Mary Fatemeh Mohammadi joined other protesters in January who flooded Tehran’s Enghelab Street and headed to Azadi Square in the city center. For three days, thousands of Iranians braved tear gas, arrests, and sporadic gunfire in an outpouring of anger and grief following the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet. Authorities had lied and covered up the cause of the Jan. 8 crash: an Iranian soldier firing a rocket at what he mistook as an American cruise missile.
The error, one Iranian observed, “left 176 people dead and 83 million injured.” At once a local and global event, the tragedy unveiled the callousness and dishonesty of Iran’s Islamic Republic, which turned 41 this February.
University students like Mohammadi spearheaded protests after learning 13 students from one university, plus more from other schools, were among the 176 passengers who died aboard the flight. Mohammadi studied English at Islamic Azad University—until authorities banned her from attending classes last December.
The 21-year-old activist, a slim brunette with a piercing gaze, is a Christian convert from Islam twice arrested since 2017. On the second day of this year’s protests, Jan. 11, security forces detained her in Azadi Square. Because of her previous record, they transferred her to a detention center where guards stripped and beat her. They forced her to stand outside in the cold for 24 hours.
For nearly a month Mohammadi’s friends did not know where she was held or even if she was alive, said Claire Evans, Middle East regional manager for International Christian Concern (ICC). In mid-February Evans learned authorities had transferred her to Qarchak Prison south of Tehran: “We’ve never seen a Christian sent there before.”
Escalating tension between Iran and the United States has yet to slow an entrenched internal system of oppression and abuse, a sprawling web of courts acting as enforcers that disappear thousands of Iranian political prisoners. Many, like Mohammadi, are innocent of actual crimes yet consigned to squalid prisons outside the bounds of any judicial norms.
Tehran’s security apparatus features shadow groups within shadow groups, layers of policing agencies, all ideologically aligned but uneasily yoked by competition and power plays. The layers include prisons, Iranian intelligence, the Revolutionary Guards, the Revolutionary Courts, and a convoluted appeals system. Given that complexity, can Western influence help Iran’s Christians?
Qarchak, Iran’s largest women’s prison, stuffs 2,000 inmates into “unbearable conditions,” said U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook at a briefing late last year. It lacks sufficient water and sanitation and has “an environment that enables rape and murder.” Qarchak’s “sexualized element,” said Evans, means its torture protocol includes rape and sexual abuse. Female guards there stripped and probed Mohammadi, leaving her naked for hours.
The latest charge against Mohammadi is “disturbing public order through attending an unlawful protest.” She has no trial date yet.
The January assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, an architect of Iran’s police state, certainly rattled Iran’s leadership. Many believed he would one day be Iran’s president. Soleimani chiefly directed the elite Quds Force abroad—particularly in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. As part of the Revolutionary Guards, Soleimani also had authority in Iran over Christians and other non-Muslims whom Iran’s regime sees as threats to security.
“But it’s not accurate to say the United States took out the top persecutor of Christians,” said Evans. “The system he was a key part of remains very much in place.”
Just after Iran’s 1979 revolution, the ruling ayatollahs set up the Revolutionary Guards as their ideology enforcer, defending radical Islamic rule against the secular democratic elements that initially were part of the movement.
Now vast and bureaucratic, the Revolutionary Guards stand watch over the theocratic structures that surround elected offices, bypassing the president and parliament to report directly to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
The Revolutionary Courts operate as the judicial arm within this framework. Leaders may portray the courts as independent, but they function as an extension of the police state. All judges attend the same hard-line seminary in Qom, the seat of Iran’s theocratic rule. The courts police everything from women improperly veiled, to protesters who slander ruling clerics, to anyone seen as a security threat.
Human rights monitors say about three-fourths of the cases involving arrested Christians fall under the Revolutionary Courts. When authorities arrested Mary Mohammadi in 2017 as an 18-year-old, a Revolutionary Courts judge sentenced her to six months’ imprisonment for “membership in proselytizing groups … Christian activity … acting against the national security through propaganda against the regime.” In 2018 authorities released her from Tehran’s brutal Evin Prison.
In July 2019, a woman attacked Mohammadi while she rode a bus, claiming she insulted Islam by wearing her black chador incorrectly. Mohammadi, bloodied in the assault, tried to file a complaint against her attacker. Instead, the police arrested and held Mohammadi for two days before releasing her on bail.
