Fred Petrossian–The “I am A Christian too” campaign was launched by a group of Iranian Christian converts living in Stockholm, Sweden, in October 2020 in order to pursue policy change in Sweden and Iran. “I Am A Christian Too” is a loosely organized but sustained campaign among a group of Iranians who share Christianity as their core belief and set their main goal of being recognized as refugees by the Swedish government.

As of July 2022, this campaign has held almost 50 gatherings in Stockholm, making it the most persistent street movement among Iranian religious minorities and even Iranian asylum seekers in the diaspora.

At each meeting, between 20 and 45 people took part, focusing on three systems:

  • Demanding that the Swedish government change its policy regarding Iranian Christian converts and recognize them as refugees;
  • Raising awareness about Iran’s repressive policy regarding converts, particularly religious minorities, women, and civil rights activists in general; and
  • Defying indirectly Iranian Christian TVs which remain strangely silent in most cases regarding persecuted Christians within Iran and the ones facing challenges in the diaspora.

The campaign seeks to be the “voice of voiceless persecuted Iranian Christian” in Iran, who face violence on three fronts but are thriving against all odds in the country and beyond its borders. They also defend their Christian identity in Stockholm as the host country has rejected their asylum requests. One of the government’s main arguments for its decision is that converts face “no threats in Iran”—a claim refuted by reports from both Christian organizations and human rights organizations.

Persecution and the Birth of a Minority

Despite four decades of state-run repression, Iran’s Christian community, which numbered just a few hundered Muslim converts in 1979, has grown to several hundred thousand or even one million according to some sources. It is impossible to make an accurate estimate of the number of converts due to security issues, as all activities are conducted underground. Yet the reactions and comments of leading figures within the state regarding converts as well as news about converts’ arrests in various cities, including small ones, reveal the spread of Christianity throughout the country.

Although most converts can be considered evangelicals, they include a diverse range of believers, from Anglicans to Catholics and even non-Trinitarians. The Iranian constitution recognizes only Jews, Zoroastrians, and Christian natives, such as Armenians and Assyrians, who are second-rate citizens but are not hunted down like Muslim-origin Christians. Meanwhile, the Iranian convert community, like several other non-recognized religious communities (such as Baha’is, Yarsans), has faced violence on three fronts since the inception of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

The Islamic Republic’s constitution and policy regarding minorities and women are called by many experts as religious and gender apartheid. This state can be analyzed within the framework of triple violence theorized and explained by the sociologist and founder of peace studies, Johan Galtung.

Direct Violence: From the very first days of the Iranian Revolution, Islamists have targeted religious minorities and committed many crimes against them, including cutting the throat of the Rev. Arastoo Sayyah, a pastor of an Anglican church in Shiraz, and confiscating various buildings belonging to churches, such as hospitals in Shiraz and Isfahan. The Islamic Republic razed Persian-speaking churches and attacked house churches and Christian houses.

At least eight leading Christian figures have been killed or executed since 1979. Hossein Soodmand, a pastor of the Assembly of God-Mashhad congregation, was detained and tortured in December 1990 before being executed. Pastors from traditionally Christian ethnic groups who proselytize or perform ministries of service to the Muslim-origin population, such as Haik Hovsepian Mehr and Tateos Michaelian, two Protestant church leaders, were victims of the Islamic Republic death squads in 1994.

Targeted individuals have not only been leaders, but also thousands of ordinary Christian citizens who have been sentenced to prison, forced to flee, and deprived of their livelihoods. Even children have not been safe from the wrath of the Islamic judges and security forces. In a stranger-than-fiction sentence, in September 2020, a court ruled that a two-year-old adopted child must be taken away from her parents because they were members of a house church.

Structural Violence: Institutions and policies of the Islamic Republic have been designed in such a way that many Iranians, including religious minorities and women, are deprived of their civil and human rights and are not given equal opportunities. The regime institutionalizes and legalizes discrimination and divides Iranians within a framework of religious and gender apartheid. The Islamic Republic even launched an economic war against “good” minorities (i.e., the recognized ones), and many governmental organizations do not employ them.

