In Iran, Covert Christian Converts Live With Secrecy and Fear

A draft Iranian law would mandate the death penalty for apostasy
By Anuj Chopra
Posted May 8, 2008

TEHRAN, IRAN—Illyas, 20, precariously straddles two worlds. At home with his family, he’s a devout Christian who wears a silver cross around his neck, devotionally reads the Bible, and, on the Sabbath, hums hymns of praise to Jesus. Easter and Christmas are celebrated with homemade grape wine, even though alcohol is banned in Iran.

Publicly, though, Illyas is a devout Muslim. Before leaving home to attend university classes, he removes the cross. He falsely tells his teachers about reading the Koran regularly since, he says, expressing fealty to Islam is necessary to land a good job in Iran. And he regularly goes to Friday prayers at Tehran University, where, if necessary, he joins in chants of Marg-bar Amrika (Death to America)—although he says that he doesn’t hate America and, in fact, hopes to move there someday.

Illyas and his mother and stepfather—for their safety, their family name cannot be revealed—had been Muslims (as are 98 percent of the nation’s 66 million citizens). That changed a year ago, when they were drawn to a seductively passionate voice on a satellite TV channel imploring Iranians to embrace Christianity. On hearing the voice, Illyas’s mother called the channel’s hotline number. She prayed with the counselor on the phone, she says, making a personal commitment to Jesus as her savior. Later, Illyas and his stepfather did the same, as the counselor from California’s Iran for Christ Ministries led them in prayer.

The counselor was able to put Illyas in touch with some local Iranians—also discreet believers—who could provide a copy of the Bible. “We were looking for a faith that offered the reassurance of freedom,” says Illyas, who asked to be interviewed in a public restaurant in Tehran instead of his house.

Islam is the state religion of Iran, governing most aspects of life since the 1979 Islamic revolution. But, exasperated with the obsessive atmosphere of Islamic purity in Iran since the revolution and the subsequent curbing of social freedoms, Illyas says, his family felt compelled to look for other spiritual answers, even at considerable risk.

Leaving Islam for another religion, or apostasy, has long invited reprisals from the Iranian government, forcing the likes of Illyas and his family into absolute secrecy, practicing their new beliefs only in the privacy of their home. In Iran, Christians are prohibited from seeking Muslim converts, although there has been tolerance for those who are born into Christian families.

The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has introduced legislation before the Iranian Majlis that would mandate the death penalty for apostates from Islam, a sign that it will brook no proselytizing in the country. “Life for so-called apostates in Iran has never been easy, but it could become literally impossible if Iran passes this new draft penal code,” says Joseph Grieboski, the president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy in Washington. “For anyone who dares question the regime’s religious ideology, there could soon be no room to argue—only death.”

Minorities. Grieboski points out that the text of the draft penal code uses the word hadd (prescribed punishment), which explicitly sets death as a fixed, irrevocable punishment. He worries that it could be applied to religious and ethnic minorities like Christians, Bahais, Jews, and Azeris by treating them as apostates.

Articles 225 to 227 of the draft penal code define two kinds of apostates: fetri, or an innate apostate—who has at least one Muslim parent, identifies as a Muslim after puberty, and later renounces Islam; and melli, or parental apostate—who is a non-Muslim at birth but later embraces Islam, only to renounce it again. The draft code says outright that punishment for an innate apostate is death. However, parental apostates have three days after their sentencing to recant their beliefs. If they don’t, they will be executed according to their sentence. It isn’t clear when this bill will be passed, though Grieboski says, “International pressure and attention—in large part due to our work—has significantly slowed the parliament’s progress.”

In the past, apostasy could draw a range of punishments, from imprisonment to death, under legal practices that were more ambiguous than the draft statutes. In one instance that drew international attention, Mehdi Dibaj, an Iranian convert, was held in prison for his Christian beliefs for 10 years starting in 1984. He received the death sentence at the end of 1993. But he was released from prison in January 1994 after an international publicity campaign by Haik Hovsepian Mehr, a prominent Christian pastor in Iran. A few days after Dibaj’s release, Hovsepian Mehr was abducted in Tehran, and his body, with 26 stab wounds, was found secretly buried in a Muslim graveyard. Six months later, Dibaj, freed but still under a pending death sentence, was abducted and murdered.

Considering the perils, Muslim Iranians turn to satellite television (though officially prohibited), radio, and the Internet to talk about faiths other than Islam. Some names include the Iranian Christian Television Channel, run by a registered charity based in the United Kingdom; Radio Mojdeh; and Iranian Christian Radio.

SAT-7 PARS, a Middle Eastern Christian satellite station headquartered in Cyprus, began broadcasting in Farsi to Iran in the fall of 2002, under the name of Iranian Christian Broadcasting. In late 2006, it launched the 24-hour Farsi-language satellite television channel. SAT-7 PARS says it receives hundreds of letters and E-mails every week from Iranian viewers—many of them young—expressing interest in Christianity. David Harder, the communications manager at SAT-7 in Cyprus, says the channel tries to answer all questions, but it is a nonproselytizing entity. “Iranian Christians themselves often have very little access to teaching materials that can help them in their spiritual growth,” says Harder. “Satellite television provides a means through which Iranians, who have often never had the opportunity to enter a church or even to know a Christian, can learn more about this faith.”

Despite the Koran’s injunction that “there is no compulsion in religion,” issues of religious freedom have persisted since the Islamic revolution of 1979, and that is driving the young away from Islam, says Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a reformist cleric and former vice president of Iran. “If you force religion down people’s throats, it makes them less religious, not more.” Another analyst based in Tehran agrees but senses a western conspiracy in proselytizing through mass media. He blames satellite television channels for emotionally manipulating Iranian viewers into changing their religion. “Iranians are looking for a balm, and proselytizers are taking advantage of that,” he says. “There’s a vicious western plot to foment a wider cultural East-West war and demonize Islam in the process.”

Demonizing Christianity. Ironically, these days, a recent Iranian film, Jesus, the Spirit of God, is being accused of demonizing Christianity. It’s a new film on Jesus told from an Islamic perspective. Jesus, regarded as only a prophet, did not die on the cross and was not resurrected. The disciple Judas Iscariot is crucified in his place, according to the film. This premise is based on the teachings of the Koran and the Gospel of Barnabas, a book not included in the Christian Bible and in which the prophet Muhammad appears.

The $5 million film, funded by Iranian state broadcasting, is intended to promote a dialogue between Muslims and Christians, according to director Nader Talebzadeh. It received a tepid reception in theaters across Iran and will now be recycled as a 20-episode series on state-run national television this year.

Mona, a 24-year-old Assyrian Christian residing in more affluent northern Tehran, saw the film and said its “jaundiced” interpretation made her cringe. She’s not very religious, she says, though she acknowledges there is enough freedom to practice her faith because she was born into a Christian family. But she remains disillusioned with the fact that Islam pervades almost every aspect of normal life in Iran.

She says she was recently rejected for a job as a flight attendant with Air Iran, the state-run airline, because she hadn’t ever read the Koran. “Religion without the freedom to reject it is not a true religion,” she says in her living room, her head bereft of a scarf. “It makes life very claustrophobic.”

(This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington.)

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