Arrested and in prison for their religion: Iran
Sara Azadi interviews Rev. Sam Yeghnazar about the imprisonment of Christians in Iran. Rev. Sam Yeghnazar is one of the oldest Christian Iranian Leaders and has been working with hundreds of Iranian church leaders for the last 50 years.
â€œEvery Muslim has the right to hear the message of the gospel â€“ they have the right to reject it. But they should have the right to accept it. Unless we do give people the right, then we are not for freedom.
SA: Do you know any of those that have been arrested personally?
SY: I donâ€™t know them all but I know a number of them. You meet some of them in different conferences. Frankly speaking, whatever I say the authorities may read. A question like that can implicate them.
SA: Ok, I understand. But you say that you know them personally, what was your reaction to this news?
SY: Well we were expecting that things like this would happen. During the last thirty years of the Islamic Revolution, Christian leaders have been arrested â€“ some of them have been killed and one of them was even hanged in Mashhad prison. So the persecution of Christian leaders and Christian believers is not something new. Very specifically, in the last number of months the authorities one after another started making statements; public statements about the wide spreading of house churches in Iran and also wide distribution of the Bible and the New Testament. On the 19th October the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, mentioned that house churches are on the increase and this is the plot of the enemies to undermine the Islamic people and Iran by cultural invasion. After that we knew that the government is going to take some steps to upscale the persecution in Iran.
SA: Could you please explain what a â€˜house churchâ€™ is?
SY: Well, you see, Christianity in Iran is an officially recognized religion. But in practice they have only allowed the ethnic Armenians and ethnic Assyrians who are Christians to operate relatively more freely. The Armenian and Assyrian Orthodox and Catholic churches will not allow non-Assyrians and non-Armenians to come in, especially those from Iranian Muslim backgrounds. The Iranians who come to the Christian faith have no option but to meet in homes to perform their religious worship. They have no other choice. The actions of the authorities have pushed them underground. There are evangelical churches and in some of these evangelical churches you have majority Muslim background Christians, although usually the pastor of that would be of ethnic Armenian or Assyrian background. These churches were registered before the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic regime has actually closed down a number of them and has tolerated a number of them, although they are not now officially registered: their registration is no longer valid. They are frequently under surveillance, they have to sign documents saying that they will not allow Muslims into the church and they have to submit the names of church members who are from Muslim background, and some of them are tolerated. But the number is very limited.
SA: There have been claims that those in prison are â€˜deviantâ€™ and are not mainline Christians. Is there any truth to these claims?
SY: The term that the authorities have used is â€˜Evangelical Christiansâ€™, and this term, Evangelical Christians covers 638 million people in this world. Since the term deviant was used the World Evangelical Fellowship has made a statement saying that these people are legitimate part of the Evangelical church worldwide and many leading Christian clerics are making statements such as the Archbishop of Uganda, and others.
SA: Do you believe that if they did not evangelise they would be left alone? If so, why isnâ€™t the church advising Christians to stay quiet about their faith?
SY: Why should they keep quiet? [â€¦] When people are suffering and they have no hope and they are depressed, if you give them a message of hope thatâ€™s not a crime. The illegal people are the government, they are working against their own constitution, against human rights. They donâ€™t have the right to be part of the United Nations if they cannot control themselves.
[The Iranian government] are threatened by anyone that does not belong to the ruling party. If you are not in the right, you are terrified. Why is it that they are not working in public? They wonâ€™t survive. They have to be in their armoured vehicles and be protected by men who carry guns because their life is not safe. They have brought it upon themselves.
SA: Letâ€™s talk about those that are in prison. Do you know what the conditions are like?
Iranian prison is not a pleasant place to be. [The prisoners] are intimidated, they are threatened that if they donâ€™t cooperate there are going to be serious consequences. There is sleep deprivation, they are blindfolded for hours and chained. They are interrogated. Questions will be repeated so many times to make [prisoners] tired so they can make a mistake. [The interrogators] will say anything possible to really bring them down, psychologically affect them â€“ so there is also psychological torture.
[Prisoners have reported that the authorities also use tricks] they would call and say: â€˜Your house has been broken into by thieves and so come quickly to the police station because we have put a new lock on your door, so come fast so we can go to your house and see what items have been taken,â€™ as if they have caught the thieves. This way they can bring people to the police station and arrest them. Some people have gone and been arrested and been kept for over a month, and some people have just gone into hiding.
