Lord Alton: Supporting democratic progress in Iran will secure a thriving Christian community


In its latest Human Rights Priority Country update report on Iran, published on July 21, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office noted once again that despite "the Iranian constitution only formally recognises 3 religions other than Islam: Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism", minority religions, and even non-Shi'a Muslims, face persecution and harassment in Iran.

For many years, the plight of religious minorities in Iran, especially the Christian community, has been a priority issue for me and many of my colleagues in the Parliament. We have also highlighted the plight of hundreds of Baha'is who have been killed, executed, tortured or imprisoned, and the tens of thousands who have lost jobs, access to education, and other rights - all solely because of their religious belief.

Christians in Iran are prevented from openly exercising their belief or promoting their religion.

Any efforts to that end is interpreted by the theocratic regime as an "illegal" act aimed at undermining the security of "the Islamic Republic" and "spreading propaganda against the system". This leads to the Christian community being systematically harassed and intimidated by the repressive security organs, including the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

So much, too, for Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 insist on freedom of religion or belief - the right to believe, not to believe, or to change your beliefs - and honoured daily in Iran, only in its breach.

This reality makes Iran one of the world's 10 most inhospitable countries for Christians and in recent years many Christian priests, pastors and believers have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and long prison sentences on trumped up bogus charges.

Two days after the Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued their latest human rights assessment, reports appeared about the plight of a Christian prisoner, Maryam Naghash Zargaran, who has been denied unconditional release by an Iranian court at the request of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS).

Maryam's case, and that of her co-worker, Saeed Abedni, illustrate what is happening to Christians in Iran while the world chooses to look away.

Maryam is being held in Tehran's Evin Prison, serving a four-year prison sentence on charges of "acting against national security".

Maryam had previously been arrested in January 2013 in connection with her work on an orphanage with the Christian pastor, Saeed Abedini, who was freed from an Iranian prison in January this year as part of a U.S.-Iranian prisoner swap.

At the beginning of July Maryam began a hunger strike - and despite a short reprieve for urgent medical treatment - she is now twenty days into her hunger strike and her condition is causing great concern to her friends and family.

Staff at the prison have confirmed that Maryam's blood pressure is very low; that she has pains and numbness in her feet - possibly early signs of Multiple Sclerosis - and that she is suffering psychologically as a consequence of her imprisonment.

Maryam had worked with Saeed Abedini, an Iranian American Christian pastor, who was detained while building an orphanage in Iran (his native country) and, in 2012, he was imprisoned on charges of setting up home churches.

In June, following Mr Abedini's release, he joined tens of thousands of Iranians at the annual gathering of Iran's democratic opposition movement, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), in support of a free and democratic Iran.

In his remarks, Mr Abedini recounted the torture and horror that he and many other prisoners of conscience had to endure in the Iranian prisons.

He recalled how prison guards told him he would never come out of prison alive and how he was left in solitary confinement for refusing to make false confessions. Recounting the horror, he described how he saw other prisoners being taken to be hanged.

However, he also pointed out that his very presence in the gathering on that day proves that each act of resistance will be a victory for freedom.

He thanked, the NCRI President-elect Maryam Rajavi for her constant support for the democratic rights of the Iranians, and the religious minorities, including the Christian community.

Just ahead of the gathering in Paris, nearly 80 church leaders from the UK and US, issued a joint statement setting out their "grave concern" at how Iran's rulers are mistreating Christians.

"Repression of Christians has not only continued but intensified during the presidency of Hassan Rouhani", the statement said, adding, "In such circumstances, we call on all Western countries to consider the deplorable situation of human rights in Iran, particularly the painful situation of Christians and the intensification of their oppression, in navigating their relations with Iran."

The former Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd. John Pritchard, who also supported the statement, was among many international dignitaries and parliamentarians participating in the Iranians' greatest gathering for a free and democratic Iran.

In his remarks, Bishop John said, "[I am] overwhelmed to be part of such an extraordinary event ... The maltreatment of religious minorities is what the regime is known for. In clear opposition to the Iranian regime we have Maryam Rajavi who symbolises interfaith harmony between Christians and Muslims I am absolutely with you and wish you every success".

During speeches at the gathering, secular and religious speakers highlighted Mrs. Rajavi's 10-point democratic platform for a future Iran that not only promotes human rights, gender equality and freedom for average Iranian citizens but also envisions an end to the discrimination of the country's religious and ethnic minorities.

It is truly unique for a Muslim woman to lead an organised opposition against a theocratic regime and to present such a progressive platform.

I have no doubt that it is in the best interests of anyone who cherishes the right to hold religious beliefs - but who also insists on the rights of those who do not - to support the courageous Mrs.Rajavi and her 10-point democratic platform in Iran.

A country's greatness can be measured by the way it treats its minorities, upholds diversity and cherishes plurality. In place of a toxic theocratic ideology which spawns hatred and which murders, imprisons, tortures, and oppresses those who dissent, a free and democratic Iran can be a beacon to the rest of the world.

As Mrs Rajavi said in her recent message to Christian leaders of the world, "The Holy Bible teaches us to support and encourage the oppressed ... Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed (Isaiah, 1:17)."

Professor Lord Alton of Liverpool, is a cross-bench member of the House of Lords and member of the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom, www.iran-freedom.org. He also writes on https://davidalton.net/


Tags: Iran, Lord Alton

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