Iran’s population is estimated at just over 80 million, of which approximately 90% is Shi’a Muslim and 9% Sunni Muslim. The remaining 1% includes indigenous Christian Armenian and Syriac communities, thought to number approximately 300,000 – though some recent unofficial estimates suggest this has dropped very significantly in recent years due to emigration. The communities preserve their own linguistic and cultural traditions. Recognised churches include Armenian Apostolic, Russian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian, Chaldean and Roman Catholic, and Anglican, Presbyterian and Pentecostal churches. Of these, the Armenian communities are the largest. The other main category of Christians does not have official status – these are Persian believers from Muslim backgrounds, principally within Protestant house church movements.
Iran’s constitution establishes Iran as an unalterably Islamic State (Twelve Ja’fari school) and establishes Islamic law as the basis of all legislation. The constitution provides religious minority status to Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, and states that the human rights of non-Muslims are to be respected as long as they refrain from activities against Islam or the Islamic Republic of Iran. These three recognised religious minorities have parliamentary representation and are entitled to establish and use their own rites in matters of personal status. The principle of non-discrimination is affirmed, and article 23 states that the “investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden.” Although apostasy is not proscribed by the Penal Code (a proposed amendment to the Code to criminalise apostasy was not adopted in 2013 amendments), the Code makes provision for judges to rely on authoritative Islamic sources in matters not covered by the Code – effectively providing scope for Islamic law sanctions to be applied for apostasy (though there are no known examples of judicial death sentences having been applied for apostasy since 1990).
Iran ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on 24th June 1975. The ICCPR upholds the right to freedom of religion, including the right to hold a religion of one’s choice and the right to manifest that religion (Article 18). It also upholds the rights of minorities and the principle of non-discrimination. Iran’s ratification of the ICCPR was made without reservation.
Officially recognised churches have been subjected to increasingly restrictive controls since 2011. Churches are effectively banned from using the Farsi language in their activities, a restriction enforced through regular checks of the identity documents of attendees to ensure that only members of the minority communities attend and that Persian Muslims are excluded. Since 2010, political leaders, including the Supreme Leader, have issued warnings about the house church movement which they consider a threat to society. Numerous arrests have been made, especially of leaders of house churches. Although two Christian prisoners, Farshid Fathi and Saeed Abedini, were released in December 2015 and January 2016 respectively, around 90 remain in detention because of their Christian faith or activities, or have been freed on bail and are awaiting trial. Charges against detainees are typically political (e.g. acting against national security or disturbing the public order) rather than religious (few are charged with apostasy or forced to recant their faith). This reflects the authorities’ preoccupation with maintaining political power and control. Many others within Iranian society, including other religious minorities, face similar oppression. In addition to persecution from government sources, those who choose to leave Islam often face strong family and societal pressure. A combination of these factors accounts for the high emigration rate of Christians from Iran, whether from Muslim or indigenous Christian backgrounds.