In this regard, a reporter of Hrana (Human Rights activists' news agency) has conducted an interview with the head of Iranian Christian news agency, Mohabat News, Saman Kamvar.
The following is a transcription of that interview:
Mr. Kamvar, as you know, groups of Christian citizens were arrested in major cities like Ahwaz, Esfahan and Shiraz. What do you think is the reason for the increased crackdown and opposition by the regime towards religious minorities, especially Christians in Iran?
These hardships against religious minorities come following the mono-dimensional view of the regime towards the political, cultural and religious issues. Their definitions of alien and non-alien are getting more restricted and more groups of people are being considered aliens. For many years it was Baha'is whose rights were being violated more than others. However, more and more violations of rights are being applied against Christians, Sufis and Shi'ite Muslims who believe in a different kind of Shi'ite faith. Today, evangelical Christians, dissident ayatollahs, Baha'is and Sunni Muslims are all under pressure, threat and terror by the Islamic Regime of Iran.
On the other hand, the ruling regime of Iran seeks its legitimacy from religion. So, it wants religion to support its legitimacy. Today, the regime of Iran crackdowns on Christians, especially Christian converts, for it is observing the growth of Christianity like never before. This fact has made them concerned. In conclusion we can say that unfortunately, the regime cannot tolerate other thoughts. What this religious regime tries to demonstrate is that there is only one legitimate religion and all other religions are illegitimate.
According to published reports, besides the arrests that took place in underground churches, at least on two occasions, Christian members of official AOG churches were also arrested. What is that about?
Yes, this is right. During past years underground or house churches were the main targets of arrests and pressures. However, gradually the Islamic regime's authorities also included evangelical churches among their targets. Evangelical churches don't believe that Christianity only belongs to a certain sect or nationality and so everyone is allowed to attend their services. Also, the language and Bibles used in those churches are mostly in Farsi. All people groups including Assyrians, Armenians, Kurds, Turks, Lors, Balochs, etc. attend their services. There is also another group of churches who are Gregorian Armenians or Chaldean Assyrians, but they only allow their own people to attend their services. These churches' language and their religious books are in Assyrian or Armenian, as you might expect.
The AOG church is an evangelical church and like any other evangelical churches it believes that everyone has the right to choose his/her religion and beliefs and no one whether his/her parents or the ruling system has the right to force them to select a religion or belief. Basically, religion is not something to inherit. It's something personal. Therefore, these churches have tolerated the pressures by the regime for many years and refuse to sign a disclaimer that wants them to ban the Muslim-born people from entering their churches. As a result of this objection, the activities of these churches were gradually restricted until in 2009, the Ministry of Intelligence ordered the central branch of the AOG church in Tehran to cancel their Friday church services. The Friday services were highly welcomed by attendees to the extent that two sessions of church services were held on Fridays. However, security authorities didn't stop there and increased their pressures and arrests to other branches of the AOG church. People in charge at various branches of the AOG church of Iran in cities of Kermanshah, Urmia, Esfahan, Tehran and Ahwaz were arrested and subjected to interrogation during the last two years.
There were of course other churches that were added to this list. Presbyterian churches, Anglican churches as well as Assyrian Pentecostal churches were not exempted from these pressures. Presbyterian churches received an order in recent months to cancel their Friday services. Restrictions against Anglican churches are also escalating. Recently, a Farsi-speaking leader of the Anglican Church in Esfahan was arrested and we still have no precise report concerning his condition. In another case, a number of Assyrian Pentecostal Churches were closed as a result of efforts of the Assyrian Parliament Member in the Islamic Parliament of Iran, Yonatan Betkelia, who collaborated a lot with security authorities. Even one of the leaders of this church in Kermanshah was arrested and subjected to harassment.
Are there any more detailed or previously untold stories regarding the illegal performance of security authorities during the arrests of Christians in Ahwaz, Esfahan and Shiraz? If yes, what are they?
The extent of security authorities' efforts against this issue is so vast. Regarding the cities you named and the treatment of Christians there, all efforts and the methods of arrests are done in a way to cause intimidation among Christians and reduce their participation in Christian activities. For example they invade their houses at night or early in the morning. They insult and threaten them orally, search their houses and scorned Bibles and pictures of Christ in their homes. They didn't even show mercy to the children of the church and transferred them to jail with their parents during these arrests. Security authorities attacked the AOG church of Ahwaz with their faces covered. The congregation and their children were preparing for Christmas celebrations. At that time, security authorities raided their church in a pre-organized attack and even brought buses there to seize the entire congregation and their children and transferred them to jail. Although these children and most of the congregation were released after signing a disclaimer that same night (except for some of the leaders and members of the church), why should they experience such a frightening atmosphere? At the same time as this invasion was underway, leaders of Islamic Republic were sending out Christmas messages to the Pope and presidents of different countries and wishing to establish justice and eliminate injustice from the world.
What methods are used in the arrest of Christians? Are there any reports showing new methods being used by authorities in arresting Christians?
