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Posted on Fri 16 September 2022

Conversion, Persecution, and the Reforming Voices of Muslims in Post-Revolution

International Journal of Asian Christianity


Christian faith has a long and continuous history in Iran. The period since theIslamic Revolution of 1979 has been particularly stressful, with outbreaks of severe persecution, imprisonment and both judicial and extrajudicial killings. Despite this, record numbers of people have been coming to faith in Christ and meeting mostly in homes. Although the Iranian people remain largely tolerant of difference, the regime has cracked down hard on these new Christians, closing churches, arresting leaders, imprisoning believers and confiscating assets. Some reforming voices have, however, been raised against the suffocating Theocracy of contemporary Iran and the sufferingit causes in all sections of the population. It remains to be seen whether these voices will influence the future course of Iranian society and whether they will have any effect on the suffering of Christians and other minorities in Iran.


conversion – persecution – Iran – reform – dhimma

     Christianity in Iran

The Christian Faith arrived in Iran from the North and West, from near the Eastern borders of the Roman Empire, possibly from the Second Century A.D.

The ancient Liturgy of Addai and Mari bears witness to an early presence in and around Iran of the Church that came to be called the Church of the East (sometimes erroneously called ‘Nestorian’).1 

  There was no systemic persecution of Christians in the early period, although there was harassment. From the middle of the third century, the Sassanids gained ascendancy. They were heavily influenced by a Magian form of Zoroastrianism and wanted to emphasise their ‘Persian-ness’. At first, there seems not to have been any extraordinary persecution of Christians, but this changed after the conversion of Constantine. In the very year that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Constantine sent a letter to the Shahinshah Shapur II in which he asked for protection for Christians in the Persian Empire. This did not matter much while there was peace between the two superpowers, but when war broke out between them in 337, Christians were accused of being sympathisers with and agents of the Romans. Systematic persecution now erupted. At first, punitive taxation was levied on them. When they could not pay, their properties were expropriated and they were imprisoned. When even this did not lead them to renounce their faith,churches were demolished, their sacred objects were confiscated, and bishops, priests and deacons were imprisoned, tortured and executed. The suffering of the Christians under Shapur was such that they are remembered in the region to this day. This continued until the accession of the Emperor Yazdigard, who concluded a peace treaty with the Romans and, in 410 ad, issued an Edict of Toleration for the Christians in his Empire. The Edict gave Christians some freedom to worship and to regulate the internal life of their communities but also gave the State a role in the Church’s affairs.2 Since the time of the Exile, the Jewish people had been treated as a special community within the Persian domains (see, for instance, Ezra7:11–26). This kind of arrangement was now formalised and the Millat System, which was  inaugurated, thus became a way of accommodating religious and other communities within the Persian Empire and had a long afterlife, as we shall see, with the advent of Islam in Persia. From the Jews and the Church of the East, the system was extended to Jacobite and other Christian communities. The Edict did not mean the end of all persecution. The Law of Apostasy, forbidding a Zoroastrian to change his religion, was often a cause of persecution. The Magians were alarmed at the rapid growth of the Church and sometimes incited persecution for this reason. If, moreover, there was a conflict between


1 L.E. Browne, The Eclipse of Christianity in Asia (Cambridge: cup, 1933); Atiya Aziz, A History

of Eastern Christianity (London: Methuen, 1968).

2 William Young, Patriarch, Shah and Caliph (Rawalpindi: Christian Study Centre, 1974), p. 8.

the two empires, Christians were immediately viewed with suspicion and encountered hostility.3

     Islam and the dhimma 

The arrival of Islam as a conquering force drove the Sassanids from power, and Persia came under Arab domination for some time. The ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East, at first, welcomed the coming of the Muslims as a judgement on Magianism and on the rival Christian groups, such as the Jacobites and the Melkites! The Arab Muslims, on their part, favoured the Church of the East because they distinguished between Christ’s human and divine natures and spoke of their union in the person of Christ as one of ‘good pleasure’. Also, they did not have icons or images in their churches and had only simple crosses there.4

   An important collaboration between Christians of all kinds and theUmayyad and the ‘Abbasid Caliphates in the fields of administration, translation of Greek learning into Arabic, medical and scientific endeavours and even interfaith dialogue did not prevent them from being treated as dhimmis,5 or protected peoples, who were allowed to live in Islamic domains but under quite severe social, political, and religious restrictions. Nor were they immune to the periodic pogroms and persecutions which erupted from time to time. 

