Iran’s radical regime is stepping up its efforts to prevent the spread of Christianity within its borders.
Earlier this month, the Islamic Republic’s Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi disclosed publicly that his agency had deployed operatives and assets to counter “advocates of Christianity” active throughout the country. The ministry is also increasing its efforts to intimidate prospective converts, and has “summoned” individuals who have expressed an interest in learning more about the Christian faith for invasive interviews and intimidating interrogations.
These steps follow an established pattern. Even though the country’s constitution formally recognizes a number of other faiths (including Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism), in practice Iran’s ideological regime has proven itself to be deeply antagonistic to them. And Christians, who make up nearly 1 percent of the country’s population of 82 million, have become one of the most prominent targets of religious repression within the Islamic Republic.
Over the past four decades, scores of Christian leaders have been detained, imprisoned and intimidated by the country’s religious authorities. Back in December, more than 100 Christians were rounded up by regime security forces in one of the biggest crackdowns of its kind to date on charges that they were “proselytizing” the faith in contravention to regime norms.
The Iranian regime has also banned the publication of Farsi-language editions of both the Old and New Testaments — and has periodically meted out death sentences for Iranians who have converted from Islam to other religions. According to OpenDoors USA, a human rights group dedicated to protecting the rights of persecuted Christians worldwide, the level of religious repression within Iran ranks as “extreme,” entailing systematic discrimination against converts, broad prohibitions on religious practice and a constant threat of arbitrary arrest.
Yet, the pace of the Iranian regime’s religious persecution has also unquestionably quickened in recent times, fueled by official worries over the fact that Iranian Muslims are now converting to Christianity in growing numbers. Mohabat News, Iran’s only Christian news agency, reports that while Iranian Muslims have been embracing Christianity for years, they are now doing so “at an unprecedented pace, perhaps by the thousands every day.”
The reasons have everything to do with deteriorating conditions within the Islamic Republic itself. As The Economist details in its most recent issue, ongoing economic woes — and the promise of still more fiscal hardship to come — are generating rising anger with the country’s ruling clerical elite on the part of ordinary Iranians. So profound has this rift become that former regime stalwarts have even reportedly begun to question the country’s governing ideology of velayat i-faqih (rule of the jurisprudent). “We’re approaching a turning point,” confirms one scholar cited by the British newsmagazine.
That represents a threat to the Iranian regime and its ideological brand. In his seminal 1951 book “The True Believer,” American philosopher Eric Hoffer famously noted that ideological mass movements are inherently competitive in nature. They draw their adherents from the same cohort of people, and hold out the promise of a different political order to those individuals. Therefore, Hoffer suggests, “[t]he problem of stopping a mass movement is often a matter of substituting one movement for another.”
The logical corollary of Hoffer’s dictum is that, as the appeal of Iran’s brand of political Islam declines, it’s only natural that other forms of identification are rising in popularity. That’s precisely what Iran’s ayatollahs are afraid of, and why they view those who adhere to a different set of religious principles as a mortal threat to their extreme interpretation of the Islamic faith.
Viewed through this lens, the Iranian government’s deepening campaign of repression against the country’s Christians should be seen for what it is — a sign of terminal weakness on the part of the regime’s governing ideology, and a manifestation of growing fear among its ruling ayatollahs.
• Ilan Berman is senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.