A major spike in the harassment and arrest of Iranian Christians in recent months is re-vealing just how nervous the Islamic republic is about the prodigious success of house churches, say Iranian Christian leaders.
At least 202 Christians in 24 cities faced "arbitrary" arrest between June 2010 and January 2011, according to Elam Ministries. Elam, run by Iranian expatriates, counted 80 arrests over 2008 and 2009 combined.
"[Iran] has been substantially more public in its oppression of Christianity," said Todd Nettleton, a spokesman for Voice of the Martyrs. "Announcing it on the news, having the mullahs talk about it in their Friday sermons—it's just become a lot more out in the open."
"Persecution has escalated to an unprecedented level," said Abe Ghaffari, executive director of Iranian Christians International. While Iran's historic Armenian and Assyrian congregations usually enjoy freedom of worship, Farsi-speaking house churches hosting converts from Islam work under significant threat.
"In effect, recognition of Christians in the laws of Iran has now become basically recognition of an ethnicity rather than faith," said Hussein Jadidi, a human rights lawyer who recently fled Iran after he became a target in a Christmas sweep that caught 70 other Christians.
The government is concerned, observers say, because more and more Iranian Muslims are converting to Christianity. The house church movement is booming, with converts estimated in the hundreds of thousands. Evangelists are distributing large numbers of New Testaments, and satellite television continually beams Christian programs into the country.
"The government always used to deny ...