  Under the Ottomans, the ancient Millat System of the Persians was adaptedto the Islamic dhimma and served as a basis for the social and political organ-isation of the non-Muslim religious communities of the Empire until the reforms of the tanzimat in the 19th century. It has defined the mentality of many of these communities since posing a challenge to national integration and unitary forms of government.6 

   As elsewhere in the Islamic world, the possibility of mission became increasingly circumscribed, the Church of the East continued, sometimes with renewed vigour, its missionary work in Central Asia, China and India.7 At the


3 Young, ‘Patriarch, Shah and Caliph’, p. 60.

4 Henry Hill, ed, Light from the East: A Symposium on the Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian

Churches (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1988), p. 110; Michael Nazir-Ali, Conviction and

Conflict: Islam, Christianity and World Order (London and New York: Continuum, 2006),

p. 73.

5 Bat Ye’or, The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam (London, Associated University

Presses, 1985).

6 Nazir-Ali, ‘Conviction and Conflict’, p. 85.

7 See Igor De Rachewiltz, Papal Envoys at the Court of the Great Khans (Stanford: Stanford

University Press, 1971); Hill, ed, Light from the East: A Symposium on the Oriental Orthodox

and Assyrian Churches (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1988).

other end of the Christological spectrum are the Armenians, who also were not present at the Council of Chalcedon (451ad), and who believed, like other Miaphysites, that Christ had only one nature uniting both the human and the divine in an indissoluble unity. The Armenians have often found themselves where Ottoman, Russian and Iranian interests collided, and they have suffered much at the hands of the different imperial powers. Under the reforming but also cruel Shah ‘Abbas I, a scion of the Safavid dynasty, which had made Shi’a Islam the State Religion, many Armenian and Georgian Christians were enslaved and converted to Islam. Those that retained their faith were forcibly moved from one place to another. However, the Armenians were given some trade concessions and their newly established centre of New Julfa, near Isfahan, became, and remains, an important Christian site. Shah ‘Abbas also allowed some western religious orders to establish monastic houses in his territories. Later on, in the 19th Century many Armenians migrated to Russia but the Qajar dynasty used those that remained to open up Iran to the outside world.8

     Christian Influence

It is true that Christians have always been a minority in Iran but they have exer-cised considerable intellectual, artistic and spiritual influence. Such influence can be seen, for instance, in the use of pictorial art, even to depict religious persons and themes, something quite unique in an Islamic context. Johan Elverskog has recently claimed that the possibility of depicting religious figures and themes in Irani Islam owes much to Buddhist influence, mediated through the Islamicised Mongols. This may be so in terms of style and convention but does not explain why biblical themes, particularly those related to Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, feature so prominently in Mongol (Mughal) inspired art of this period in both India and Iran. These can only be due to the close proximity of Jews and both Eastern and Western Christians to the Muslims of that period and in those regions.9 As Bishop Hasan Dehqani-Tafti has shown, Persian literature also abounds in references to Jesus, his mother, the apostles, churches and Christians. The Sufis, especially, had high regard not only for Jesus, whom they regarded as the archetypal ascetic but also for monks and 


8 P.M Holt., et al., eds, The Cambridge History of Islam, Vol IA (Cambridge: cup, 1970); PaulHunt, Inside Iran (Tring, Herts: Lion Books, 1981), p. 419; Hill, ‘Light from the East’, p. 14; Atiya,

‘A History of Eastern Christianity’.

