Inside Interfaith Iran

Martin Surridge September/October 2012

For the past few months the eyes of the believers around the world have been fixed on an Iranian death row "apostate" who has refused to recant his faith in Jesus Christ. Yousef Nadarkhani was first arrested in his hometown of Rasht, Iran, in October 2009, for violating the law by his protesting the mandatory Islamic education of Iranian children. Nadarkhani is a Christian pastor, one of approximately 300,000 Christians in the country of Iran, a country of 78 million people. According to the U.S. State Department's 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, the majority of Christians are ethnic Armenians. The number of practicing Protestants is thought to be less than 10,000. Those Protestants worship mostly in secret, in house churches like the one led by Nadarkhani in the province of Gilan.

When the pastor was arrested, Iranian authorities, after learning of his religious leadership, added apostasy and evangelism to his list of crimes. The father of two was convicted and given the death penalty. Appeals were filed, Christians around the world prayed and fasted in solidarity, and human rights advocacy groups including Amnesty International demanded Nadarkhani's release. Yet as of mid-2012, Nadarkhani remained on death row in Iran.

Iran is clearly one of the world's most egregious violators of religious freedom. But the modern-day theocracy exists in what was once known as Persia—arguably one of the first societies to recognize basic human rights. Given the regrettable state of religious affairs in Tehran today, perhaps it is fitting that in order to find those original days of tolerance and human rights, one has to travel several millennia into the past.

The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the world's most remarkable ancient artifacts. Owned by the British Museum in London, the object was lent to the government of Iran last year for a three-month exhibit. The football-sized relic, dating back to the 530s B.C., is inscribed with ancient Babylonian cuneiform script. The text is an account of how King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and captured the royal family of Belshazzar. The story, also chronicled in the Old Testament book of Daniel, is literally thousands of years old. When one examines the very fragile, very cracked Cyrus Cylinder, its ancientness is even more apparent. Naturally the artifact is placed behind protective glass. But for what reason would international politicians and museum curators place such importance and relevance on a dusty cuneiform artifact from an era that bears little resemblance to the world today?

Speaking during the TEDGlobal summer conference in July of last year, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum in London, argued that the Cyrus Cylinder is far more than a record of ancient Iranian military conquest. MacGregor explained that in that ancient cylindrical document, Cyrus, king of Persia, promises that since his conquest has been completed, as a sign of goodwill and traditional reform common to that time, "he will at once let all the peoples that the Babylonians, Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, have captured and enslaved go free."

"He'll let them return to their countries," MacGregor continued, "and more important, he will let them all recover the gods, the statues, the Temple vessels that have been confiscated. All the people that the Babylonians had repressed and removed will go home,... be able to restore their altars, and worship their gods in their own way, in their own place."

MacGregor asserted that the Cyrus Cylinder "is the evidence for the fact that the Jews, after the exile in Babylon,... were allowed to go home. They were allowed to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the Temple."

The director of the British Museum maintained that the decision set forth in the cylinder was part of Cyrus's deliberate effort to govern a multinational, multi-faith, multicultural empire, in which different religions would be respected and tolerated. This decision is where so many believe the international civil concept of respect for human rights first began its development. MacGregor is not alone in ascribing to the Cyrus Cylinder a great measure of importance, even placing it in on the same level as the Magna Charta, the English Bill of Rights, and other historic documents that paved the way for later, more comprehensive declarations of human rights, such as the U.S. Constitution and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Former United Nations secretary-general U Thant accepted a replica of the Cyrus Cylinder in 1971 as a gift from Iran just eight years before the overthrow of the shah. During those years the artifact made appearances on Iranian coins and postal stamps, and the country was eager to take its place alongside Greece, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States as having made vital societal contributions to the international development of religious liberty and human rights.

This version of history was embraced by the United Nations and in an online statement regarding the drafting of the UDHR, the U.N. acknowledges that the Cyrus Cylinder "is said by many to be the first human rights document" in world history. The copy of the artifact continues to be displayed next to the Security Council Chamber in the U.N. headquarters in New York City, where the text has been translated into all official U.N. languages.

However, some scholars have since come to see the Cyrus Cylinder in a less favorable light, one that may reflect the lengths to which Iran must reach in order to present itself as a protector and progenitor of human rights. In an article featured on the Web site of The Telegraph, Harry de Quetteville interviewed ancient history professor Josef Wiesehöfer, from the University of Kiel in Germany, who derided the Cyrus Cylinder in 2008 as "a propaganda inscription."

Wiesehöfer remarked that "it has become a very celebrated document, but Cyrus himself ordered it done, trying to make himself appear righteous. The real king was not more or less brutal than other ancient kings of the Near East, like Xerxes, but he was cleverer."

Another historian profiled by de Quetteville in The Telegraph was British author Tom Holland, who "joined the condemnation of the cylinder as a model text enshrining human rights." Holland described the claims as "nonsense, absolute nonsense. The ancient Persians were not some early form of Swedish Social Democrats."

