– Arrests of Christians in Iran usually spike as Christmas approaches, but this year has been especially severe, sources said.
More than 150 Christians have been detained across the officially Shia Muslim country in the last month, and arrests are expected to continue. “The current situation has been described by some as unprecedented,” Miles Windsor, advocacy and development manager at Middle East Concern (MEC), told Morning Star News. “There are a huge number of arrests and detentions.” An uptick in arrests is expected around Christmas, Windsor said, when many Iranians are attracted to Christianity and the government seeks to deter interest through intimidation.
“Recently it seems there is definitely a coordinated and determined campaign to decimate the Christian community and to spread fear and intimidation,” Windsor said.
This year has been especially severe, however, according to MEC. Some analysts speculate that security branches, fearful of funding cuts, are trying to show their effectiveness and justify payments from the government by showing how many Christians they can arrest. Among them, Amir Taleipour, 39, and his wife Mahnaz Harati, 36, were arrested in front of their 7-year-old daughter by intelligence agents who raided their home in Mashhad, northeast Iran on Dec. 6. The couple has not been allowed to communicate with family members or access legal assistance since then, according to MEC.
Family members are caring for their daughter while the couple is in detention, according to MEC. Iran’s constitution makes Shia Islam the official religion but recognizes Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity as official religious minorities. It states that all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and official interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). The penal code specifies the death sentence for “proselytizing” and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the prophet [Muhammad]”), according to the U.S. State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom Report (2017).
On Dec. 2 two sisters from Ahvaz, in the southwest part of the country, were arrested and assaulted in detention, according to MEC. Shima Zanganeh, 27, and Shokoofeh Zanganeh, 30, were arrested, along with Farzad Behzadi, 30, and Abdollah Yousefi, 34, who are not related to the sisters. Thirteen plain-clothes revolutionary guards raided each of their homes, confiscated their books, phones and computers, according to MEC, and took the four Christians into custody for interrogation.
Security personnel beat the sisters during interrogation at security offices in Ahvaz. Prison authorities called to report the beatings to the family, and the sisters confirmed the physical assault in a phone call, according to Mohabat news.
“The sisters were beaten badly in their interrogation,” Windsor said. “Eventually they were able to make a short phone call home to let family know where they were taken.”
The sisters were transferred to Sepidar Prison in Ahvaz on Dec. 12, and a judge has set a high bail of about US$44,000 for each.
Each day that their family tried to pay the bail, court officials would tell them that the judge was not in, according to Mohabat News.
“There are suspicions the Iranian authorities are delaying their release to give time for the marks of their beating on the two sisters to heal before they are released conditionally,” Mohabat reported.
The whereabouts of Behzadi and Yousefi are unknown.
Interrogations are usually used to gather information on the arrestees’ networks and particularly to target leaders, Windsor said.