Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 September 2014, 12:56 GMT

Iran: Information on conversion from Islam to Christianity

Publisher United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services
Author Resource Information Center
Publication Date 14 November 2002
Citation / Document Symbol IRN03002.ZHN
Cite as United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Iran: Information on conversion from Islam to Christianity, 14 November 2002, IRN03002.ZHN, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3f51f9b24.html [accessed 18 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Query:

Please provide information on conversion from Islam to Christianity in Iran. Particularly, does the Armenian Evangelical Christian Church in Iran proselytize to non-Christians and seek to convert them to Christianity?

Response:

According to the U.S. Department of State 2002 report on religious freedom in Iran:

"The Government is highly suspicious of any proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims and can be harsh in its response, in particular against Baha'is and evangelical Christians. The Government does not ensure the right of citizens to change or renounce their religious faith. Apostasy, specifically conversion from Islam, can be punishable by death" (U.S. DOS 7 Oct 2002).

There is no official law against apostasy in Iran, but with the integration of the Revolutionary Courts with the national court system, the religious courts, using the religious writings of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, have applied the death sentence to cases of apostasy (HRW Sep 1997, p. 15, 29). Human Rights Watch and other sources have reported numerous cases of death sentences handed out for apostasy, but International Christian Concern, on their website, has numerous reports of lesser consequences as well as severe punishment being applied for apostasy, reporting on several instances in the late 1990s when purely economic sanctions were applied against apostates (ICC 18 Sep 2002).

The Human Rights Watch report notes:

"The majority of Iran's approximately 200,000 Christians belong to churches identified with distinct ethnic groups, including the Armenian, Assyrian, and Chaldean Orthodox churches. These churches, which account for more than 90 percent of Iran's Christians, carry out their services in their own languages and have engaged in little if any proselytization in the broader society" (HRW 1997, p. 21).

This is in contrast to the "Iranian Protestants [who] carry out their church services in Farsi, the official language, and seek to disseminate the Bible and other Christian texts in Farsi" (HRW 1997, p. 21). Protestants who are preaching in Farsi, and disseminating Christian literature in Farsi are subject not only to "the institutionalized discrimination common to all non-Muslims in the Islamic Republic," but they are also subject to persecution if their religious activities are detected by the authorities (HRW 1997, p. 21). But this usually does not apply to the ethnically based churches (HRW 1997, p. 21).

Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports:

"The Armenian and Assyrian churches have been allowed to stay open because their services are conducted in the Armenian/Assyrian languages and because they have agreed to the government's demands forbidding Muslims and Muslim converts from attending the church services and refraining from evangelism" (CSW undated).

In 1994 the Rev. Tateos Michaelian, pastor of St. John's Armenian Evangelical Church in Iran, was found shot to death sometime between June 29 and July 2, in Tehran. He had recently been appointed Chairman of the Council of Protestant Ministers in Iran, a post previously held by Bishop Haik Hosvepian-Mehr, who was stabbed to death by "unknown assailants" on January 20th of that year (U.S. Center for World Missions Sep-Oct 1994).

According to a Washington DC-based Armenian Apostolic Arch-Priest who was interviewed by the Resource Information Center, there are generally three types of Armenian Christians-- Apostolic, Evangelical, and Catholic. He stated that both the Armenian Apostolic church (his own branch) and the Armenian Catholic church do not, on the whole, proselytize in Iran or in the U.S. for that matter. He stated that these churches will baptize non-Christians who come to them, but that they do not actively seek out new Christians. He stated that the Armenian Evangelical Church, on the other hand, "has been more proactive in converting non-Christians" to Christianity, "even though it is dangerous in Iran" (Armenian Apostolic Arch-Priest 14 Nov 2002).

Church services in Armenian churches in Iran (all three branches) are conducted in the Armenian language, but that there may be some mixing of Farsi to accommodate those who do not understand Armenian (Armenian Apostolic Arch-Priest 14 Nov 2002).

The following information was gathered in a February 2002 telephone interview with a representative of Human Rights Watch in New York. The representative is Iranian-American and has travelled to Iran on several occasions in her capacity as a human rights monitor for Human Rights Watch. The goal of this interview was to collect general information on religious minorities, particularly Christians, in Iran. The goal of this interview was not to collect information on Muslim converts to Christianity per se.

