On February 26, the ayatollahs have scheduled two “elections” in Iran: one for the parliament and one for the Assembly of Experts, a body that is supposed to monitor the supreme leader and choose a replacement when the time comes. Some in the West tout this as the potential start of a new era of moderation. After all it is the first election since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers.
But the nuclear deal cannot be the only criteria by which the West determines the prospects for moderation in Iran. Equally or more important is the domestic record of the current Iranian government, including its record on human rights, censorship, and criminalization of dissent. As the child of Iranian Christians, I am keenly aware of at least one aspect of this record, and I recognize that Iranian-Christians have little hope of better treatment in the wake of the latest elections.
The existence of the Christian community in Iran dates back centuries and is a major part of the history of the country. For centuries, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians got along fine in Iran. We were all Iranians and our religion was not an issue at all.
After the ayatollahs took over in 1979 things changed for the worse. The religious persecutions began and restrictions became more and more institutionalized. Many Christians and Jews fled. But some stayed in their native country, where they are given token representation in parliament so the Iranian regime can maintain the illusion of legitimacy.
But these representatives are selected, not elected. In the ayatollahs’ method of governance, every candidate should be approved by four bodies, first and foremost the notorious Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS). Afterwards, the Council of Guardians, a watch dog body selected by the supreme leader, has the final say in the selection process. At every step of the way, unwavering loyalty to the Islamic Revolution and the supreme leader is the key criterion by which prospective candidates are judged.
In light of that fact, it is hard to imagine how any certified candidate could represent the views of a diverse and largely progressive population, much less the views of Christians and other minority religious communities. Calling this charade an election is delusional, and few Christians can be expected to succumb to that delusion.
In the 1990s several Iranian bishops and pastors were killed mysteriously. One of them was Pastor Haik Hovsepian-Mehr who disappeared from the streets of Tehran on January 19, 1994. The authorities reported his death to his family on January 30. He had refused to sign a statement drafted by the authorities, which said that Christians enjoyed full rights in Iran.
In a letter written a day before his disappearance, Bishop Hovsepian wrote: "I am ready to die for the cause of the Church so that others will be able to worship their Lord peacefully and without so much fear." On February 9, 1996, subsequent to a thorough investigation, the UN Special Rapporteur on religious intolerance declared that the Iranian regime was responsible for the murder of Hovsepian and his fellow Christian leaders.
When Hassan Rouhani was chosen as the regime’s president in 2013, he was described as a moderate in the West. He personally encouraged that perception, as by declaring that same year that “all ethnicities, all religions, even religious minorities, must feel justice.”
But Rouhani’s subsequent record has demonstrated that such statements were little more than political theater primarily for Western consumption. In fact, conditions for non-Muslims in Iran have actually deteriorated since 2013.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom confirmed this when its 2015 annual reported noted that an increased number of religious minorities have been jailed under Rouhani.
“The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused,” the reported stated.
Several pastors are incarcerated and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment simply for practicing and advocating their belief.
According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the Iranian regime arrested a group of practicing Iranian Christians on Christmas Day at an in-house church in the city of
Shiraz, in southern Iran. The group had gathered to celebrate the holiday when plain-clothes agents of the MOIS raided the building.
On December 30 it was revealed that authorities in Tehran were planning to transform illegally-confiscated church grounds into an ‘Islamic prayer center.’
And these are just two recent examples. Tehran in general and Rouhani in particular should not be allowed to use the election charade to cover up their crimes. Neither should the world community fall victim to the delusion that says these crimes may diminish in the wake of those elections.
During his first two and a half years in office, there has been no sign of Rouhani moving away from the persecution and human rights abuses that define the Iranian regime. He was a faithful representative of that regime in 1994, when Hovsepian-Mehr was ruthlessly murdered and Rouhani was the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, the most important body that deals with national security matters. He remains a faithful representative of that regime today, on the verge of elections that promise to go on denying a voice to Christians, Jews, moderate and progressive Muslims, and anyone else who does not toe the line of the supreme leader.
If we in the West stay silent in the midst of this perversion of democracy and this denial of religious freedom, we make ourselves accessories in the betrayal of the very values we hold dear, whether it be as citizens of a democratic nation or as people of faith.