April 14, 2009
The threatening environment facing Christians in Iran continues to worsen. That’s saying something, considering Christians there have faced incredibly hostile responses for a long time.
In 1994, Joseph Hovsepian was living with his family in Iran when his father, the Rev. Haik Hovsepian, was executed by the government for what was described as anti-government operations.
In reality, Haik Hovsepian was martyred for his Christian views in a country where Christianity continues to grow at a rate that alarms Islamic officials.
Joseph Hovsepian left Iran soon after his father’s death, finally settling in California. But while he has not actually set foot in his native country in almost 15 years, he remains in close contact with members of the Assemblies of God church he once attended, and with house church worshipers from across Iran.
“There is worry and spiritual warfare for every Christian living in Iran,” Joseph said. “It is part of the package and you can’t ignore that. Once you become a follower of Jesus that is one of the first boxes you have to make sure you pick ... or you’re going to be living a heathen Christian life.”
The good news is that churches continue to unite against forces that apply a constant pressure not to share Christ outside the church/home walls.
“The churches are very much united, because division is the last thing you need at times of tension and pressure and torture,” he said.
At the same time, the Iranian Parliament is considering a bill that would require the death penalty for apostates, those who leave the Islamic faith.
Paul Estabrooks, Minister-At-Large for Open Doors International, says the crackdown on Christians in Iran is happening because the church is growing so quickly. The ranks of Christians have swelled from about 100,000 a decade ago to 300,000 today.
“And that’s just the official number. But we know there are more,” said Estabrooks, who said the number is intentionally downsized to help insure the safety of those living in Iran.
“The government is aware that the house church movement has grown dramatically, especially among younger people. And this disturbs them,” Estabrooks said. “I’ve been to Iran twice and have found many people frustrated and ready to give up on Islam because they’ve become disillusioned. But they don’t know of a viable alternative, because of the mosque.”
Daily prayers and sermons in Iranian mosques typically paint Western Christians as wild, characterizing Christianity in the United States as what is seen on TV.
“They say, ‘You want to know what Christianity is? Watch American television. It’s the real fruit of Christianity, full of immorality and excessive everything,’ ” Estabrooks said.
Open Doors tracks the hatred and distrust of Christianity internationally, assigning rankings to the most dangerous spots for Christians to practice their faith. For the past seven years Iran ranked third behind No. 2 Saudi Arabia and No. 1 North Korea. In January, Iran moved into a tie for second with Saudi Arabia.
“[It’s] simply because of the crackdowns happening there,” Estabrooks said.
First-hand information on the situation in Iran is difficult to come by, but Open Doors says the arrests of at least 50 Christians were documented in 2008.
“And they’re treated very severely,” Estabrooks said. “One couple who were in their 60s and who were leaders of a house church were treated so badly that they died from their injuries while being interrogated in prison.
Last month, three Iranian Christians were found guilty of cooperating with “anti-government movements” and were ordered to discontinue Christian activities and to stop propagating their faith, according to Compass Direct News. The trio received an eight-month suspended sentence, with a five-year probation, and were banned from having contact with one another.
In another situation, an Assyrian Pentecostal church in Tehran was ordered to close for offering a Farsi-language service attended by converts from Islam.
The majority of Iranian Christians are of Armenian descent and speak Armenian, which helps separate them from the Muslim masses. The government pays closer attention when these churches also offer services in Farsi.
“Close attention is being paid to these churches that have services in Farsi (the native language),” Estabrooks said. “Someone is always watching to see if new faces are there.”
The government is reacting to the growth by expanding the powers of Parliament to effectively persecute Christians. Currently, anyone charged with apostasy goes before a court, where the judge rules on a case-by-case basis. The penalty might be hard labor or prison or simply a fine.
If the recent bill becomes law, however, it would create a new penal code by which conservative Muslim clerics would make the final decision on each case of apostasy. Any Iranian man found guilty would be put to death, while women would receive life imprisonment.
“The prisons are horrible,” Estabrooks said, adding that they are notorious for torture and brutal interrogation techniques. “In our last phone call we know of one woman who is suffering an infection and has a high fever. She feels she is dying and needs urgent medical attention.”
Such news does not shock Joseph Hovsepian, who saw conditions deteriorating in the days before he left Iran.
“Growing up, my parents had created this safe world for me around the church. After my dad was martyred, everything seemed on a much bigger scale and the persecution scale was higher,” he said. “There were several situations where my family went through emotional and spiritual persecution.”
Hovsepian was interrogated to determine whether he had “anti-government” ties with his father and then was sent to a remote area to serve in the military.
“It was a painful experience for me to live alone, separated from my family, and thinking of my father’s death,’’ he said, adding that his brother, Andre, was warned he would be sent “where we sent your dad.”
The brothers have chronicled their experiences in an award-winning documentary, “A Cry From Iran,” that centers on their father’s death.
But there is hope amid the terror, Hovespian said.
“All the things I’ve shared may sound like too much to cope with,” he said. “But from my personal experience once you’re in that society and that situation the Lord is with you in a special way. He comforts and empowers you. So while we get shocking reactions from Westerners when we share our story or persecution there also is the truth that the Lord is faithful in these times. He shows his love and peace all the way.”