In regards to religious freedom in Iran, the law governing status of religious minorities in Iran has not changed (see attached U.S. DOS 2002 INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM REPORT on Iran). Discrimination against religious minorities in Iran is legal. However, the life-style of some religious groups, including Armenian Christians (but not including evangelical Christians or converts from Islam to other religions), has improved for the past four years under the leadership of President Khatami. The representative emphasized that "no one knows how long this will last," and pointed out the very tenuous nature of President Khatami's hold on power—particularly due to the recently revived anti-American sentiment in Iran. This development has played into the hands of Iran's conservative leadership, who oppose President Khatami's more moderate views on governance and society and his call for "détente" with the U.S. (Representative 13 Feb 2002).

The representative stated that religious minorities recognized by the Iranian government, i.e. Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, can practice their religions. One notable exception is evangelical Christians, who sometimes face harassment and persecution due to their proselytization of Muslims. (An individual who converts from Islam to another religion can face the death penalty in Iran). The Iranian government does not recognize Baha'is, who constitute the largest non-Muslim religious minority, as a religious minority in Iran. Therefore, Baha'is do not "enjoy freedom of activity" as discussed in the attached U.S. DOS 2002 report.

The representative emphasized that there is a great deal of state-sponsored persecution in Iran on various grounds, but not, as a rule, against recognized religious minorities based on their membership in a religious minority. Christians, including Armenian Christians, are not as a rule persecuted for the fact that they are Christian, unless they are proselytizing to Muslims. (The Armenian Christian community is generally a "closed" one that does not proselytize to other faiths). Christians generally are able to, for instance, attend church, carry a Bible, and hold religious gatherings or celebrations in their homes (Representative 13 Feb 2002).

For more information on the situation of Armenian Christians and other religious minorities in Iran, please see the attachments. The attached article written by Rev. Barkev Darakjian, pastor of the First Armenian Evangelical Church of Glendale, California, discusses the early Armenian Evangelical church in Iran.

This response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the RIC within time constraints. This response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.

References:

Armenian Apostolic Arch-Priest. Telephone interview (Washington, DC: 14 Nov. 2002).

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). "Iran Profile" (undated) http://www.csw.org.uk/Iranprofile.htm [Accessed 13 Nov 2002]

Human Rights Watch (HRW). IRAN - RELIGIOUS AND ETHNIC MINORITIES: Discrimination in Law And Practice (New York: Sep 1997, Vol. 9, No. 7).

International Christian Concern (ICC). "Middle East: Iran" (18 Sep 2002) http://www.persecution.org/humanrights/iran.html#Articles [Accessed 13 Nov 2002]

Representative. Human Rights Watch (HRW). Telephone interview (New York: 13 Feb 2002).

U.S. Center for World Missions. MISSION FRONTIERS. "Global News Update" (Sep-Oct 1994) http://www.missionfrontiers.org/1994/0910/so9416.htm [Accessed 13 Nov 2002]

U.S. Department of State (U.S. DOS). INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM REPORT 2002. "Iran" (7 Oct 2002) http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2002/13995pf.htm [Accessed 14 Nov 2002]

Attachments:

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). "Iran Profile" (undated) http://www.csw.org.uk/Iranprofile.htm [Accessed 13 Nov 2002]

Cilicia.com. "Directories of Armenian Churches in Iran: Armenian Church Directory" (undated) http://www.cilicia.com/armo_church_directory.html [Accessed 13 Nov 2002]

Darakjian, Rev. Barkev. "Evangelism in the Early Armenian Evangelical Church" (1995) http://www.cacc-sf.org/c-eeaBND.html [Accessed on 13 Nov 2002]

Human Rights Watch (HRW). IRAN - RELIGIOUS AND ETHNIC MINORITIES: Discrimination in Law And Practice (New York: Sep 1997, Vol. 9, No. 7).

International Christian Concern (ICC). "Middle East: Iran" (18 Sep 2002) http://www.persecution.org/humanrights/iran.html#Articles [Accessed 13 Nov 2002]

U.S. Center for World Missions. MISSION FRONTIERS. "Global News Update" (Sep-Oct 1994) http://www.missionfrontiers.org/1994/0910/so9416.htm [Accessed 13 Nov 2002]

U.S. Department of State (U.S. DOS). INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM REPORT 2002. "Iran" (7 Oct 2002) http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2002/13995pf.htm [Accessed 14 Nov 2002]

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