Iran's new president offers little hope of change

Baptist Press
Posted: Jun 19, 2013 5:22 PM
TEHRAN (BP) -- Though he has been described in Western media as a moderate candidate, Hassan Rowhani, Iran's president-elect, shows few signs of easing up on the persecution of Christians in the Islamic Republic.

Rouwani, a cleric, is loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, and "they have set their strategy regarding Christianity in Iran and continue to see it as a threat and will continue to be strict about it," Naghmeh Abedini, whose husband is imprisoned in Iran for his Christian faith, said after the June 14 election.

Naghmeh Abedini was born in Iran but grew up in the United States after her family fled during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. She said she hopes she is wrong about continued persecution "and that many families (including mine) will see their loved ones returned to them."

In addition to Naghmeh Abedini's husband, several other Christians known to the international community remain in prison in Iran, including pastor Benham Irani, who at last report suffered from an acute blood infection and was barely able to walk as he serves a six-year sentence for "acting against the interests of national security."

Also imprisoned, facing a nine-year sentence, is Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, the attorney who defended another long-imprisoned Iranian pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani, whose freedom was the focus of a worldwide campaign that resulted in his release last year.

Rouwani, one of six candidates to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, won 50 percent of the vote in the first round of voting, securing his position as the country's next president.

His victory prompted celebrations in the streets of Iran and gave some in the international community hope that the harsh rhetoric of Ahmadinejad would yield to progress, USA Today reported.

But Christians in Iran agreed with Naghmeh Abedini's assessment that little would change regarding the government's brutal treatment of minority faiths.

"The Christians I recently spoke with seemed rather apathetic about the elections," a fieldworker for Open Doors International said. "They don't seem to expect significant changes in Iran's policies against Christians."

World Watch Monitor explained that the real power lies with Khamenei, who controls even who is allowed to run for president.

Each potential candidate is vetted by the Guardian Council, which includes six experts in Islamic law selected by the supreme leader and six jurists appointed by the Iranian parliament. The jurists are limited to those nominated by the head of judicial power, who is appointed by the supreme leader, World Watch Monitor said.

"In your Western media, the candidates are divided into conservatives and reformers, as if there is a choice. But let me tell you this: There is no choice. All of the candidates are from Ayatollah Khamenei's team," an Iranian believer told Open Doors.

Until Ahmadinejad assumed the presidency in a controversial election in 2005, the president "had at least some influence on the direction of the country. The power seemed to be more equally divided between the supreme leader and the president, but that is not the case anymore," an Iranian Christian told World Watch Monitor.

To sway the Iranian public, which disapproved of Ahmadinejad's leadership, Rowhani's speeches became increasingly reformist during the campaign, and he was considered the clear favorite going into the election.

At a news conference June 17, Rowhani spoke of moderation, trust and new beginnings while making clear that Iran's nuclear program would continue, USA Today said.

During the campaign, Rowhani criticized the regime's confrontational foreign policy style and said he could have achieved the same nuclear power progress without incurring the international sanctions that have devastated Iran's economy, USA Today said.

In pre-election meetings, Open Doors reported, Rowhani "seemed intent to transform the damaged relations between Iran and the West and called for the release of political prisoners."

While attention in Iran was focused on the presidential election, Assist News Service said, six Christians were convicted of attending a house church and spreading Christianity.

Four of the men were sentenced to more than three years in prison, and two were sentenced to eight additional months. A woman and her teenage son, ANS said, each received a two-year suspended prison sentence.

Mohabat Iranian Christian News Agency said, "It seems that the Iranian Intelligence organizations have been actively pursuing their intentions during the past one-and-a-half months of presidential election activities to pressure non-Muslim Iranians the most severe form possible.

"With people and media so much engaged in elections, this time is a golden opportunity for Iran's Islamic regime to resume religious minority cases," Mohabat News said, according to ANS.

Naghmeh Abedini, whose husband Saeed has been held in Tehran's Evin prison since last September, wrote in her analysis of the new president that he presented himself as a moderate in order to bring hope and unity among the Iranian people while removing any danger of the Iranian regime losing control.

"His background does not show any signs of moderacy," Naghmeh Abedini wrote. " ... My prayer is that the people of Iran will not once again put their hope in a president to fix everything. He is only one man. But that the people of Iran would discover Jesus Christ who can truly bring the peace and joy that they are looking for through forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God."

In the same Facebook post, Naghmeh Abedini offered an update on her husband.

"Saeed's father visited Saeed today and he was doing good. His bleeding seems to have stopped, but he continues to have some medical issues that need to be tended to (he has some pain)," she wrote.

"The prison authorities are not happy about the conversions in prison and are threatening to move Saeed to another city/prison and are doing what they can to prevent him from sharing Christ in prison," Abedini wrote. "This is most likely empty threats. But please continue to keep Saeed in your prayers."

The American Center for Law and Justice, which represents Abedini, said June 18 that the threat to move Saeed to a prison in a more remote area of southern Iran underscores "the daily difficulties that Pastor Saeed faces -- not only the fact that he is imprisoned but the psychological torment he endures at the hands of his captors."

A move to southern Iran, the ACLJ said, "would make it nearly impossible for his family to visit him any longer. It would also tear him away from friendships he has developed with fellow prisoners of conscience."

ACLJ said even a modest improvement in the pastor's medical condition and good spirits "is evidence that the 'prayers of many' are being answered."

Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook ( ) and in your email (

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