Why Iranian Christians are pinning hopes on ‘moderate’ Rouhani, despite human rights failures

As Iranians head to the polls today (19 May) to vote for their next President, World Watch Monitor takes a look at President Hassan Rouhani’s first term in office and the potential impact of the election result for the country’s Christian minority.

Hassan Rouhani was voted in four years ago, as Iranians sent a decisive message to the wider world that they wanted their President to be more of a moderate than his acerbic predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rouhani was seen as Iranians’ chance to improve relations with the West, and to some extent he has achieved that – notably with the nuclear deal which led to a removal of sanctions on Iran. However, Rouhani was also supposed to be the President who would improve Iran’s human rights record, and on that score he has surely failed.

“Despite Rouhani’s promises to improve human rights in Iran, during his presidency the treatment of Christians, especially converts [from Islam], has not improved,” according to Christian charity Middle East Concern (MEC). “The number of Christians who were arrested and detained increased, as did the amounts required for release on bail. Rouhani’s Charter on Citizens’ Rights, which was published in December 2016, falls short of internationally recognised standards of Freedom of Religion and Belief.”

Mansour Borji, from human-rights group Article 18, adds: “There have been an increasing number of Christians arrested, harsh prison sentences issued, churches still under a lot of restrictions and the closure of churches, and many of the long-term church leaders have been arrested and forced to leave the country. So despite some expressed goodwill from President Rouhani … and although he’s been successful in economic improvements and international relations, internally he hasn’t achieved so much.”

Who are the alternatives to Rouhani?

A record number of applicants (1636) hoped to run for President, but only six were approved by the Guardian Council, highlighting that the ultimate power in Iran lies with the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

As Middle East Concern explains, “The President – appointed by the vote of people, as opposed to the Supreme Leader, who is not appointed by people’s vote – cannot make tangible or drastic changes to Iran’s domestic and international affairs … without the approval of the Supreme Leader.

“It is unlikely that Christians, or religious minorities in general, will see a change in Iran’s legal system and practice opposing freedom of religion while the Supreme Leader remains in power.”

However, despite this apparently bleak picture, Borji says the President still possesses some power to influence – both inside and outside Iran.

“There is a complex power structure in Iran and the President doesn’t have ultimate authority over many things, but he can still have a major effect on the lives of people inside the country,” Borji says. “Rouhani negotiates internally to win people over to his agenda, but also externally with foreign governments, whereas others will take a tough line and more of a hostile attitude to the West, and also to civil liberties inside Iran.”

Of the remaining four candidates – a further two dropped out this week – the main rival to Rouhani is thought to be the ultra-conservative Ebrahim Raisi, whose potential appointment is worrying many Iranians – including Christians – as Borji explains.

“There is still a strong possibility of Rouhani winning, but what worries a lot of people is that at least Rouhani has shown the right attitude towards improving Iran’s human rights record, and also economic and social issues,” he says, “whereas [Raisi] … has in fact been called the ‘death judge’, because he was on a committee in 1988 that sentenced political activists to death, many of whom were already in prison and were about to finish their prison sentences.

“And he’s always been close to Ayatollah Khamenei. So the prospect of him becoming President is worrying many people inside and outside, including Christians, because he takes a hardliner’s position towards anybody who is considered not in line with the ideology of the Islamic Republic. He takes the same position as the Supreme Leader, both consider the growth of Christianity as a threat to national security.”

Christians awaiting verdicts

Just two days after the elections, the trial of two Christians, Victor Bet-Tamraz and Amin Afshar Naderi, will continue in Tehran.

They were first arrested in December 2014 – alongside a third Christian who has since left the country – as they celebrated Christmas at Bet-Tamraz’s home. They were charged with conducting illegal evangelism.

They were later released on bail, but Naderi was then one of five Christians arrested during a picnic in the Alborz Mountains north of Tehran in August last year. Bet-Tamraz’s son, Ramil, was also among that group, though he and two others have since been released on bail. Naderi and a second Christian, Hadi Asgari, continued to be detained.

Victor Bet-Tamraz led the Tehran Pentecostal Assyrian Church before it was shut down by Iran’s Ministry of Interior in March 2009. He had previously found it difficult to find a lawyer willing to act as his defence counsel. Some lawyers have experienced a backlash after representing Christians in court.

Iran is eighth on the Open Doors 2017 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. At least 193 Christians were arrested or imprisoned in Iran in 2016, many of them converts.

“According to the Iranian state, only Armenians and Assyrians can be Christian,” explains Open Doors. “Ethnic Persians are by definition Muslim, and, therefore, ethnic Persian Christians are considered apostates. This makes almost all Christian activity illegal, especially when it occurs in Farsi – from evangelism to Bible training, to publishing Scripture and Christian books, or preaching in Farsi.”

Many Iranian Christians have either been forced to leave the country or have chosen to. Some have ended up in the migrant camps of Europe, as World Watch Monitor reported earlier this year.