There are fears that the sentencing of the British Iranian woman, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe could lead to a further clampdown of religious freedom in Iran.
Ms Zaghari Ratcliffe has been sentenced to a further year in prison after being found guilty of propaganda against the regime.
Miles Windsor, from the Religious Freedom Institute, told Premier the propaganda charge is also being used to punish Christians and other believers: “Iran continues to be one of the worst violators of religious freedom and that has continued over the past year and seems to be intensifying. We've seen in recent times, more arrests.”
Among those arrested is Hamat Ashouri, a member of the Church of Iran. He was sentenced to ten months in prison in March for “propaganda against the regime”. A number of other Christians remain in prison.
Miles Windsor says the Iranian regime is using the propaganda charge against all those it sees as a threat: “There is a genuine paranoia that any religious group that doesn't fit with the orthodoxy of the state, is perceived as something that they can't control. In their pursuit of a homogenous Shia community, they're seeking to do everything they can to squeeze any minorities, including the Christian community.”
Despite this, Mr Windsor says the country’s Christian community continues to grow: “Amazingly, we see many people turning to Christ in Iran. However, it is illegal for them to meet so the church movements are underground, but are often raided by intelligence officials. It’s illegal to have a Bible or any other Christian books, so it's a very challenging environment to be a Christian.”
But he told Premier that over the last decade, Iran has been noted as being one of the fastest growing communities of Christians in the world: “I think we can see God's power in that in such a hostile environment. He can bring many people to know Him. And there is a suggestion that the ayatollahs are some of the greatest evangelists for Christ. In so far as people look at the form of repressive religion, they say, if that's what you're offering, I want to find something else. I want to find the truth. And so that's why we see a great turning to Christianity.”