9 Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), p. 133; Khalidi Tarif, The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature (Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 37. Ahmed, KhalidAnis., ed. Intercultural Encounter in Mughal Miniatures (Lahore: National College of theArts 1995).

nuns who had given up everything for the love of God and whom they sought

to emulate in their own religious practices. All of the above continues to have relevance for Iranian responses to Christianity today.10 

  Modern Missions

Anglican and Protestant missionary work began in the 19th century. Henry Martyn, the great missionary and linguist, completed his translation of the New Testament into Farsi in 1812. Martyn’s translation was soon complemented by William Glen’s translation of the Older Testament.11

   Although the original aim of many of the missions had been to revitalise the ancient churches of Iran so they could engage in mission to the Muslim, Jewish, and Zoroastrian communities there, the result, in fact, was that often members of the ancient churches broke away and formed Protestant churches of different kinds. One exception was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s mission to the Assyrians, which retained its commitment to renew the life of the ancient churches through education and not to proselytise among them. The Church Missionary Society, similarly, when it began its work in Iran in 1869, had as its aim the emergence of a genuinely indigenous church which was the result of mission among the majority communities as well as other non-Muslims in Iran. The resulting Anglican diocese drew most of its membership from these communities rather than from the ethnically-based ancient churches.12  Church’s missions here ended abruptly with the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Church and mission institutions were confiscated or closed down, bank accounts were frozen and even freedom to worship was strictly restricted. Those churches with links with western bodies were immediately suspect, but even the ancient churches were not left alone. Their schools, for instance, were closely monitored and attempts were made to interfere with their teaching. Clergy and lay workers were arrested and tortured. Some were martyred for their faith by zealous revolutionaries and even by the State. Although there have been ‘false dawns’ and ‘springs of hope’, when it seemed that the situation would ease for Christian and other minorities, the difficulties facing

10 Hasan Dehqani-Tafti, Christ and Christianity among the Iranians, 3Vols (Basingstoke:

Sohrab Books, 1992–94), p. 80.

11 David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s

(London: Unwin Hyman,1989), p. 86; Jocelyn Murray, Proclaim the Good News: A short

history of the Church Missionary Society (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985), p. 137;

Kelsey M. Finnie., Beyond the Minarets: A Biography of Henry Martyn (Chatham, clc

Publications, 1999); John Rooney, The Hesitant Dawn (Rawalpindi, Christian Study Centre,

1984), p. 77.

12 Hill, ‘Light from the East’, p. 113. Murray, ‘Proclaim the Good News’, p. 136 & 290.

 churches and Christians continue at the time of writing. This is especially so for the significant numbers of new Christians who have come to faith since the Revolution and are mostly from a majority community background. Their plight will be further examined in the next section.13

    The Islamic Revolution 

The 1979 revolution is now a vital part of the history of Iran, and it has altered the direction of Iranian politics, culture, and society by a new understanding of a religious (Shi’a) state ruled by clergy a theocracy. The establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini14 was a new and significant chapter in Iranian history, as well as for all the people of Iran, including Christian and other minorities. The initial appearance of Ruhollah Khomeini’s notion of ‘Velayat-e Faqih’15 in Shi’a jurisprudence and government and its dramatic implementation in all the spheres of Iranian society shaped the post-revolution public of Iran, including religious minority groups. In particular, its effect on Christian converts from Islam was severe. We will briefly discuss the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran and the government based on Shi’a jurisprudence, the Shi’a constitution and their effect on Christian minority groups. Towards the end, we will mention a voice of reformation in the thinking and practice of democracy and theocracy.

Revolution and Shi’a Jurisprudence Government

Iran had a long royalist history before the revolution began in 1978. Iranian political identity has deep roots in the ancient Persian kings; Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius, Bahram, Ardeshir, Shahpur, Khosrow and Nader Shah. Some of the great sense of pride in being an Iranian goes back to the royalist history in Iran. The majority of Iranians do not acknowledge the tyrannical aspects of their kings, for there is a sense of pride as to what they achieved, as well as their rule under the ‘charisma’ of a special divine force and favour (farr-ī īzadī & farre Kiyâni) and also a code of justice.16 Despite the royalist political identity, however, the

13 Dehqani-Tafti, Mushkil ‘Ishq or The Hard Awakening (London: spck, 1981).

14 Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989) - Iranian Shi’a cleric who led the revolution that overthrew

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979 and was Iran’s supreme leader as Velayat-e Faqih,

ultimate political and religious authority for the next ten years.