This structural violence is also applied to inheritance law. If someone from a family belonging to a religious minority converts to Islam, he or she can inherit the entire estate. The Iranian state has devalued the religious minorities to such an extent that even their testimony in court against a Muslim is not accepted.

The situation is much worse for millions of people belonging to “non-desirable” religious minorities, such as Christian converts. These individuals are deprived of ordinary citizen rights in their own country. As a result, the Islamic Republic has made them “ghosts” in their own homeland. 

Cultural Violence: The Iranian regime abuses the early stages of education and schools to institutionalize the doctrine of Shia supremacy and the systematic humiliation of minorities.

Many minorities, including Baha’is, Yarsans, and Christian converts, are not allowed to learn their religion in school, but are instead forced to attend Islamic culture and education classes. Saeed Peyvandi, a Paris-based sociologist and university professor, stated that “the education system imposes constant humiliation and suffering on the younger generation. Not only do the discriminatory humiliation and classification of religions as well as the banning of Baha’i faith and atheism not end up at schools, but this also poisons the spirit of society, as they make equality and citizenship impossible. Those who accept and internalize such beliefs, or even passively adhere to them as citizens, will later build a relationship based on differences in faith with compatriots who have another religion or no religion. The idea of religious supremacy is intrinsically discriminatory and incites different forms of tension, discrimination, and violence in society.”

The “I am A Christian too” campaign, in its gatherings, presents all these different aspects of persecution to attract attention and raise awareness. They use photos of persecuted Christians, from prisoners to those deprived of education and employment and even jailed civil rights activists, along with slogans in two or three languages (Persian, English, and Swedish), and posters summarizing reports about the Christian situation from the advocacy organization Article 18.

The campaigners also occasionally use Christian symbols, such as the cross, to make their identity clear to any observer. The campaigners sing Christian songs and give statements when media outlets outside Iran cover them.

Amir Hossein Jaafari, the organizer of this campaign, described the aim of the gatherings: “We want to be the voice of this sector of the Iranian society that the government is trying to marginalize, silence and isolate… [We] want to raise awareness and ask the Swedish government and international human rights community to make the Iranian state accountable for rights violations of religious minorities, particularly of Iranian Christian converts.”

The campaigners do not limit their field of action to Christians as they also defend other minorities, such as Baha’is, women rights activists, and jailed peaceful protesters. They also take a clear side on different issues and join “no to execution” demonstrations with other non-Christian Iranian citizens. The Islamic Republic is the second country (after China) to execute prisoners.

Each “I am A Christian too” meeting attracts between 20 and 45 attendees from different churches and denominations. Some go to Persian-speaking churches; others go to Swedish ones. Most converted in Sweden, but several of them became Christian in Iran and a few did so in other countries, such as Pakistan or the Netherlands.

Their advocacy and activity become more significant as political and social issues are, in most cases, neither taught nor discussed in Persian-speaking churches. Although sites like Article 18 or Mohabat News cover news of jailed Christians, Persian-speaking  ChristianTVs are strangely silent most of the time regarding the challenges of imprisoned individuals in Iran and asylum seekers.

The activities of “I am A Christian too,” which are covered by many non-Christian media outlets, such as BBC Persian, Manoto, IranInternational, and VOA while being overlooked by Christian media outlets, raise questions and defy them. These media outlets systematically ignore persecuted Christian stories in Iran while other media outlets cover them.

Silent Christian Media and Persecuted Christians

The United Nations and international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International regularly refer to multiple violations of Christian rights and several other religious communities in Iran. Media outlets based outside Iran cover converts sent to prison for their beliefs and peaceful gatherings. International Christian organizations like Open Doors and Christian news sites covering Iran, such as Article 18 and Mohabat News, regularly cover incidents regarding Christians who face repression.

