Iran is frequently in the political news, because of the aggressive stance of the president of Iran toward western civilization. News of internal events is less frequently reported. Iran does not wish foreigners to know much about what happens within its borders, but some news does get out.
This week, Voice of the Martyrs reported that four leaders of a Christian church in Iran had been arrested, convicted and jailed. Their crimes: “converting to Christianity, inviting Muslims to convert, as well as propagating against the Islamic regime through promoting Evangelic Christianity.” It sounds strange to western ears that “converting to Christianity” could be a crime, but to Muslim ears, this is important truth. Muslims are taught that converting to any other faith is a sin, and where the government embodies Islamic teaching, it is a crime. In Iran, an Islamic theocracy, conversion is a crime. People who choose to receive Christ and be baptized have committed a crime, and everything they do to tell others about Christ and to influence other people to become Christians is a crime as well. On October 15, the pastor, his wife, and two other ministers in the church were each sentenced to a year in prison for their crimes. They have the legal right of appeal, and it is reported that they plan to appeal.
The right of appeal does not hold the same hope for these Christians in Iran as it holds for convicted prisoners in the USA. Only a year ago a pastor serving a one-year sentence for similar crimes was informed a day before his scheduled release that his sentence had just been extended to six years. This judicial behavior sounds capricious to American ears, but in other countries around the world, it is not uncommon.
Iran today is known as a stronghold of fundamental, aggressive Islam. It is startling to discover that it was one of the earliest outposts of Christianity. The book of Acts records that on Pentecost “There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world.” (Acts 2:5) In the list of pilgrims were Persians, Parthians, Medes and visitors from Mesopotamia. Those pilgrims took Christianity back to the region known today as Iran, and Christian churches in the country date from that early era. Christianity has a 2000-year history within the boundaries of present-day Iran.
Christianity has legal rights in Iran’s constitution, too. However, Christians are often arrested on the basis of Islam’s legal rights. When those rights conflict with the rights of Christians, the rights of Muslims prevail. Most of the news of persecution of Christians is suppressed by the government as propaganda deliberately detrimental to Islam.
Americans think such news items are outrageous and incomprehensible, unless they pay attention to blogs and comment threads online in this country. In the USA there is no established religion, such as Islam or Buddhism, to be protected by the state. Instead, increasing secular pressure scorns all religions equally. Bloggers and people commenting on news items accuse religious people of telling “ghost stories.” Most such comments are directed at Christians, but any religion is subject to be accused of being a complete myth. Karl Marx’s statement that religion is the “opiate of the people,” has been quoted more than once by fervent atheists expressing their scorn of religious people who want to exercise their faith in public. Christians receive the brunt of the attack simply because Christianity has a stronger historic presence in the US than any other religion. It can readily be observed on blogs and comments that while there is no legally-sanctioned persecution of Christianity in the USA, the culture contains a strong and aggressive element that wants Christianity to be kept out of sight.
Christians in Iran suffer because at the moment the government of Iran acts as an agent of Islam to protect Muslims from any influence that might lead them to some other faith. Despite a few weak legal protections for Christians, the preponderance of the government and the culture want Christianity shut down and wiped out of the country. The government participates by using laws that favor Islam to diminish the force of laws that protect Christians.
Christians in the US suffer cultural abuse and must battle for legal standing because of two parallel forces: 1) there is a growing population demographic with no connections to any religion whatsoever, and 2) there is a growing Christian current that has absorbed the secular notions of inclusion and diversity so deeply that it is willing to ignore or restate long-standing Christian teachings to accommodate cultural pressures. The combined pressure of these parallel developments diminishes Christianity in the eyes of the culture, and the culture, via political activism and actual votes, is gradually building barriers against the public expression of Christian faith. You might say that because of the combined force of these two secular currents, laws are interpreted to protect the secular view in the US just as laws are interpreted to protect the Islamic view in Iran.
It is shocking to hear that a pastor in Iran has been arrested for doing what pastors do: speaking to non-Christians about Christ and trying to lead them to faith. It should be shocking to hear in that a Christian in the US has lost her job for saying that she believes the definition of marriage is the union of a man and a woman. Christians need to pray that all around the world we may have the courage to speak and live true to our faith. The one thing Jesus asked us to do as he prepared to ascend to heaven is to live true to the faith and to share it with others:
Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20, The Message)