15 Velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of the Islamic jurist, is a system of governance that has

underpinned the way Iran operates since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

16 Mark Bradley, Iran and Christianity: Historical Identity and Present Relevance (London and

New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008), p. 45.

revolution in 1979 terminated the long history of the monarchist era. It ushered in the Islamic Republic of Iran, an authoritarian theocratic regime formed by Shi’a clergy.17 The Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a Shi’a faqih and a grand ayatollah.18 and he then declared the Islamic Republic of Iran.19 The Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran equates with the French revolution of 1789, and the Russian revolution of 1917 and its signif-icance is unprecedented in world history. It is regarded as the astonishment of the century. This revolutionary event had provided the basic change when the Ayatollah succeeded in raising the banner of Islamic Shi’a theocracy in the royalist land of the kings.20 Moreover, ‘The Islamic Revolution was in effect the redefining of clerical aspirations no longer congruent with the temporal power of the state but in competition with the state and eventually taking control of the state’.21 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was considered the pioneer and founder of this new socio-political era in the land of kings by implementing his new theoretical religio-political innovation of Velayat-e Faqih as the supreme leader in post-revolutionary Iran. 

   Khomeini established the ‘Twelvers or Ithna -Ashari’22 domination with the Imams as the divinely appointed successors of the Prophet Muhammad. It is the largest group of Shi’ite Muslims globally and is established amongst the majority of the population of Iran. Khomeini, as one of the significant sources of emulation in Iran, insists that in the beginning, God created human beings and that God has never left humanity without a leader. Subsequently, from Adam to Muhammad, God appointed prophets to guide the people, show them the righteous path, and forbid deviation. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, his twelve successors were to be the guiding Imams in the world.23 Similarly, Shi’a clergy claim that God had given Sharia law to Muslims in order for it to be implemented correctly and that no one knows Islam and its divine law better than the clergy. Therefore, Khomeini himself had insisted,


17 Simoglou Alexandros, Iran: A Brief Study of the Theocratic Regime [Electronic], pp.5–8,

2005,, [accessed 10 August 2018].

18 The word ayatollah means “exemplar of Allah” or “miraculous sign of God.

19 bbc History Ayatollah Khomeini, 2014,

khomeini_ayatollah.shtml, [accessed 07 July 2021].

20 Said Amir Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran, Studies in

Middle Eastern (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 3.

21 Abbas Amanat, Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shi’ism (New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd,

2009), p. 11.

22 Mainstream Shi’ia Islam believes in the 12 Shi’ia Imams; hence the name which means


23 Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, Islamic government (Tehran: Entesharate Daftare Tablighate

Islami, 1998), p. 24–25.

‘it was natural that clergy (Velayat-e Faqih) should rule as guardians of the state until the return of the 12th divinely ordained Shi’a Imam al-Mahdi’.24  Built on Khomeini’s interpretation, as a source of emulation who can engage in ijtihad,25 jurisprudents (fuqaha) have been the only ones stated to be capable of running an Islamic government in a predominantly Shi’a society in the absence of the Twelve Imams. They are representatives of God and appointed rulers by God to rule and guard the Shi’a state by divine authority. On the other hand, the Shi’a classic tradition of law regarding the role of fuqaha insists they should avoid being involved in temporal political government, which was traditionally considered illegitimate during the absence of the twelfth Imam.26 ‘The Shi’a classic law generally held the position that in the absence of the Imam of the Age, any form of government, presumably even a government led by the jurists, is fundamentally ‘unjust’ and therefore theoretically illegitimate’.27 There is, therefore no Shi’a classic traditional model that acknowledges the direct clerical fuqaha rule of the government and society politically.

