New Iranian President. New future for persecuted Christians?

July 4, 2013 by  
Filed under newsletter-world

Hassan RouhaniIran, June 28, 2013: The victory of “moderate” candidate Hassan Rouhani in the Iranian presidential elections has been hailed with optimism and expectations of change after eight years of hard-line rule under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr Rouhani said that he would uphold justice and civil rights across the country if elected, but what difference is his presidency likely to make for persecuted Iranian Christians?

They are facing a level of persecution not seen since the early days of the Islamic revolution more than 30 years ago. Ahmadinejad stepped up the campaign of harassment during his first term in office, and this was ratcheted up again after he claimed victory in the 2009 elections, which were believed to have been rigged. He clamped down hard on civil liberties, tightening his grip over all groups perceived to be a threat as he faced mass protests.

Iranian Christians are frequently arrested for practising their faith through acts such as attending a house church. They are often held without charge, denied access to proper legal advice and ill-treated. Many are imprisoned for “threatening national security”. There are thought to be over 100 Christians currently languishing in Iranian jails.

In the midst of the latest elections, which took place on 14 June, four Christian men, Mojtaba Seyyed-Alaedin Hossein, Mohammad-Reza Partoei, Vahid Hakkani and Homayoun Shokouhi, were jailed on charges of attending a house church, spreading Christianity, having contact with foreign ministries, propaganda against the regime and disrupting national security.

Homayoun’s wife, Fariba Nazemian, and their 17-year-old son Nima each received a two year suspended prison sentence.

They were all arrested in a raid on a house church in February 2012. Vahid is in critical ill health with internal bleeding in his digestive system. He has been denied proper medical care.

The government has not allowed a single new church to be built since the 1979 revolution. Existing churches have been closed, while attendance at others is restricted; Christian activities are closely monitored and Christians harassed.

Yet the more the authorities have tried to supress Christianity, the more the Gospel has spread as people become increasingly disaffected with the oppressive imposition of a hard-line version of Islam.

DESIRE FOR CHANGE

Indeed, the election of Mr Rouhani, who secured just over 50% of the vote in the first round, avoiding the need for a run-off, reveals a desire for change among the people of Iran.

An intellectual who graduated in the UK, Mr Rouhani is considered the most moderate of the six presidential candidates, and his speeches reportedly became more and more reformist during the election campaign.

Upon his victory, he said:

This […] is a victory of wisdom, a victory of moderation, a victory of growth and awareness and a victory of commitment over extremism and ill-temper.

Mr Rouhani has called for less confrontational relations with the West, saying that his government would work towards “constructive interaction with the world”. He said that he would be more transparent on the country’s nuclear programme, which has been a source of major concern to the international community.

During his election campaign, Mr Rouhani promised that he would make every effort to free political prisoners, who reportedly number around 800. There have been strong calls from the Iranian people for their release, and this will be a crucial test of the new president’s true intentions regarding civil rights.

If he does start to deliver on this promise, there may be some hope that it will extend to other prisoners of conscience, including Christians.

LIMITED POWERS

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali KhameneiFor all the encouraging statements by Mr Rouhani, however, the president has limited powers in Iran. The ultimate authority rests with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been intent on destroying all trace of the Christian faith from Iran, a course from which he shows no sign of wavering.

There is also the question of just how moderate the new president really is. To be eligible to stand in the Iranian elections, every prospective candidate faces rigorous vetting by the Guardian Council, half of whom are directly selected by the Supreme Leader.

So even the most moderate of contenders is only as moderate as the ayatollahs will allow. They may even have engineered the whole process, bringing in somebody who is more acceptable on the international stage to ward off a head-on collision over the nuclear issue.

It is also difficult to know where the new president really stands, because he has multiple audiences to satisfy, including the ayatollahs, the Iranian people and the international community. Only time will tell.

It must be remembered that Mr Rouhani is an insider who has occupied senior positions inIran for many years. He was the country’s nuclear negotiator during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami and has held various positions on the governing councils that both select and support the Supreme Leader.

It seems unlikely then that the fundamental beliefs of the regime will change. But what may change is the practical outworking of those beliefs, especially Iran’s interactions on the global stage.

Economic reform, which Mr Rouhani has pledged, could prove to be a crucial issue, as it potentially opens the way for external parties to have an influence on Iran. Inflation and unemployment are soaring in an economy crippled by international sanctions. If the president does indeed pursue more constructive relations with Western powers, this could be an opportunity for them to apply some leverage regarding human rights in Iran in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

So though Mr Rouhani may have limited reformist intentions and power, the future for Iranian Christians does not lie solely in his hands. Whilst maintaining a firm stance on nuclear issues, Western nations must seize the opportunity of a less isolationist president to exert influence on the country, capitalising on its economic crisis to encourage change, especially for Christians and other dissenters.

– patrick sookhdeo

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