However, when watching Christian TV programs, there is a distinct absence of regular coverage of persecuted Christians. Some of these programs occasionally refer to the converts facing harsh treatment, but there is neither a TV program nor a section on their website dedicated to this information.

Even Sat 7 Pars TV, which has several series about persecution and Christianity and even a series of testimonies from Iranian Christians, still avoids reporting on the fate of Christian prisoners or persecuted ones on a regular basis. In other words, news about persecuted Christians and reports from human rights organizations regarding these incidents are strangely lacking from Christian TV programs.

In September 2021,18 Iranian Christian converts with an active church life, meaning they are involved in ministry, campaigning, and program production, were asked to share their opinions about why news of persecuted Christians is overlooked and ignored. Sixteen of them are from protestant churches while two are from the Catholic church; 11 are men and 7 are women. They are all based outside Iran. Four respondents said the consequence of not covering this news is increased pressure on converts and the Christian community in the country. We mention the converts by numbers and not their given names for security reasons.

Although some say that these TV programs overlook persecuted Christians because they want to avoid any political discussion, others consider such avoidance to be an effort to give a rosy picture of Christianity to attract people and audiences. They prefer to talk about blessings rather than suffering. The participants’ point of view is reflected in the following quotes:

Participant number one says that, “according to my experience, politics for many Christians is considered taboo. The main focus of these TV programs is evangelization in Iran.” The participant then asked if Christian TV programs should not prioritize coverage about converts as Christians are calling for solidarity and mutual help.

Another participant concluded that “one of the reasons most Christians do not cover issues like persecution in their news is because of the direct connection to the government and the ‘political’ nature of such news. Churches do not have a sound biblical worldview on politics, and a lack of awareness and teaching about it has led believers to distance themselves from anything that relates to politics.”

According to participant number three, a veteran Christian activist with many years of experience in the media, there may be two other reasons in addition to avoiding political discussions. Specifically, some do not know how to enter these uncharted waters and do not take any risk. Others do not think about it at all, and covering such news is not part of their priorities.

Participant number four mentioned the lack of an editorial line on Christian TV programs. Such programs do not have a managerial vision, and it seems like there is no link among programs. Each seller presents its product without TV, pursuing a common vision. Regularly failing to cover news and reports about persecuted Christians makes things worse, creating greater pressure on them in the country.

Participants number five and six emphasized TV programs’ goal to attract people by presenting Christianity as all blessings, from health to happiness, without any word about suffering or persecution. Both of them consider this approach to be very counterproductive. Participant six said that what Christian TV programs are doing is a betrayal of the Christian doctrine, and many people are disappointed after joining the church because they expect only positive things to happen to them. Many people in Turkey come to the church to pursue their interests, contrary to Iranians who join the church in Iran.

Participant number seven said Christian TV programming is very biased because, in Christian theology, blessings and persecution are two sides of the same coin, but these programs highlight only one.

Participant number eight, who was jailed in Iran for his beliefs, says that not talking about Iranian Christians and providing exact information may fit some ministers in Turkey, who use “this foggy situation and claims to get funds in the name of defending an unknown number of converts.” Christian media outlets such as Sat7 Pars, Mohabattv, and Shabake 7 have filled the void created by the Iranian government’s shutting down of Christian institutions within the country.

When Christian TV programs fail to cover news, features, and documentaries about persecuted converts, discriminatory policy in country, and asylum seekers’ challenges, they are censoring, whether intentional or not, an important part of Iranian Christian community news related to the consequences of their conversion. However, talking about and explaining converts’ problems may create a spirit of solidarity among Christians to support each other in practice.

The campaigners in Stockholm are persistent. They continue to gather, with regular coverage provided by non-Christian media outlets. Christian advocacy sites such as Article 18 seem to have changed this landscape somewhat within Christian media outlets.