    The socio-political and cultural aspects of Iranians have been significantly changed by Khomeini’s religio-political notion of Velayat-e Faqih and its manifestation. Iranian social character is influenced by the theory and its manifestation in all socio-political spheres. It has happened over four decades through the constitution, the media, social propaganda, social structure, the educational system, political and civil laws. Khomeini’s theory has produced an authoritarian government with a dogmatic Shi’a ideology that does not hear other voices except itself. The question can be asked how has this affected the Christian minority?

        The Shi’a Constitution and the Christian Minority

Once Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile in 1979, he formed the Assembly of Experts28 who were tasked to design a draft of the Islamic


24 Kasra Aarabi, What Is Velayat-e Faqih? 2019,

faqih [accessed 10 September 2021].

25 ‘Ijtihad’ refers to independent reasoning and is contrasted with taqlid (conformity to legal


26 Tamara C. Mackenthun, Continuity in Iranian leadership legitimisation: Farr-I Izadi, Shi’ism,

and Velayat-e Faqih (M.A. thesis, Boise State University, 2009), p. 82.

27 Abbas Amanat., IRAN A Modern History (New Haven & London: Yale University Press,

2017), p. 907.

28 The Assembly of Experts, a body of 83 clerics, was originally formed to draft the 1979


Shi’a Constitution. The final draft of the Islamic constitution contained 175 Articles. 40 amendments were added after Khomeini’s death. There was a combination of divine rights, human rights, theocracy, democracy, clerical authority and sovereignty. Nevertheless, the entire content of the new constitution was shaped in the light of Shi’a belief and Khomeini’s theocratic con-cept of Velayat-e Faqih. The introduction affirmed faith in God, Divine Justice, the Qur’an, Judgment Day, the Prophet Muhammad, the Twelve Imams, the return of the Hidden Mahdi, and, most relevant of all, Khomeini’s concept of Velayat-e Faqih. The constitution provided for a Velayat-e Faqih to serve as the supreme leader of the government with a very broad range of authority in the Islamic Republic.29 Khomeini had intended to implement the doctrine of Twelvers into the wholly new Shi’a constitution, and his vision shaped a unique Shi’a clergy-led government and Umma-state with a supreme leader. This implied divinely sanctioned legal authority behind his total control of Shi’a society and the government.

    Though the population of Iran is diverse, religion has been an essential con-stituent of Iranian identity for centuries, and Iran is home to many diverse religions.30 However, since the revolution. the situation of non-Shi’a communities has been shaped differently and has gone down the road of less tolerance for religious minority groups in the Islamic republic. Most Muslim theologians and scholars believe in Islam’s universalism, as Khomeini himself did. However, the 1979 Iranian constitution in Article 12 specifically recognised Iran as a Twelvers state.31

     Article 19 in the Islamic Republic’s constitution declared that all people of Iran enjoy equal rights, regardless of tribe or ethnic group to which they belong, and there is no indication of religion. However, Zoroastrians, Jews, Buddhists,Christians, Gnostics, Sunnis, and Bahais have all worshipped and practised their faith under Iran’s vast skies, but in reality, Shiites and Sufis32 dominate the religious landscape.33 There are two terms being used post-revolution for religious minorities: ‘recognised’ and ‘unrecognised’. Article 13 and 14 only


29 Ervand Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

2008), p. 163–164.

30 uscirf, United State Commission on International Religious freedom, 2016, https://www. [accessed 04 July 2020].

31 Eliz Sanasarian, Religious Minorities in Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

2000), p. 17.

32 Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism that emphasises introspection and spiritual

closeness with God.

33 Bradley, ‘Iran and Christianity’, p. 3.

 officially recognise these three religious minorities: Christians (Armenians andAssyrians), Jews, and Zoroastrians.34

       Article 13: Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognised religious minorities who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.