The reports received from sources inside Iran and eyewitnesses who were forced to flee Iran, state inhuman and harsh treatment of Christians. The interrogators pressure and intimidate them for hours to testify against their fellow believers. They hold them in solitary confinement for long periods of time, mentally and physically persecute them to make them renounce their faith and return to Islam and even make them collaborate with them to identify Christian activists. Some evidences of wounds from physical torture like whipping have been documented. Some of these cases have been published by Mohabat News website. There are more pictures available that we cannot publish for now due to security reasons.
In an effort to pressure families of Christian detainees, authorities threaten them not to inform others of these incidents. In many cases they are asked to provide huge amounts of money as bail and give them to the authorities to temporarily release their love ones. Even recently there were reports that judicial authorities or interrogators have asked them in a friendly manner to submit their home's title deed as bail for their temporary release. Then they threaten them that it's better for them to leave Iran to avoid further trouble. This means two things. First, they try to integrate Iran in the way they want by forcing dissidents to leave Iran. Second, they want to make Christian properties their own. Also another matter that Christian converts were facing was being called to the Religious and Islamic Culture office or being denied the right to be educated. A report was published concerning this issue.
Last year more than 70 Christians were arrested by security authorities in various cities of Iran. What has happened to these detainees? Are any of them still in custody?
In most of the cases huge amounts of money were taken from them as bail or as a fine, their cases were suspended indefinitely to enable authorities to open their cases at any time. They keep released prisoners in fear to make them flee the country or to sever their relation with the Christian community. After they get released, many detainees must remain under doctor's care for a long time because of the mental pressure they experienced during interrogations in custody centers. It should be noted that their families also pay a huge price.
Currently numerous Christian detainees are awaiting trial. Many of them are threatened by security authorities not to release information. So, unfortunately, the stories of their arrest and case have not been published in the media. Authorities promise families of the detainees that if they keep silent they will treat them easier and reduce their sentences. However in the court or afterwards they realize that these promises were just lies.
Among those arrested at Christmas 2010, whose names and stories were published, I can mention Farshid Fathi and Noorollah Qabitizade. These two prisoners were taken to the court several times and currently are awaiting the court's decision. Mr. Masoud Delijani is another Christians who was recently sentenced to three years in prison and right now is serving his sentence at Deizel-Abad prison in Kermanshah.
Concerning Christian prisoners and detainees and the imposition of restrictions against churches in Iran, published reports since 2012 show that Iranian Christians, especially Christian converts, are again facing many pressures and restrictions this year.
What is Iran's international situation concerning persecution of Iranian Christians?
I only mention the World Watch List by Open Doors ministries (an organization supporting persecuted Christians around the world). This Christian organization publishes a list of 60 countries that persecute Christians the most each year. The list ranks countries from one to sixty according to the severity of persecution against Christians in that country. The organization says that it ranks countries according to the persecutions that people endure because of their Christian faith in that country. Unfortunately, Iran is listed in fifth place after N. Korea, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Somalia which shows no improvement in Christians' situations.
We also saw in the U.S Department of States' annual report that it introduced Iran as a country that seriously violates the religious freedom of minorities.
After recent treatments of the regime against Christians, what measures were taken by Iranian Christian organizations to pressure the Iranian government to provide safety and security for its Christian citizens? What actions have been taken?
We can divide Iranian Christian organizations into different categories. The first category is the organizations whose only purpose is to evangelize and plant churches in Iran. These organizations do not get involved in political issues according to the definitions they provide for their organizations. Of course they are not totally senseless in view of incidents that happen in Iran, but they define their work as the distribution of the word of God among Iranians. The second category includes the few organizations that directly stand against events and current issues facing Iranian Christians and also issue statements in this regard. They feel more responsible for their fellow believers in Iran and take different actions in support of them. Such organizations make their effort to defend their fellows by participation in different actions. For example, "Article 18" which is dependent on a group of Iranian churches in Europe, has become more active in informing International organizations and foundations and collaborating with them. Preparing annual reports on Iranian Christians' situation and submitting them to institutions like the European Union and the United Nations are some of their activities. In addition, it calls on influential countries and Iran's financial partners to convince the Iranian regime to treat religious minorities and Christians more properly.
Iranian Christian news agency, Mohabat News has also tried to promptly publish updates on the situation of Christian detainees and Iranian churches. It has also made an effort to provide analysis on pro-regime religious media who have recently been trying to subvert Christianity by their news and reports. They have launched major media propaganda against the growth of Christianity in Iran. Mohabat News has played a significant role in informing the public about different campaigns like writing letters, demonstrating in support of the rights of Christians, etc. and has always been an important source of information for international media for their reports concerning the persecution of Christians.
Lastly, Christians always emphasize the principal that they should obey national laws of the country of their citizenship since they don't contradict the gospel. We have never pursued the fall of the regime in our protests against the violations of our legal and human rights. We seek our human rights, especially the right to freely choose our religion and practice it without fear of invasion which no Iranian citizen should be deprived of. We also want to remind the Islamic Republic that Iran has also signed the International conventions that ban discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities.