In Iran, Covert Christian Converts Live With Secrecy and Fear

A draft Iranian law would mandate the death penalty for apostasy.

Ethnic Armenians, Iran's largest Christian minority, on Christmas Eve.

Ethnic Armenians, Iran's largest Christian minority, on Christmas Eve.

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In the past, apostasy could draw a range of punishments, from imprisonment to death, under legal practices that were more ambiguous than the draft statutes. In one instance that drew international attention, Mehdi Dibaj, an Iranian convert, was held in prison for his Christian beliefs for 10 years starting in 1984. He received the death sentence at the end of 1993. But he was released from prison in January 1994 after an international publicity campaign by Haik Hovsepian Mehr, a prominent Christian pastor in Iran. A few days after Dibaj's release, Hovsepian Mehr was abducted in Tehran, and his body, with 26 stab wounds, was found secretly buried in a Muslim graveyard. Six months later, Dibaj, freed but still under a pending death sentence, was abducted and murdered.

Considering the perils, Muslim Iranians turn to satellite television (though officially prohibited), radio, and the Internet to talk about faiths other than Islam. Some names include the Iranian Christian Television Channel, run by a registered charity based in the United Kingdom; Radio Mojdeh; and Iranian Christian Radio.

SAT-7 PARS, a Middle Eastern Christian satellite station headquartered in Cyprus, began broadcasting in Farsi to Iran in the fall of 2002, under the name of Iranian Christian Broadcasting. In late 2006, it launched the 24-hour Farsi-language satellite television channel. SAT-7 PARS says it receives hundreds of letters and E-mails every week from Iranian viewers—many of them young—expressing interest in Christianity. David Harder, the communications manager at SAT-7 in Cyprus, says the channel tries to answer all questions, but it is a nonproselytizing entity. "Iranian Christians themselves often have very little access to teaching materials that can help them in their spiritual growth," says Harder. "Satellite television provides a means through which Iranians, who have often never had the opportunity to enter a church or even to know a Christian, can learn more about this faith."

Despite the Koran's injunction that "there is no compulsion in religion," issues of religious freedom have persisted since the Islamic revolution of 1979, and that is driving the young away from Islam, says Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a reformist cleric and former vice president of Iran. "If you force religion down people's throats, it makes them less religious, not more." Another analyst based in Tehran agrees but senses a western conspiracy in proselytizing through mass media. He blames satellite television channels for emotionally manipulating Iranian viewers into changing their religion. "Iranians are looking for a balm, and proselytizers are taking advantage of that,'' he says. "There's a vicious western plot to foment a wider cultural East-West war and demonize Islam in the process.''

Demonizing Christianity. Ironically, these days, a recent Iranian film, Jesus, the Spirit of God, is being accused of demonizing Christianity. It's a new film on Jesus told from an Islamic perspective. Jesus, regarded as only a prophet, did not die on the cross and was not resurrected. The disciple Judas Iscariot is crucified in his place, according to the film. This premise is based on the teachings of the Koran and the Gospel of Barnabas, a book not included in the Christian Bible and in which the prophet Muhammad appears.

The $5 million film, funded by Iranian state broadcasting, is intended to promote a dialogue between Muslims and Christians, according to director Nader Talebzadeh. It received a tepid reception in theaters across Iran and will now be recycled as a 20-episode series on state-run national television this year.

Mona, a 24-year-old Assyrian Christian residing in more affluent northern Tehran, saw the film and said its "jaundiced'' interpretation made her cringe. She's not very religious, she says, though she acknowledges there is enough freedom to practice her faith because she was born into a Christian family. But she remains disillusioned with the fact that Islam pervades almost every aspect of normal life in Iran.