       Article 14: ...the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and all Muslims are duty-bound to treat non-Muslims in conformity with ethical norms and the principles of Islamic justice and equity and to respect their human rights. This principle applies to all who refrain from engaging in conspiracy or activity against Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran.35

Traditionally this recognition has its roots in an accurate translation of the Qur’an and Islamic traditions since both Sunni and Shi’a recognise only the ‘legitimate’ peoples, the ahl al-kitab (the People of the Book). The people of the book were under the protection of the Islamic state, this status being known as ahl al-dhimma (the Protected People), including Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians.36 The Islamic Republic’s majlis (Parliament) has 270–290 representatives, including the separate five seats reserved for representatives of the officially recognised religious minorities: the Armenians, Assyrians, Jews, and Zoroastrians.37 Article 13 was formed from the Qur’an and provided limited freedom and civil rights for these minorities to practice their faith and have a restricted voice in the majlis. Despite the recognition, it seems they only have limited civil rights in the Islamic Republic compared to the Shi’a Muslims. They are classified as second-class citizens and experience various types of political, social and legal discrimination and pressure.38 


   Before the revolution of 1979, every citizen, including the religious minority groups, was described as ‘Irani’, but after the Islamic revolution, ‘Irani’ was replaced by aqaliyat (minority) for Christians, Jews,  and Sunni. Likewise, the term hamvatan (fellow countryman/countrywoman) was replaced by ‘Muslim


34 The civil rights of recognised religious minorities went back to the first draft of the

constitution, written by Mehdi Bazargan.

35 Iran (the Islamic Republic of)’s Constitution of 1979 with Amendments through 1989.

36 Sanasarian, ‘Religious Minorities in Iran’, p. 19–21.

37 Abrahamian, ‘A History of Modern Iran’, p. 166.

38 See Christian Van Gorder, Christianity in Persia and the Status of Non-Muslims in Iran (New

York: Lexington Books, 2020), p. 178.

sisters and brothers.’ There were objections to the use of the term of aqaliyat inArticle 13 of the Islamic constitution for minorities at the Assembly of Experts,as they rather preferred the term javame (communities), but later, they agreedon the use of aqaliyat again to refer to the religious minority groups.39 However, other religious minorities in Iran, such as Buddhists, Bahá’ís and Muslim converts to Christianity, remain unrecognised as a religious minority. As a result, this unrecognition brings low or, in some cases, zero tolerance and unavoidable social-political and civil rights consequences.

    According to the latest official reports, post-revolution, Iran has shown the rise of Muslim Shi’a converting to Christianity as an ‘unrecognised religious minority’. For example, referring to the latest statistics, ‘researchers have credited the underground house church in Iran as the fastest growing Christian church in the world, and it has unique characteristics that defy comparison with churches in America and Europe’.40 The manifestation of Velayat-e Faqih has had various socio-political and spiritual implications for Shi’a Muslims about conversion to Christianity. The majority of members of the underground house churches in Iran are not formed by ethnic minority Christians (Armenians, Assyrians) but rather by Iranian Christian converts from Muslim Shi’a or other backgrounds. The number of conversions has increased significantly and cannot be compared with the pre-revolution era. These groups are largely Protestant and evangelical, who actively share their religious beliefs, and according to the International Federation for Human Rights, have been subject to persecution.41

    These converts are forced to go underground and meet for worship in homes instead of church buildings since most of the church buildings which held Farsi services have been shut down. Moreover, all sorts of socio-political pressures have compelled them to flee the country and migrate to the West and elsewhere. The Telegraph newspaper reported in 2018 of the state of Christianity in Iran. 

        There are no official records, but there are estimated to be some 350,000 remaining in Iran someone per cent of Iran’s population, with a rising trend toward converting to Christianity... While worship is permitted under-

39 Sanasarian, ‘Religious Minorities in Iran’, p. 154.

40 Mark Ellis, Fastest Growing Church has no Buildings, No Central Leadership, and is mainly

led by Women, Godreports, 2019,

has-no-buildings-no-central-leadership-and-is-mostly-led-by-women/ [accessed 06 July 2020]

41 Federation for Human Rights (fidh) 2019,

IrandiscrimLDDHI545a.pdf [accessed 06 July 2020], p. 21.

