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An Iranian christian fled his country last September after authorities in Tehran lashed him for leaving Islam and evangelizing Muslims. Identified only as Hooman, upon his release he escaped to Turkey with his Muslim wife.

"He had been whipped, and the authorities were going to deal with him in an even more severe manner," says Abe Ghaffari, executive director of Iranian Christians International (ICI). "He was persecuted by vigilantes as well. A motorcycle rider stabbed him and tried to kill him."

Apparently the vigilante was a member of the terrorist group Hezbollah, Ghaffari says, "but in Iran they are like local enforcers."

Since coming into office in 1997, the presumably reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami has shown no ability to rein in conservative clergy's persecution of religious minorities. Islamic leaders in government take their cues from the conservative Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamenei, Iran's "supreme leader."

Religious conservatives on Iran's Expediency Council, which coordinates institutions of the Shi'a Islam state, have vetoed reformist legislation. Furthermore, Ghaffari says, in February's parliamentary elections, Islamic clergy in the government disqualified 2,000 mainly reformist candidates.

"So, although Iranian Christians have been continually persecuted," Ghaffari says, "we expect that it will get worse."

In a country of 67.7 million people, 99 percent are Muslim, though reportedly they are growing more resentful of conservative clerics. There are some 220,000 Christians (more than half Orthodox, and perhaps as many as 15,000 Protestant), according to Operation World.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) notes that discrimination against non-Muslims prevails in education, government, ...

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