Recently, Christians in Iran faced a dramatic uptick in arrests — a 1,000 percent rise during 2018. The list includes more than 100 Christians detained for holding Christmas gatherings in their homes.

The findings are from the 2019 Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent and bipartisan government body that advises the U.S. president, Congress and the secretary of state.

The report also documents the 300 Sufis arrested by Iran’s security forces during the February protests in Tehran. (One protester was executed shortly afterward.) It concludes that during 2018, “the Iranian government [was] heightening its systematic targeting of Muslims (particularly Sunni Muslims and Sufis), Baha’is and Christians.”

Multiple pictures of Baha'i religious leaders (© Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)
Multiple pictures of Baha’i religious leaders arrested in Iran are seen during a protest in Rio de Janeiro on June 19, 2011. (© Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

More than 90 percent of Iran’s people are Shia Muslims. Religious minorities in Iran have struggled under the Islamic Republic during the past 40 years. The strict, authoritarian regime governs the theocratic republic with laws and regulations based on Ja’fari Shia Islam.

“Sadly, this year shows no progress in Iran at all,” Gary Bauer, an official on the commission, told the Voice of America upon release of the report on April 20. Iran “continues to persecute various religious minorities, including Muslim minorities that don’t agree with its Shiite regime.”

The commission’s report includes these instances:

  • Iran’s revolutionary courts sentenced a group of 208 Sufis to prison and floggings during August 2018. “In some cases, trials for these individuals lasted no longer than 15 minutes,” the report says.
  • More than 70 Baha’is remained in prison at the end of 2018, and at least 60 others were denied entrance to Iranian universities because of their faith.
  • At least 171 Christians were arrested in 2018, compared to 16 the year before. Attending Christian religious seminars abroad or holding church services at home are among the activities that landed Christians in an Iranian prison.

Iran’s state-sponsored propaganda

Woman walking past wall with image of menorah on it (© Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iranian Jewish woman arrives at Beheshtieh Cemetery, which is the only existing Jewish cemetery in Tehran, in 2015. (© Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

The Iranian government continued to propagate and tolerate anti-Semitism in 2018, the report says. A senior Iranian official from the Office of the Iranian Presidency organized an anti-Semitic conference in Tehran that accused Jews of manipulating the global economy and exploiting the Holocaust.

Graphic showing symbols of minority religions and estimated numbers of members in Iran (State Dept./Images © Shutterstock)
(State Dept./Images © Shutterstock)

“Iranian officials and clerics regularly call for the elimination of the state of Israel, and members of the Jewish community have been targeted on the basis of real or perceived ties to Israel,” the report states.

Action to advance religious freedom

In July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will host the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the State Department, bringing together hundreds of governments, religious leaders, survivors of religious persecution and civil society organizations to advance religious freedom around the world.

The State Department also issues a report on religious freedom.

“Every person around the world should be free to believe, or not believe, in accordance with their conscience,” Pompeo said in January. “Governments have a duty to protect religious freedom, and promoting this freedom is a key foreign policy priority for the Trump administration.”