration, and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Robert Destro has spent a large bulk of his career defending international religious freedom. Now the administration and Congress should emphasize persecution of Christians in Iran because Iran is the new battleground for Christians’ religious rights.
When one thinks of persecution of Christians in the Middle East, the Islamic State’s killing of Syrian and Iraqi Christians comes to mind. But Iran, not Syria, has the largest Christian population enduring government persecution.
Speaking of faith and Iran, most people think of Islam. Yet Islam is the fastest shrinking religion there, while Christianity is growing the fastest. According to a report by the Department of State from 2018, up to half a million Iranians are Christian converts from Muslim families, and most of these Christians are evangelicals. Recent estimates claim that the number might have climbed up to somewhere between one million and three million. This is up from 100,000 in 1994, and a majority of these converts are reportedly women. A recent documentary, Sheep among Wolves, documents the lives of these converts and shows how Iran is the “fastest-growing church” in the world.
Under Iran’s constitution, Christians have full rights to practice their religion, but they don’t have the right to evangelize. The government also restricts, without legal basis, the selling and the distribution of Hebrew and Christian Bibles to people the government identifies as Muslim, and sellers have gone to prison. The state only protects the right to practice for those born into Christian families. Under Iran’s apostasy laws, conversion out of Islam merits the death penalty. Conversely, those who convert into Islam receive special rights—precisely, complete inheritance from their parents, leaving their non-Muslim siblings empty-handed.
Christian conversions have reached a level that the regime publicly acknowledges the trend and is responding. In 2010, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned that “the enemy” is successfully promoting other religions, including Christianity. Before Christmas 2011, security forces raided churches in the city of Ahvaz. As more Iranians convert, their situation is getting worse. Underground churches, established at citizens’ homes, are increasing, but the government is cracking down on them at the same pace. The minister of intelligence recently bragged about “summoning” those “who have shown an interest in Christianity.” Christian convert pastor Yousef Naderkhani is the most infamous case. After spending three years in prison, he was arrested again in 2018 and sentenced to another 10 years, along with three others. Reports show these crackdowns have not spared minors, including Naderkhani’s son. Nevertheless, conversions continue.
Honest Muslim clerics acknowledge Islam’s decline in Iran when they criticize the government’s orthodox Islamist policies for corrupting the religion and turning Iranians against it. Even President Hassan Rouhani, himself a cleric, remarked how social orthodoxies under the banner of Islam have shrunk the number of Iranian Muslims. Throughout his almost seven-year tenure, Rouhani has tried to slightly decrease such orthodoxies, sometimes successfully and often not, but he has not prevented the growth of Christianity.
Meanwhile, crackdowns also create a problem for neighboring Turkey, where numerous Christian converts arrive annually and ask for asylum or refugee status, and many Iranian refugees convert to Christianity in Turkey. Since the 1979 revolution, Turkey has struggled with hosting refugees and asylum seekers from Iran, who live in terrible conditions. In the city of Kayseri alone, there are two thousand refugees and asylum seekers who have fled Iran because of religious persecution.
Both the United States government and Christian groups should prioritize Iran’s treatment of Christian converts. Many other states persecute Christians, but Iran has perhaps the highest rate of persecution and number of Christian converts, who persistently resist government persecution. Human rights non-governmental organizations, religious liberty and Christian groups, and the US government need to come together to help these converts inside Iran so that they can practice their faith in peace. These groups should also help refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey.
Freedom of religion gave birth to the United States, making it the most fundamental American value, and nobody deserves to be persecuted for his or her religion. No matter one’s political party and ideology, this freedom should be the one issue that brings all Americans together.