Such current revisionism may do little to detract from the influential and impressive nature of the cylinder, but sadly, even with the revision of contemporary historians, Iran may be the only country in the world where the religious freedoms granted in its ancient kingdom thousands of years ago are more celebrated than those of its twenty-first-century successor. Iran has been on the United States' Country of Particular Concern (CPC) list for more than a decade, because of repeated, intentional, severe violations of religious freedom. Among the more alarming infringements within the nation's legal framework include a requirement that all women, regardless of faith, must adhere to conservative Islamic dress in public, a failure to "respect the right of Muslim citizens to change or renounce their religious faith," and a provision in which "the government automatically considers a child born to a Muslim father to be a Muslim."1

Iranian Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani is under a death sentence for conversion.

The U.S. State Department's 2010 Inter­national Religious Freedom Report (IRFR) also explains that in Iran, "non-Muslims may not engage in public religious expression, persuasion, and conversion among Muslims, and there were restrictions on published religious material." And, as many people around the world found out as they followed the case of Nadarkhani this year, "apostasy, specifically conversion from Islam, is punishable by death."

It might be rare for Iranians to actually receive the death penalty for religious crimes, yet other forms of punishment and harassment are quite common. With the exception of Sunni Muslims, members of religious minorities may not serve in the judiciary or security forces and may not be employed as public school principals. Members of the Baha'i faith are persecuted even worse than other minority religions. The Baha'i faith is a monotheistic religion that originated in nineteenth-century Persia and stresses the unity of the human race. There are more than 6 million Baha'is around the world, and despite numbering as many as 350,000 in Iran alone, Baha'is have been prevented from working in public sector employment, are frequently expelled from university after declaring their faith, are not free to teach or practice their faith, are detained without due process, are banned from the social pension system, are "regularly denied compensation for injury or criminal victimization and the right to inherit property,"2 and in 2010 "there were reports that Baha'i children in public schools faced attempts to convert them to Islam."3

Perhaps because of their low profile worldwide, the struggles facing the Baha'i in Iran fail to gather international attention. The attention paid to Nadarkhani, however, seems almost unrivaled for a news story on Christian persecution. His name has become a rallying cry for American evangelicals; it has even appeared on shirts of steadfast young Christians throughout the United States. But the sentencing of Nadarkhani is not even a unique case, even if his is the only name being discussed. Behrouz Sadegh-Khandjani, pastor of a house church in Shiraz, also received a death sentence for apostasy in June 2010 and awaits execution, and in the two years leading up to his sentencing "over 115 Christians were reportedly arrested on charges of apostasy, illegal activities of evangelism, anti-government propaganda, and activities against Islam, among other charges."4

The IRFR continues: "In a marked rise in the number of arrests from the previous reporting period, between July and December 2010, 161 additional arrests of Christians were reported. Of those arrested, 33 remain in jail or with an unknown status at the end of the year," including Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, who remains in solitary confinement in Evin prison on charges of propaganda against the state, gathering against national security, insulting the supreme leader and president, and insulting Islam. Christians also face weekly observations via security camera outside registered churches so that Iranian officials are able to document any potential converts.

The list of conspicuous offenses culminates with a particularly tragic and violent incident occurring at the hands of Iranian security forces sometime in 2008: "In 2008 plainclothes security officers raided the home of Isfahan Iranian Christians Abbas Amiri and his wife, Sakineh Rahnama, during a meeting. Both Amiri and Rahnama died of injuries suffered during the raid. Authorities denied permission for the local Christian community to hold a memorial service for the couple."

Through allies who maintain diplomatic relations with Iran, the U.S. State Department continues to press Tehran on religious freedom and human rights, and has repeatedly condemned Iranian persecution in United Nations resolutions. However, the government of Iran offers a shallow, insufficient response to its critics in the international community, reserving five seats in their parliament for religious minorities, two for Armenian Christians, one for Assyrian Christians, one for Jews, and one for Zoroastrians. These members are allowed to vote but are constitutionally prohibited from becoming president.

It is unsurprising that the solitary Jewish member of the Iranian parliament is prohibited from running for the nation's highest elected office. It would be more surprising to hear that he or she even desired to run, given the comments made by the incumbent over the past few years. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the head of the Iranian government, yet he remains subordinate to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i. Ahmadinejad, a former engineering teacher, has become a polarizing figure in international affairs during his two terms in office, and he draws sharp condemnation from all directions each time he has foolishly called the validity of the Holocaust into question. Under his leadership Iran has become both a mocked pariah state and a feared enemy. Openly anti-Semitic, Ahmadinejad provokes the wrath of Israel and its allies, most notably the United States, with each passing year. He questions the legitimacy of the Israeli state, continues to push for nuclear independence without international approval, rattles the Iranian saber by threatening to shut down the strategic Strait of Hormuz to shipping, corrupts the democratic process, represses his own people, and continues to overlook serious violations of religious liberty throughout his country. Ahmadinejad may have passed civil engineering, but he's certainly failing history.

Martin Surridge is an associate editor for ReligiousLiberty.TV, an independent news Web site. He writes from Calhoun, Georgia.

2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.

Article Author: Martin Surridge

Martin Surridge has a background in teaching English. He is an associate editor of ReligiousLiberty.TV, an independent news Web site. He writes from Calhoun, Georgia.