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Report: Iran Arrested 166 Christians in 2023, Targeting Bible Distributors

Four watchdog groups unite to urge UK parliament to hold Tehran accountable for “faceless victims” of Islamic reeducation and other religious freedom violations.
Report: Iran Arrested 166 Christians in 2023, Targeting Bible Distributors
Image: Courtesy of Article18
Rajaei Shahr Prison in Karaj, Iran

Religious reeducation did not work on Esmaeil Narimanpour.

First arrested by the Iranian government in 2021, he and seven other converts to Christianity were cleared by the state prosecutor, who stated that their change of religion was not a crime under Iranian law. The following year, he was ordered with several others to attend ten sessions with Muslim clerics to “guide” him back to Islam.

Last December, Narimanpour was arrested again, this time on Christmas Eve.

The case is one of several highlighted by “Faceless Victims: Rights Violations Against Christians in Iran,” the 2024 annual report released jointly by advocacy organizations Article18, Open Doors, Middle East Concern, and CSW and presented at the British Parliament.

“This is a great example of agencies working together,” stated Mervyn Thomas, founding president of CSW (formerly Christian Solidarity Worldwide), at the event. “Iran claims to ensure freedom of religion or belief for all; but that is nonsense, as this report shows.”

Not yet convicted, Narimanpour is one of 166 Christians arrested and 103 detained by Iran during the 2023 reporting period. Another 22 have been sentenced, and 21 imprisoned.

While sentencings decreased by 8 from 2022, this year witnessed an additional 32 arrests and 41 detainments. Article18 has tracked incidents in Iran since 2015, when arrests were at a peak of 193. Detainments have fluctuated yearly between 26 in 2018 and this year’s high, while sentencings ranged between 12 in 2015 and a high of 57 in 2020.

The British parliament gathering included testimony from former prisoner Farhad Sabokrooh. Arrested with his wife in 2011, the couple served one year in prison and had their previously registered church closed down after 25 years. Accused of being a spy for Israel and the United States, he told the gathering that he was forced into a false confession, sentenced without his lawyer present, and once released was threatened with death if he did not leave Iran within one month.

“My plea to you is to hold the regime accountable,” Sabokrooh stated. He later noted, “They somehow feel Christians are orphans and have no one to protect them. We have to reverse that.”

The 36-page sixth report was released on February 19 to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the murder of Arastoo Sayyah, the first Christian killed for his faith in the Islamic Republic of Iran—eight days after the revolution began. It notes that while the constitution formally guarantees the rights of Christians to “perform their religious rites and ceremonies,” in practice this refers only to the ethnic Armenian and Assyrian communities, which are prevented from conducting services in Farsi (Persian) or otherwise promoting their faith.

Their population of 50,000–80,000 is dwarfed by the report’s estimation of as many as 800,000 Iranian Christians overall. And while Iran lacks a law against apostasy, the report lists the six criminal code provisions frequently used to charge Christians with religious blasphemy or propaganda against the Islamic Republic.

This only makes it “hurt even more,” the report quotes Nazila Ghanea, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, as saying at last year’s presentation at the UK parliament.

“Your [real] crime is that you are Christian,” stated Ghanea. “Your crime is that you gather with other Christians in house churches, and your crime is that you converted.”

This year the event was hosted by Fiona Bruce, the UK prime minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).

“All of us here are dedicated to protecting FoRB around the world,” she said, “and particularly for Christians.”

Once arrested, they are further abused by the Iranian government.

Iran signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1975. The report cited violations against 11 of its articles and a total of 19 subpoints. Shahnaz Jizan—wife of Sabokrooh—was detained without charges. Anooshavan Avedian was denied a hearing in person. Touraj Shirani was kept in a tiny cell with dirty blankets. Ali Kazemian was tortured.

“In all those years my biggest fear was always for my husband and kids,” Jizan stated. “If they left home, I didn't know if they would come back.”

Shahnaz Jizan (left) and Touraj Shirani (right)
Image: Courtesy of Article18

Shahnaz Jizan (left) and Touraj Shirani (right)

Each of these individuals is pictured in the report. But in the “vast majority” of cases, Christians choose not to publicize their stories in hope of receiving a better legal outcome. These faceless victims, per the report title, are represented in the collective.

But the Christian organizations sponsoring the report believe advocacy can be effective. A death sentence in 2010 was not carried out due to international pressure. Furthermore, a judge is quoted as saying that the only reason the civil code lacks an apostasy provision is concern for Iran’s global standing.

“Iran does care about image and wants to play in the public arena,” stated Mansour Borji, research and advocacy director for Article18, advocating sanctions against offending judges. “They don’t want the negative publicity.”

Several Christians were pardoned in 2023, though the report notes that most were already near their maximum term of imprisonment. And on the same day that one Iranian-Armenian pastor was set free, another was arrested as a warning to recognized Christian communities that they must not preach to Muslims.

Other trends indicate that, as with the similarly violated Bahai community, arrests of Christians tend to come in waves, with increased surveillance of suspected converts and those released from detention. Bible distribution is also a particularly sensitive activity, as one-third of those arrested had multiple copies of Scripture in their possession.

The report also includes a timeline of rights violations in 2023. In addition to personal accounts of arrest, detainment, pardon, and release, it describes the March designation of sale of a historic Assemblies of God church building, founded by Haik Hovsepian, who was martyred in 1994.

The pattern is familiar, stated the report. Churches are forced to close, later are quietly confiscated, and then appropriated by the Iranian state. May marked the 10th anniversary of the forced closure of the Central Assemblies of God Church in Tehran, which was then the largest Farsi-speaking congregation in Iran.

Only four such fellowships remain viable—to those who can prove their Christian faith predates the Islamic revolution of 1979. No further membership is permitted, but these have been closed since COVID-19.

Nima Rezaei (left) and Parham Mohammadpour (right)
Image: Courtesy of Article18

Nima Rezaei (left) and Parham Mohammadpour (right)

Member of parliament Jim Shannon, part of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for FoRB, responded in tears to the “hard reading” of details in the report.

“As a Christian I will say the most important thing is prayer,” he stated at the gathering. “And I pray fervently for our brothers and sisters in Iran, including those who I will never meet.”

But the report also issued several recommendations to Iran. They included:

  • Amend Article 13 of Iran’s constitution to extend civil rights to convert communities, consistent with ICCPR Article 18.
  • Drop charges and free individuals imprisoned for their faith, in line with Iran’s Supreme Court decision that deemed church activity lawful.
  • Reopen closed churches, return confiscated properties, and clarify where Farsi-speaking Christians can worship in their mother tongue.

The report exhorts the international community to hold Iran accountable for its violations and to recognize the “well-founded fear of experiencing persecution” when considering refugee testimony and asylum requests. Turkey is highlighted as a hosting nation where Iranian Christian converts are at risk of being forcibly returned back to Iran.

Until then, the religious reeducation attempts continue.

Hamed Ashouri was required to attend the course with a family member after refusing an offer to act as a government informant. Nima Rezaei had his session filmed as the cleric grilled him for incriminating information. Two anonymous individuals were threatened with seven-year sentences during the classes. And Parham Mohammadpour, like others, was forced to sign a pledge that he would not evangelize.

But not before he gave his testimony: “Even if you cut me into pieces, I won’t abandon my faith in Jesus Christ.”

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