In June 2022, the “Khodmooni” program on Sat 7 Pars TV, which covers social and political issues, from women’s role in society to censorship and education, interviewed Amir Hossein Jaafari on refugees and the campaign. A seeming breakthrough also happened when a Swedish newspaper covered the campaign’s pursuit to be recognized as Christians for the first time in this same month. More Swedish media coverage may highlight the situation of converted asylum seekers and change Swedish policy, which rejects refugee status to many “I Am A Christian Too” members—a rejection that transforms many Iranians into “ghosts,” although not in Iran this time, but in Stockholm.

“You cannot prove that is your belief”

In a survey that I conducted with 19 campaigners in May 2022, just two of them received positive responses for their refugee requests. The remaining 17 were rejected.

At least 15 of the converts whose requests were rejected received responses such as “you cannot prove your faith to us” and “we cannot be sure that you really believe in your heart.” Some of them say that, contrary to all facts regarding the ongoing persecution of converts in Iran, the government “claims there is no threat to their safety” in Iran.

Such rejection has drastic consequences on converts’ lives. They are not deported to Iran, but they become “ghosts” in Sweden, deprived of many or all rights, such as the right to have access to the employment market. The interviewees all agreed that they did not have a normal life after their requests were rejected, causing them to live under enormous pressure.

Ebru Ozturk, the senior lecturer at Mid Sweden University, recently published a paper on the conversion of Iranians in Sweden, including the numbers and the reason for rejecting Iranian converts in Sweden. According to Ozturk: “I have no statistics on hand about Iranian asylum seekers in a general sense, but the rejection rate seems quite high among asylum-seeking converts from Iran and Afghanistan. I think the point that plays an important role is not from which country you are coming, but the degree that the courts are being convinced by the sincerity of the religious conversion process. Unfortunately, they seldom believe.”

Sweden and its government are not the only ones having doubts about Iranian converts asking for asylum. Dutch pastor Gijs van den Brink, who baptizes approximately 25 people a year, said in an interview that he had been approached by some people whose motives he doubted. It would undoubtedly be a violation of justice if real converts pay the price for the false claims of others.

“I Am A Christian Too” aims to show to the Swedish public, media, and state that, according to many regular reports published by both Christian organizations like Open Doors, MiddleEast Concern, Article 18, and the United Nations and human rights organizations, converts are under enormous pressure in Iran. They also argue that the campaigners’ several years of presence in church and Christian activities provide the proof that they believe what they say.

This campaign has also asked Swedish citizens to sign a petition to support their request urging the government to change its decision regarding these asylum seekers. Approximately 6000 people have already signed it when approached on the streets of Stockholm. The “I Am A Christian Too” resistance in Sweden reminds us of the resistance of Iranian Christians inside the country.

Persecution, Exclusion, and Resistance

“Persecution there, Exclusion here” is one of the slogans of “I Am A Christian Too.” In this slogan, “there” is “Iran,” where at any moment security forces can raid homes, arresting Christians and confiscating their Bibles, crosses, and mobiles. The Islamic Republic aims to erase their identity, and the converts are forced to deny their own faith to avoid going to prison. Many of them prefer to go to jail instead of denying their faith and their identity. Armenians and Assyrians who pray and share their faith with converts also face the wrath of the Iranian state, which falsely claims that ethnic Christians have all the rights in Iran.

Despite this brutal pressure, #The Place Worship campaign was launched in late 2021, under the initiative of a few jailed converts in Iran and with the help of Article 18 outside the country. They urged the Iranian state to change its policy and let converts have their worship spaces. This campaign has been supported by numerous former prisoners of conscience and currently has the support of 33 churches from 10 different countries.

While we cannot compare Sweden to Iran at all, the campaigners in Stockholm, like #The Place Worship in Iran, pursue the recognition of their Christian identity and acceptance of it by authorities to end their exclusion. Both of these social movements differ due to the silence and different treatment of Iranian churches and Christian TV programs regarding social issues. In other words, in the real world, thousands of Christians suffer for their faith and are ignored by their own brothers and sisters.

Being silent and remaining neutral in situations of injustice are not options, as Peace Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

* The paper was presented at ۲۰۲۲ “Christian Left” in Emmanuel College (University of Toronto)