The election last year of self-professed moderate President Hassan Rouhani has not brought Iran's Christians any relief, according to a new United Nations report which finds the Islamic Republic's Bible believers more persecuted than ever.
The detailed report finds Iran has continued to imprison Christians for their faith and designated house churches and evangelical Christians as "threats to national security.” At least 49 Christians were among 307 religious minorities being held in Iranian jails as of January 2014, noted the UN, which also blasted the regime for its hostility to Jews, Baha’is, Zoroastrians and Dervish Muslims, the UN report stated.
“These are indicators that President Rouhani has no influence over hard-liners, who remain fully in charge of the judiciary and security apparatus, government entities that are responsible for the most severe abuses against religious minorities," Dwight Bashir, deputy director for policy at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told FoxNews.com.
Among the Christians held in Iranian prisons is American citizen and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, who is serving an eight-year prison term for alleged crimes related to his faith. President Obama has called for Abedini's release, even as his administration has negotiated a disarmament deal with Iran.
"This report is as an important reminder about the true nature of the Iranian regime," Sen. Mark Kirk, (R-III), told FoxNews.com. "We can't pretend we are negotiating with Western moderates – we are negotiating with Islamic radicals who persecute Christians, Baha'is, other religious and ethnic minorities and women, while denying all of its citizens basic human rights -- including the freedom of speech and assembly."
In 2013, Iranian authorities arrested “at least 42 Christians, of whom 35 were convicted for participation in informal "house churches," in association with churches outside the Islamic Republic of Iran, perceived or real evangelical activity and other standard Christian activities.”
Iran’s opaque justice system imposed prison sentences on Christians ranging from one to ten years.
“Under the law, religious minorities, including recognized Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, also face discrimination in the judicial system, such as harsher punishments,” said Shaheed, who is an internationally recognized expert on human rights.
While the persecution detailed in the report includes wrongful imprisonment and even death sentences, it also takes more subtle forms. Ahmed Shaheed, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, said Iranian Christians have reported having viruses planted on their computers after visiting Christian websites.
Iran’s regime issued a flurry of angry responses to Shaheed’s report.
"The enemies’ ploy is a vicious circle, which changes according to the political situation,” Mohammed Javad Larajani, head of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, told the state-controlled Tehran Times. Larajani has in the past been an advocate of the stoning of women as punishment and called for Israel's destruction near the Holocaust memorial in Berlin in 2008.
Saba Farzan, a German-Iranian journalist and director of political studies at the Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy, told FoxNews.com: “The situation of Christians and other religious minorities in Iran is very dire because the Iranian regime is a Sharia state.”
“This dictatorship oppresses viciously all these precious groups with the abhorrent justification of Islamic law [Sharia] and by that it violates Iran's constitution and a long-lasting tradition within Persian culture of peaceful tolerance and respect toward fellow Iranians with diverse religious backgrounds,” Farzan said.
Such treatment of Christians belies Rouhani's stated policies, noted Morad Mokhtari, an Iranian who converted to Christianity in 1988 in Tehran and works as a human rights researcher at the New Haven-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. Mokhtari told FoxNews.com that in Rouhani's December Draft Citizen’s Rights Charter, the document states “Holding and attending religious rituals of the religions identified in the constitution [Christianity, Jewish, Zoroastrian] is permitted.”
Mokhtari described the charter as the “good side” of Rouhani’s attitude toward some minorities but, practically speaking, the impact has been non-existent.
“For the Christians who are identified as religious minorities in the constitution, there is still no equal rights to hold and attend to their religious services even in official churches," Mokhtari said. "Since Rouhani got power, at least two official Protestant churches in Tehran have been banned to hold any religious services in Persian language.”
Benjamin Weinthal reports on the Christians in the Middle East. He is a fellow at the Foundation For Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter@BenWeinthal