Iran rounds up Christians in crackdown

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran has arrested about 70 Christians since Christmas in a crackdown that demonstrates the limits of religious tolerance by Islamic leaders, who often boast they provide room for other faiths.

The latest raids have targeted grass-roots Christian groups Iran describes as “hard-liners” who pose a threat to the Islamic state. Authorities increasingly view them with suspicions that range from trying to convert Muslims to being possible footholds for foreign influence.

Christian activists claim their Iranian brethren are being persecuted simply for worshipping outside officially sanctioned mainstream churches.

Caught in the middle is the small community of Iranian Christians who get together for prayer and Bible readings in private residences and out of sight of authorities. They are part of a wider “house church” movement that has taken root in other places with tight controls on Christian activities, such as China and Indonesia.

The Iranian Constitution gives protected status to Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, but many religious minorities sense growing pressures from the Islamic state as hard-edged forces such as the powerful Revolutionary Guard exert more influence. There are few social barriers separating Muslims and Iran’s religious minorities such as separate neighborhoods or universities. But they are effectively blocked from high government and military posts.

Iran has claimed as a point of pride that it makes space for other religions. It reserves parliament seats for Jewish and Christian lawmakers and permits churches — Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox and others — as well as synagogues and Zoroastrian temples that are under sporadic watch by authorities. Religious celebrations are allowed, but no political messages or overtones are tolerated.

In past years, authorities have staged arrests on Christians and other religious minorities, but the latest sweeps appear to be among the biggest and most coordinated.

In the West, the followers are drawn to house churches because of the intimate sense of religious fellowship and as an alternative to established denominations. In places such as Iran, however, there also is the effort to avoid monitoring of sanctioned churches from Islamic authorities, who have kept closer watch on religious minorities since the chaos after hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed election in 2009.

Groups monitoring Christian affairs in the Islamic world say Iranian authorities see the unregulated Christian gatherings as both a potential breeding ground for political opposition and suspect they may try to convert Muslim in violation of Iran’s strict apostasy laws — which are common throughout the Muslim world and have at times fed extremist violence against Christians and others.

Tehran Governor Morteza Tamadon described the Christians as “hard-line” missionaries who have “inserted themselves into Islam like a parasite,” according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. He also suggested that the Christians could have links to Britain — an accusation within Iran that refers to political opposition groups Tehran claims are backed by the West.

The crackdown by Iran resonates forcefully across the Middle East at a time when other Christian communities feel under siege following deadly attacks against churches in Egypt and Iraq — bloodshed that was noted Monday by Pope Benedict XVI in an appeal for protection of religious minorities.

The suicide blast in Egypt’s Mediterranean port of Alexandria on Jan. 1, which killed 21 Coptic Christian worshippers, followed threats by al Qaeda in Iraq over claims that Coptic leaders forced two women who converted to Islam to return to Christianity. Church leaders deny the allegations.

“It’s the nature of the house churches that worries Iran. It’s all about possible converts,” said Fleur Brading, a researcher for Middle East and North Africa at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a British-based group the follows Christian rights issues around the world. “It’s a very specific and pinpoint strike by Iran.”

Iran’s religious minorities represent about 2 percent of the population and include communities with deep connections to their faiths. Iran’s ethnic Armenian minority dates back to early Christianity, and the Jewish celebration of Purim is built around the story of the Persian-born Esther.

Even Iran’s Islamic Revolution could not stamp out the influence of the pre-Muslim Zoroastrian faith, including its new year’s holiday, Norooz, in March.

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