Observed for its repression of demonstrations against the compulsory wearing of the veil, Iran represses other freedoms, in particular those concerning belief or disbelief. InfoChrétienne contacted Pastor David (pseudonym for security reasons), one of the leaders of the churches of Iran who lives in exile. He sheds light on the political situation and the fate of Christians in the country.
InfoChristian: David, you know the Iranian system very well. While the country is experiencing popular unrest, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, granted his pardon to two Christians detained in Evin prison: what do you think?
David: It is possible that this release aims to ease tensions, because the power faces such difficulties to the point that it is question of the survival of the regime. It is weakened, so we can see small gestures for the Christian community.
IC: You talk about fragility, is the situation very serious for power?
David: The question of Khamenei's succession arises, and there are signs that he wants his son Mojtaba to succeed him as in a dynastic regime. It's not made to please everyone, far from it! Many officials oppose it and it creates tensions at the top, while the health of the ayatollah raises questions. He has already been treated for prostate cancer.
You should know that at the end of each reign, people wonder about the future. In 1979, the shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was suffering from an incurable cancer, his entourage saw it, and that precipitated his end. But that may not happen again.
IC: Do you know if these tensions at the top can have an influence on popular movements?
David: Some clans within the system support the protests. These officials do not want Mojtaba to take over from his father, as he is considered too brutal. This does not explain the movements in the street, but there is a conjunction of elements which make the crisis persist. And the international context, concerning the Iranian nuclear as well as the formation of a Tehran-Moscow axis, accentuates the interest in what is happening.
IC: You are also very familiar with the religious situation in the country, what can you tell us?
David: The country's policy is deeply repressive towards Christians, even compared to historical, ethnic Christians. They are considered second-class citizens, their rights are very limited, but they are kept to say that the authorities respect minorities (Greeks, Orthodox, Assyrians, Chaldean Catholics). 70% of them have left the country since the 1979 revolution.
The government is trying to pamper certain representatives of the Christian communities [ndr: there are five seats reserved for minorities in Parliament] in order to exploit them. For example the former deputy Yunathan Bethkolia is used by the government for contacts with foreign countries.
IC: And alongside the historical Christians, there are those who have left Islam, an environment that you know particularly for having frequented it...
David: The situation of evangelicals is worse, as they are considered sectarian. In fact, it is above all the fact that the evangelicals are mostly former Muslims that poses a problem. You have to indicate your religion on a form, and there are two situations: on the one hand, there are people who have a Christian faith and participate in worship but who will not confess to being Christians on the state form , because it is very risky; on the other hand there are those who confess to being Christians and are still persecuted. Some groups may avoid persecution by agreeing to pay political police officers, while others based on Acts 24.26:XNUMX refuse to do so and go to jail.
Since the revolution, Christian groups were sometimes forced to communicate the names of the faithful to the authorities in return for freedom to exercise. That said, with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, the persecution became fiercer and Christians are more reluctant and no longer want to give their names and no longer communicate about their activities.
Many pastors were not allowed to travel outside their towns without informing the Ministry of Intelligence. The escalation of the persecution caused the churches to realize that agreements with the government were no longer worth anything.
IC: We remember the assassinations in 1994 of pastors like Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr, of the Armenian Church, or Pastor Mehdi Dibaj, a former Muslim, attributed by those in power to the People's Mojahedin of Iran. The Christians were not fooled, but we have known since 2016, thanks to a former member of President Hashemi Rafsanjani's cabinet, presented as a moderate, that the power was involved. Do Christians still fear assassinations today?
David: The risk of assassinations of pastors inside the country in the style of the time is to be minimized, because the option is to stifle dissent. The attribution to the People's Mojahedin of Iran responded above all to imperatives of international politics, but no one was ever fooled. These assassinations were, in fact, aimed at terrifying the Christians, knowing that they saw beyond the official accounts the hand of the government, but the power resorts to murders camouflaged as accidents. He knows how to punish quietly!
IC: Precisely, the bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr refused that the authorities have the names of the people frequenting his movement of churches, but also to yield to the prohibition to carry out the cults in Persian. What about the ban on expressing oneself in the national language today?
David: The authorities disapprove of the use of Persian in Christian worship. As a national language, Persian is understood by a majority of Iranians, while the “Christian” liturgical languages are poorly understood and therefore do not participate in the transmission of the content of Christian doctrine. The whole point is there. However, the mechanisms of repression are changing and the government has been able to set up a network of “alternative churches” where Persian is used. The members of these churches are often "Christians at heart" who often remain officially Muslim. Unable to cope with the rise of Christianity, the authorities are trying to control the movement. This is an improved replica of the Chinese model.
IC: We are coming to the end of our interview. We talked about the current political situation, the fate of Christians; what about the rise of atheism in Iran?
David: For a long time, many Iranians no longer believed in Islam, but it is difficult to assess the importance of the apostasy. Unlike the Westerner who associates God with religion, the Persian can easily believe in God, without having any religion. I would rather speak of questioning, of agnosticism if not of cultural snobbery. There is a bias in the surveys that raise the subject: they target, for example, people registered on social networks who are not necessarily representative of the population. The situation, much more complex, also depends on the geography, many people posed a criticism on Islam already before the revolution in certain areas, whereas in the Turkic-speaking areas the link with the religion is stronger.
The country also has a Judeo-Christian history, with a Jewish dominance in much of the west and a Christian in the eastern part. It was not until the XNUMXth century that Persia became predominantly Muslim, but this Judeo-Christian past explains the country's peculiarities such as the rejection of polygamy.
David, thank you for giving us this time to discuss!