Estimates of Iran's Christian population range from 700,000 to 1 million out of a country of approximately 67 million mostly Shiite Muslims. According to Open Doors, more than 100,000 of Iranian Christians are so-called "secret believers" who meet in rapidly growing numbers of house churches.
This month's street protests and the furor over the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has raised important questions for the country's Christian minority, who generally avoid political engagement.
"As long as the sovereignty is in the hand of supreme leader, no matter who comes [to power] Christians will always be under threat. Under his power, the country is ruled by Islamic [Sharia] law, and therefore non-Muslims, including Christians, must be dealt according to the Islamic law," said Daniel Shayesteh, a Christian convert and former member of Hezbollah in Iran now serving as a Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor in Australia.
Adding to the ambivalence of Iranian Christians, lead opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi is remembered as anti-Jew and anti-Christian when he served as prime minister in the 1980s. Shayesteh told me by email that it's not clear to most Christians whether Mousavi now favors "a softer approach" toward non-Muslims.
And Christians have reason to be wary of exposing themselves to further action: In 2008 at least 50 Christians, mostly Muslim converts, were arrested, interrogated, tortured, intimidated, and some even killed, according to Open Doors-making it the harshest year of Christian persecution in Iran since the 1979 revolution. At the same time, the number of Christians in officially recognized churches has been halved from 1979, even as the unofficial numbers of Christian believers has likely grown. Many of those meet in small house churches or are reliant on satellite television for spiritual teaching.
For that reason, a number of Iranian exile pastors in the United States were upset when SAT-7, the lead broadcaster of religious television in the Middle East, did not interrupt its regularly scheduled Farsi-language programming for coverage of street protests. "Every Christian should speak up in defense of human rights and stopping the violence," said Sasan Tavassoli, a former Muslim who is now an Iranian Presbyterian Church pastor living in Atlanta. Tavassoli told me he is "very critical" of the Christian response to Iran's political crisis-and that he hoped it would change. Tavassoli and family members were among a handful of Iranians protesting the election results outside CNN headquarters in Atlanta June 20, but he expects many more to turn out this evening for a candlelight vigil to be held in the city's Piedmont Park.
Vigils on behalf of Iran's protesters are underway today and tonight in cities across the United States-as well as around the world-and are expected to memorialize the death of Neda Agha Soltan, the young Iranian woman killed in Saturday's crackdown on demonstrators, even as further crackdowns are underway.
According to a late report on today's website for The Guardian, Neda's family has been forced out of its apartment in eastern Tehran since she was killed: "The police did not hand the body back to her family; her funeral was cancelled; she was buried without letting her family know and the government banned mourning ceremonies at mosques, the neighbors said."
Reports today from Iran also indicate that Mousavi and another challenger to Ahmadinejad, Mehdi Karroubi, may be under house arrest.