We have also heard the threat of sexual abuse. They say: â€˜If you donâ€™t recant your faith, sign documents and betray people or tell us who else is in the network then we bring someone very close to you, family member who is a woman and we will violate her in front of youâ€™ â€“ this type of thing. But you will appreciate that we only know about the cases that have been reported, and when people have been arrested we donâ€™t know their case; [psychological] torture, rape and physical torture has regularly been reported. On average three people a day are being executed in Iran, for a variety of reasons.
There are also parents in prison and the children have been left. [The authorities] have not had any regard for them; they just came and took the parents in front of their young teenage children. Also we have people who have been taken to prison and their elderly parents have been threatened. They are in a miserable condition, because they donâ€™t know what has happened to their children.
According to the Iranian constitution, no one is allowed to be inquisitioned or investigated about their faith. So what is happening is anti the Iranian constitution. Now, not only they are taken for what they believe, but also they have to pay an exorbitant amount of bail to come out. So if someone has a property, they have to risk that property. If they [the authorities] can blame the victim after being freed on bail for doing something wrong, then the property is in danger. So the livelihood of people is put under question. If they come out of prison then for some time they will be in a very difficult situation, and the family wouldâ€¦when somebody is in panic, then itâ€™s not a pleasant situation. I should also say that there are brave Christian leaders, the finest people that you could imagine, and they take this gladly, they consider it an honour to be persecuted and harshly treated for a belief that is so precious for them. They are the courageous ones and the persecutors are the cowards, who cannot face anyone having a belief other than their own. So they are the threatened ones, not the Christians.
SA: What has been the reaction to this in the Christian community and what is your message to the Iranian government?
From Church history, over 2000 years, we see where persecution has increased; the net result has been even more spread of the Christian faith. We have messages of support coming from across the world.. Scores of countries are writing to affirm their solidarity with the Iranian Christians in prison, and they are mentioning that these are legitimate part of the body of the church worldwide. And they are very much encouraged by the character, commitment and the stand of these Christians. There are more than twenty Christians now in prison, some of them three months in prison, four months in prison, some of them just over a month in prison. We ask the Iranian Government to respect the undertaking they have made internationally, the documents they have signed; they have agreed to honour documents that the government before them had signed, including the human rights act. They have broken that. We ask them for the immediate release of Christian prisoners without bail, and also to allow them to worship God. If they donâ€™t want Christians to meet in house churches they should allow the construction of churches. As they have that freedom in other countries. They build mosques, nobody interferes. Christians in Iran are not from the west. Christianity has been in Iran for a long time, when you read the Bible, you can see that there are four, five books in the Bible, four books particularly, that have been written in Iran. They are part of Iranian history. Esther was the Queen of Iran, Daniel was the prime minister of Iran, and these are two prominent books. The most famous Kings of Iran, Cyrus, Darius they are mentioned there, their decrees are there and there is quite a high honour in the Bible for them as well. So it is very much an Iranian religion and it is such a horrible crime to treat the people of Iran who are turning to a religion that has been in Iran seven centuries before Islam has come in this terrible way. So we pray that God will give our countries just leaders that will respect basic human rights.
SA: What is your message to the Christians in Iran?
SY: My message to the Christians in Iran is that Jesus said to his disciples that they would face persecution and the way they treated Jesus they would treat his followers the same. So persecution is not a strange thing thatâ€™s happening. I remind them of the promise that Jesus gave: â€˜Lo, I am with you alwaysâ€™ so right in the prison, right in the persecution, you know that his presence is with them. My message is â€˜hold on, as hard as the persecution may seem, itâ€™s going to pass and what they are investing through their persecution is going to bring great reward.â€™
SA: And finally, what is your message to mainline Muslims worldwide?
Muslims are asking for freedom, wherever they are. We can see whatâ€™s happening in Egypt, people want to have freedom to speak. The Iranian regime is not giving freedom to Muslims as well. Sunni Muslims are not treated properly, and the Islamic mystics are not treated well, they are being persecuted as well. So I would ask the peace loving Muslims also raise their voices and have the statements to say that Christians in Iran have the right to practice their religion. I would say that every Iranian has the right to hear the message of the gospel; in fact, every Muslim has the right to hear the message of the gospel. He has the right to read the New Testament, the Bible; he has the right to read Shakespeare, or any other writer. They have the right to reject it. But they should have the right to accept it. Unless we do give people the right, then we are not for freedom.