     the Islamic Republic’s constitution, conversion to Christianity can be a crime meriting a sentence of more than ten years imprisonment. Iran’s powerful mullahs are committed to expanding the influence of Shia Islam and blame foreign influence” for the conversions. There are many reports that this has contributed to the government’s ever-increasing dependence on hard-line             Islamic ayatollahs, who naturally see Christianity as a threat to their power. For this reason, it’s not surprising that we see an increase in Christian persecution. It has become increasingly common for authorities to arrest worshippers, raid house churches, and confiscate Bibles.42 

Churches have been closed down, the use of the Persian language in sermons banned, the publishing of Bibles restricted, and Muslims strictly prohibited from attending services, with previous converts from Islam being put under particular surveillance. Several Christian leaders43 since the early days of the Revolution have also been killed by execution or extrajudicial killing; the manner of their disappearances, and the consistency of the design of their deaths, have made most observers suspect elements within Iranian governmental authorities themselves.44 While judicial Shi’a authorities sometimes charge Christians with the religious crimes of apostasy or blasphemy, the prosecution of Protestant converts for political or national security crimes in Revolutionary Courts is far more frequent. The most common charges include ‘propaganda against the regime,’ ‘acting against national security,’ ‘contact with a foreign enemy or anti-regime groups,’ and ‘colluding with enemy foreigners.’ However, in fact, the evidentiary basis for these charges and prosecutions were basic Christian activities, such as evangelising, hosting church services or bible studies, attending Christian conferences, or distributing bibles. Iranian officials also often interpret association with an organisation based abroad as a national security crime. Moreover, the Christian community in Iran, and in particular, Protestant converts, also face systematic discrimination in almost all walks of life, including employment, education, and access to justice. In some areas, including marriage and family life, as well as in Iran’s penal code, Iranian law blatantly discriminates between Muslims and Christians.45 Notwithstanding

42 Telegraph, Iran arrests more than 100 Christians in growing crackdown on minority, 2018, [accessed 09 September 2019]

43 Both Christian converts from Muslim backgrounds and ethnic Christian backgrounds - Armenian and Assyrian, who were involved in serving Muslim background converts.

44 Eliz Sanasarian and Avi Davidi, Domestic Tribulations and International Repercussions: The

State and the Transformation of Non-Muslim in Iran (Business Source Premier, 2007), p. 2.

45 International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, The Cost of Faith Persecution of

Christian Protestants and Converts in Iran (New York: Headquarters, 2013), p. 10,12.

the severe socio-political systemic state persecution and discrimination by authorities, converts secretly meet in house churches for worship instead of church buildings. Based on the evidence, the number of conversions fromShi’a Islam to Protestant Christianity is a predominant feature of post-revolu-tionary Iran. It seems the Shi’a constitution formed by the theory of Velayat-eFaqih and Twelvers doctrine encourages society to be less tolerant of non-Shi’a groups. Despite this, the Iranian Shi’a public is commonly more accepting of religious minorities, particularly Christians. Yet, civil and social laws based on government legislation and regulations that contradict democracy and even the Iranian Republic’s constitution demonstrate low or zero tolerance for this unrecognised group.

       Is there any light being seen at the end of the tunnel for the future of democratic society?

         Emerging Reformist Thinking in Post-Revolutionary Iran

In recent years the voices of Shi’a intellectual reformists have been raised to

criticise the theory of Velayat-e Faqih and the Shi’a constitution’s conflict with contemporary democratic norms. Intelligent and influential voices such as Mohsen Kadivar, Abdul Karim Soroush and Muhamad Mujtahid Shabistar have been to the fore in formulating a critique of Khomeiniism. Kadivar (Former Shi’a clergy), for example, has raised the issue concerning current Iranian politics and the harmony of Velayat-e Faqih with democracy in Iran. He analyses democracy and its relationship to the theory of Velayat-e Faqih. In his book, The Theories of State in Shiite Fiqh, he argues for ‘Political legitimacy’ in Iran and attempts to respond to the central question of ‘whether, in fact, God has granted sovereignty of a people to a specific person or class of people or that he has granted the right to self-determination, within the framework of the objectives of religion and regulations of Shari’a, to all the ummah.’ He sums up that these two theories of political legitimacy can be argued from fiqh. The first is ‘the basis of direct divine legitimacy’ and the second is ‘the divine democratic legitimacy’.46 Yet, according to Khomeini, Velayat-e Faqih is displayed in four manifestations in all spheres. Firstly velayat (Guardianship); under the Velayat-e Faqih concept everyone must seek permission from the Velayat-e Faqih for any decision or