Intelligence agents closely monitor Christians, particularly once they have a record. Intelligence and Revolutionary Guard units raided several Christian gatherings in private homes last year, arresting attendees and confiscating Bibles, mobile phones, and laptops.
Detainees received abusive interrogation and faced charges of “actions against national security.” Believers end up in the Revolutionary Courts and on average in 2019 received prison sentences ranging from four months to five years.
Authorities in 2019 arrested at least 30 Christians with publicly noted cases, according to a report by four Christian monitoring groups—Open Doors, Article 18, Middle East Concern, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Many more cases go unreported, and only a “handful” of Christians returned home after completing jail sentences in 2019. Hundreds likely remained in prison as they appealed their cases.
For many, the appeals process is opaque and never-ending. Victor Bet Tamraz, a well-known Assyrian pastor, faced five years of harassment from paramilitary squads connected to Revolutionary Guards. Arrested and jailed in 2014, he spent 65 days in solitary confinement before a judge sentenced him in 2017 to 10 years’ imprisonment for “conducting evangelism” and “illegal” house-church activities.
The case is on appeal, as is also a five-year sentence for Bet Tamraz’s wife Shamiram. Authorities ordered their son Ramiel, arrested in 2016, back to prison in January to complete his sentence. The church pastored by Bet Tamraz has been closed since his case began, even though congregations of Assyrians and Armenians—Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant—historically are legal.
Bet Tamraz and his wife returned to court “five or six times” last year, according to the couple’s daughter Dabrina, now living in Europe. Each time, their hearings were delayed, most recently because the judge said the courtroom was “too crowded.” The judge repeatedly delayed the cases, and on Feb. 24 a new judge again postponed hearing them.
The Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has grown beyond confronting Iran’s military expansion and nuclear enrichment programs to include its human rights abuses.
In May 2018 the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Evin Prison. In April 2019 it designated the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization—the first time Washington has labeled a state military institution a foreign terrorist group.
In December the United States sanctioned by name two judges in Iran’s Revolutionary Courts for abuse and violating due process. Christian human rights organizations long called for those designations and requested sanctions against Mashallah Ahmadzadeh, the judge who has presided over the cases of Victor Bet Tamraz and Mary Mohammadi, who could end up in his courtroom again soon.
Critics on the left say the targeted sanctions do little to change Iran’s behavior, since these individuals and institutions already are under U.S. sanctions. Some on the right say so much external pressure may backfire.
“It is almost impossible to imagine the current regime leadership losing the will to kill,” said Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. Leadership vetting in Iran’s security structure leaves little room for defectors. A weakening of its most visible leaders—including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—might increase the Revolutionary Guards’ control, leading to “a large-scale bloody crackdown,” Kagan said.
While U.S. intervention has its limits, Iranians say outside pressure on behalf of Christians works. Authorities at Evin Prison received up to 50 letters a day in support of Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh, two converts whose jailing gained international notoriety as they faced execution in 2009-2010. The letters were “a great encouragement to us even though they did not give them to us to read,” said Rostampour. Both now live in the United States and spoke in Washington in February.
Rostampour said perhaps the turning point in their cases arose when Pope Benedict petitioned Iran’s leaders to free them: “As a result of all these pressures, the Iranian authorities had to release us against their desires.”
The women support U.S. efforts to increase sanctions on leaders of the state security apparatus. Amirizadeh said the policy would be more effective if it included relaxing immigration bans on Iranian asylum-seekers so endangered Christians could escape to tell their stories. “As people who come from a country where you cannot even sing for God with a loud voice,” said Rostampour, “we have to be a voice for those who do not have this freedom.”
A Growing Presence
Iran’s Christians number 607,000, according to the latest edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia, with 241,000 believers who are converts from Islam. By some estimates Iran has up to 1 million Muslim-background believers. As the church in Iran grows through Muslim converts, authorities increasingly target all churches and forbid evangelism. Converts, according to the ruling clerics, are apostates from Islam and subject to the death penalty.
The rate of conversions, which makes Iran’s church one of the fastest growing in the world, has triggered recent crackdowns. Authorities have closed many formal houses of worship and imposed strict penalties for distributing Bibles. Christians face ever greater discrimination in jobs, owning businesses, and schooling. It’s now illegal to publish literature or hold church services in Farsi, Iran’s main language. Most Muslim converts cannot speak or understand ancient Syriac, traditionally used in Assyrian worship, or Armenian.
Yet some restrictions fuel church growth: Christians jailed and released report many opportunities for evangelism and conversions in prison. —M.B.