Iranian Christians forced to worship in secret

Anuj Chopra, Chronicle Foreign Service

Friday, June 27, 2008

(06-27) 04:00 PDT Tehran -- Illyas, 20, precariously straddles two worlds.

At home, he's a devout Christian who wears a silver cross around his neck, reads the Bible and sings hymns praising Jesus Christ. In public, he is a pious Muslim who attends regular mosque prayers.

Illyas and his parents - they asked a reporter not to mention the family name to ensure their safety - had been practicing Muslims until they watched a religious television program beamed by satellite from Reseda (Los Angeles County). At that time last year, Illyas's mother called a hot line number of Iran for Christ Ministries, prayed with a counselor and soon accepted Jesus Christ as her savior. Illyas and his stepfather quickly followed.

Islam is the state religion of Iran - 98 percent of the nation's 66 million inhabitants are Muslims - and Islam has governed most aspects of life since the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran. Frustrated with the lack of social liberties since clerics assumed power, Illyas says his family felt compelled to look for other spiritual answers.

"We were looking for a faith that offered the reassurance of freedom," he said.

Although there are no statistics on how many Iranians have converted to Christianity in recent years, officials at such Christian television stations as SAT-7-PARS say that in the past two years they have received a flood of e-mails and thousands of telephone calls from Iranians. With the advent of satellite television, they say, Christianity is on the rise, with some Iranians even undergoing clandestine conversions at Assyrian churches, said David Harder, communications manager at SAT-7-PARS' Cyprus headquarters.

"Certainly across the entire region many people are spiritually thirsty. Iranian Christians themselves often have very little access to teaching materials that can help them in their spiritual growth," said 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, to learn more about this faith."

Even though satellite dishes have been officially banned in Iran since 1995, they crowd city rooftops and the government seems unable to control what Iranians watch at home, many observers say.

An editor of an independent newspaper in Tehran, who asked not to be named, blames satellite television channels for manipulating viewers into converting to Christianity.

"Iranians are looking for relief and proselytizers are taking advantage of that," he said. "I stand by the right to take up a new religion, but there's a vicious Western plot to foment a wider cultural East-West war and demonize Islam in the process."

Even though the nation's penal code does not mandate the death penalty for apostasy, the law could change if President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has his way. In February, he introduced legislation that would mandate execution for apostates.

"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," said 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."

Some clerics believe the migration of Iranians to Christianity is symptomatic of frustration with Islam more than interest in another faith.

"If you force religion down people's throats, it makes them less religious, not more," said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a reformist cleric and Iran's former vice president.

The curbing of social freedoms in the name of Islam, such as mandatory head scarves for women and a crackdown on fashion and Western music, has persisted since 1979, and has driven many young Iranians - 70 percent of the population is under 30 - away from Islam, Abtahi says.

Many Iranians are also frustrated by a stagnant economy despite the country having the world's fourth-largest oil reserves. Inflation is nearly 19 percent; unemployment is at a record 20 percent. Many blame the economic situation on faulty policies and the involvement of religion in governance.

Moreover, Ahmadinejad has authorized a whopping 700 percent increase in government spending for "Islamic religious activities" in 2009, according to Rooz, a Persian news Web site. Ahmadinejad has also proposed increasing the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance budget from $2.2 million to $16.6 million for 2009.

Last year, the state financed a $5 million film called "Jesus, the Spirit of God," an Islamic version of the life of Jesus. The movie depicts Jesus as a tormented prophet who was not crucified or resurrected. Instead his disciple Judas Iscariot, was crucified in his place. This premise is based on the teachings of the Quran and the putative Gospel of Barnabas, a disciple of Jesus. It will now be recycled in a 20-episode serial aired on state-run television.

Even though director Nader Talebzadeh says he wanted to promote a dialogue between Muslims and Christians, some Western critics called it a parochial attempt to promote Islam by spreading misinformation about Christianity.

Meanwhile, Illyas says he will continue to practice his new religion.

"I'll have to keep it a secret as long as I live in Iran," he said. "There's no other way."

Apostasy and Islam
Leaving Islam for another religion, or apostasy, is considered one of the most serious crimes a Muslim can commit, with a recommended punishment of beheading. There is no penalty for a Muslim who kills an apostate, according to Islamic Shariah law.

Most Muslim nations, however, do not mandate the death penalty for those who convert to another religion, and many accept the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights that guarantees all individuals the right to practice the religion of their choice.

But that has not stopped individual judges from doling out the death sentence and vigilantes from threatening, beating and killing converts in Pakistan, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia, Somalia and Kenya, according to Human Rights Watch.

Just this week, two Algerians who converted from Islam to Christianity went on trial on charges that they illegally promoted the Christian faith, according to The Associated Press. Algeria's constitution allows freedom of worship. But a 2006 law strictly regulates how religions other than Islam can be practiced.

In 2006, Abdul Rahman, a convert to Christianity, was sentenced to death by an Afghan court. After ardent worldwide protests, he was released and allowed to flee to Italy.

In Iran, Mehdi Dibaj was imprisoned for his Christian beliefs for 10 years between 1983 and 1993. After Dibaj received the death penalty from an Iranian court, he won his freedom after an international outcry that included Pope John Paul II. Soon after his release, Dibaj was abducted and slain.

- Anuj Chopra

Western influences
There are numerous U.S. and European television and radio religious programs beamed into Iran by satellite:

-- Iranian Christian Television Channel - a registered charity based in the United Kingdom (

-- Radio Mojdeh - also based in the United Kingdom (

-- Iranian Christian Radio of Mission Viejo, Orange County (

-- SAT-7-PARS, a 24-hour Christian satellite station based in Cyprus.

- Anuj Chopra

Chronicle Foreign Service reporter Anuj Chopra visited Iran early this year on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington. E-mail Chopra at