46 Mohsen Kadivar, The Theories of State in Shiite Fiqh, Political Thought in Islam Series –

No. 1 Tehran: Nashr-e Nay, 2008,

state-in-shiite-fiqh/ [accessed 04 August 2020], p. 233.

action in the public sphere. Secondly, entesab (Appointment) and “acceptance” (paziresh); the appointed velayat-based state is the opposite of democracy; a free election being the opposite of Appointment. Thirdly, etlagh (Absolutism); under the appointed velayat, ‘the supreme leader is not only above the law, but he also sanctions the law and can suspend the constitution, whereas in a democracy ‘no one is above the law’. Fourthly, feghahat (Qualification as a jurist); ‘under Velayat-e Faqih, Islamic jurisprudence provides the entire theory of government in all fields, from the cradle to the grave. In a democracy, society is managed on scientific principles; judges are not expected to plan the entire spectrum of political, economic, social and cultural life’.47 Accordingly, in such an authoritarian concept and system, the public has less-or- no authority to choose and develop the constitution or civil rights in a democratic manner. Abdul Karim Soroush, similarly, claims that it is impossible to establish a democratic state with the theory of Velayat-e Faqih, because of its religious oppression. He propounds that absolute corruption results from absolute power. Soroush argues that clerical government and constitution are not well matched values in the twenty-first century and are unable to satisfy contemporary humanity.48 Soroush’s response to the absolute clerical government and constitution is in terms of secularism rather than the religion of the Shi’a state. His view is that a secular government does not motivate people to abandon their religion. He writes that ‘secularism has been understood as a deliberate effort to exclude religion from worldly affairs. But the truth is that secular governments are not opposed to religion; they accept it but not as a basis for their legitimacy or as a foundation for their action’.49 These voices of reformists are challenging Khomeini’s Shi’a clerical concept of Theo-democratic ideology and the Shi’a Jurisprudence Government.


The socio-political and cultural of Iranian society have been significantly changed by Khomeini’s religio-political notion of Velayat-e Faqih and itsmanifestation since the Islamic revolution. It has now been enforced over four

47 Mohsen Kadivar, God and His Guardians (this paper was delivered at the Middle East

Association of North America, Washington DC, 2004), p. 56–57.

48 Abdolkarim Soroush, Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam, Translated, Edited, and with

a Critical Introduction by Mahmoud Sadri & Ahmad Sadri (Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 2000), p. 34–51.

49 Soroush, ‘Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam’, p. 56–57.

decades through the constitution, the media, social propaganda, social structure, the educational system, political and civil laws. Although the majority is Twelver Shia, Iran remains ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse. However, according to the Shi’a constitution, only three religious minorities are officially recognised: Ethnic Christians (Armenians & Assyrians), Jews and Zoroastrians, and it does not recognise other religious minorities, including the emerging converts to Christianity. As a result, this non-recognition brings very low or in some cases, zero tolerance and unavoidable social-political and civil rights consequences, and it leads to the experience of various kinds of severe persecution and discrimination.

    However, in recent years the voices of Shi’a intellectual reformists have risen up to demand democracy and a reformation in Shi’a clerical theology and Shi’a Jurisprudence of Government. Not merely them, but rather the voices of Iranian Christian converts from Shi’a background, who have seen their numbers increased, can as an unrecognised minority group be a voice for an imminent change in the socio-political system, providing civil equality and rightsfor all Iranians.


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