A number of religious freedom organisations have drawn attention to the worsening plight of Christians in Iran.
A joint report by CSW, Article 18, Middle East Concern and Open Doors International has revealed several trends that were used to violate rights to religious beliefs last year.
The charities said one of the most striking trends was the increased involvement of the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the crackdown on Persian-speaking Christians. At the start of the year, the IRGC news agency bragged about "dismantling" a "network" of Christians in several provinces. The group ended up being responsible for 12 of the 38 documented incidents of arrests of Christians or raids on their homes or house-churches in the last year.
Another disturbing pattern of persecution was authorities cracking down on any online Christian activity. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Friday prayer leaders who speak on his behalf made many references throughout the year to the so-called "cyber army" which was working to "protect" the country from perceived threats at home and abroad.
Over the span of a fortnight in January and February, Iran's Ministry of Intelligence agents summoned 11 Christian couples from the city of Fardis to sign commitments to stop from meeting together, whether in person or online. It was the first known instance of Christians being banned from online meetings and led to three Christians becoming the first to be charged under the newly amended Article 500.
Amendments to Articles 499 and 500 of the Penal Code, signed into law in February 2021, dictate that religious minorities face prison sentences of up to five years for “engaging in propaganda that educates in a deviant way contrary to the holy religion of Islam”.
A judge sentenced the group to five years each in prison, but after an appeal their sentences were later reduced to three years. Ever since, an increasing number of Christians have been charged with "propaganda" under the amended law.
The report adds: "The trend of offering some prisoners serving shorter-term sentences the chance to spend the rest of their sentences at home with electronic tags was also observed in 2021, perhaps in an attempt to reduce overcrowding in Iran's prisons."
At least 209 individuals were affected by judicial rulings in 2021, 35 of whom reported intense psychological torture.
Overall, 59 Christians were arrested, 34 were detained, and 30 endured some form of imprisonment throughout 2021. The report also stated: "There are many more cases that go unreported, either because no-one raises awareness, arresting authorities frequently issue threats to prevent publicity, or because those involved request confidentiality."
This is all despite Iran denying it has widespread violations of its freedom of religion laws. In an official response to senior UN experts in January 2021, Iran's judiciary claimed, "nobody is prosecuted on religious grounds". However, in the same response, it admitted to taking legal action against members of "enemy groups" and "private churches" (house-churches), which it accused of belonging to a "Zionist Christian cult" with "anti-security purposes".
Among its recommendations, the report calls on the government of Iran to fully uphold the right to FoRB for all citizens, to release all Christians detained on spurious charges, and to cease the criminalisation of house-church organisation and membership.
It also urges the international community to "assist in holding Iran accountable for upholding its obligation to ensure and facilitate freedom of religion or belief for all its citizens by highlighting this principle during political and/or economic discussions with, or concerning, Iran."
CSW's Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: "Once again, this report provides an important reminder of the continuing violations faced by Christians in Iran. We urge the Iranian government to take heed of its recommendations and to end what amounts to the criminalisation of the practice of a religion the Iranian constitution claims to recognise.
"We also call for the government to ensure that all citizens, including members of the Baha'i, Gonabadi Dervishe, Humanist and Sunni communities, are free to enjoy the full right to freedom of religion or belief as articulated in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a signatory."
The constraint on such Christians, refusing them collective worship, has led to an impassioned plea from Christian converts for a place to worship and an international appeal: the #place2worship campaign.
Despite Iran's oppression of Christians, there were some positive developments last year in the country regarding faith.
In November 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that the prison sentences of nine converts should be reviewed since "promoting Christianity and 'Zionist evangelism' in private homes is not an example of gathering and collusion against internal or external security as decided in the original verdict". According to this law, house-church activities and the promotion even of the pejoratively termed "Zionist" Christianity are not crimes. It's not yet known how this ruling will be applied by the Revolutionary Courts.
In another positive development in November 2021, the public prosecutor of a branch of the Revolutionary Court in the western city of Dezful decided not to press charges against eight other Christian converts, stating that although apostasy is a crime under Sharia, it is not an offence according to the laws of Iran.