Country Profile: Iran
Updated January 2016
Population: 81.8 million
Government: Theocratic republic
Religion: Muslim (official) 99.3% (Shia 90-95%, Sunni 5-10%); Other (includes Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian) 0.3%, unspecified 0.4%.
Since ancient times, when its name was Persia, Iran has asserted its cultural independence, with its own language and a Shia interpretation of Islam.
A brief period of political engagement with the West under the Shah ended with the overthrow of the monarchy in 1979. Since then, a theocratic Shia government has held sway.
Today, hardline clerics wield political control, under the ultimate authority of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei.
The US has accused Iran of trying to undermine its efforts in Iraq and of developing nuclear weapons. After years of sanctions, Iran agreed in 2015 to restrict its nuclear programme, in return for the lifting of the economic embargo.
Recent years have seen a growing appetite for political reform among the Iranian people. This has resulted in an internal tussle between reformers and conservatives, who control the country’s key institutions.
Reformer hopes were bolstered by the accession to power in 2013 by President Hassan Rouhani, a self-proclaimed moderate. President Rouhani has pledged human rights and political reform, but any push in that direction would be subject to the veto of the Ayatollah.
Freedom for all faiths other than Shia Islam is limited, despite constitutional guarantees of religious liberty.
Evangelising Muslims is still banned and the official penalty for apostasy (conversion from Islam) is death, although the sentence is rarely carried out.
In Iran, radical Islam and authoritarianism combine to put pressure on minority Christians, who make up just half of one per cent of the population. Most Christians are discriminated against in education, employment and property ownership.
Many of Iran’s Christians are ethnic Armenians or Assyrians. To limit the spread of the faith, many churches have been closed or restricted to conducting services in Armenian or Assyrian. This has driven churches underground.
Most Christians in Iran now meet in private homes. Those who keep a low profile may be able to practise their faith without too much interference. But more prominent believers such as pastors may come under the scrutiny of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
Christians who share their faith are often convicted on political charges, such as ‘undermining national security’. Those who are released come under such strict surveillance that many have to leave the country.
Christians from a Muslim background pay a particularly high price.
A number of Iranian Christians who were raised as Muslims remain in detention. Some suffer from severe ill-health due to lack of medical treatment and beatings from prison staff and other inmates.
Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini was freed in 2016 after more than three years in jail. The pastor was exchanged as part of a prisoner swap between the US and Iran, following a thaw in relations over Iran’s nuclear programme.
Saeed Abedini, who is 35, was given an eight-year sentence in 2013 for ‘undermining national security’. He had been in Iran to help build a government-approved orphanage.
He was severely beaten and his wounds became infected. But a prison doctor and nurse refused to give him medical treatment on the ground that he was an ‘infidel’ and ‘unclean’. He was denied medical care for his internal injuries for almost a year.
Another key figure who has faced similar mistreatment is Pastor Behnam Irani. The pastor, who was imprisoned in 2011, was jailed for leading a Church of Iran congregation in Karaj. Like Pastor Saeed, he was accused of ‘offences against national security’.
Also in common with Pastor Saeed, he was badly beaten and abused in jail, both by his captors and other prisoners. He suffered a bleeding ulcer and herniated disc.
He was warned he would not leave prison alive because of his Christian faith. Behnam Irani was put in a cell with violent offenders in Ghezal Prison, where there was not even enough room to lie down.
Iranian officials continue to make group arrests, often targeting evangelical house groups. This repression has increased since 2010 when Ayatollah Khamenei branded house churches a threat to national security. The crackdown on Christians and activists was stepped up again in 2015.
Some 90 Christians are in jail for their faith.
Yet despite everything, Iran’s church is growing.
- Current and recent projects include:
- Training and mentoring pastors
- Preparing women for ministry
- Offering emergency support for individuals and families who are persecuted
Sources: BBC; CNN; International Christian Concern; Middle East Concern; Open Doors; Operation World (2010); Release International; Statistical Centre, Government of Iran; The World Factbook 2016; World Christian Database.
Updated January 2016