03/30/2015, 00.00
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Christians in Iran: with Rouhani there is some movement (I)

by Bernardo Cervellera
As the world’s most powerful nations try to find an agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue in Lausanne, in Iran things are changing. Despite known limitations on freedom of conscience and problems, including violence, the country’s 350,000 Christians enjoy a degree of freedom that is certainly greater than in other countries of the region. This is the first part of a report.

Tehran (AsiaNews) – Iran is in the world spotlight. A draft agreement could be struck (as many hope) between today and tomorrow. If it is it would give the international community reassurances that Iran’s nuclear programme will remain peaceful in exchange for an end to international economic and financial sanctions, most of which were tightened in the past four years but some of which date back almost 30 years.

The delegations and the foreign ministers concerned (the 5+1 group, which includes the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France and Germany, plus Iran) are currently meeting in Lausanne. Whether the few things we know about the discussions come from lowly anonymous officials or from foreign ministers, what is certain is that both sides want to reach an “historic” deal.

The core issues are the number of uranium centrifuges Tehran will be able to have for peaceful purposes, including medical research (6-7,000 to 10,000), in exchange for an end to sanctions (some right away; more within four months; others after ten years).

As I said a few days ago, it is important for the international community to achieve reconciliation with Iran. Not everyone agrees. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prefers "no deal" to "a bad agreement". Saudi leaders accuse Tehran of wanting to turn the Middle East upside down.

Neither is telling the whole truth. One leads the only nuclear power in the Middle East and does not want competitors. The others are not saying how many petrodollars are being spent to spread the Wahhabi fundamentalism that is they have has given ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic state.

Political battles aside, the life of the Iranian people is what interests us. For this reason, last year at Easter I travelled to this fascinating country, where I met its people, including its youth, and members of its churches.

In the past, I have already mentioned the situation of those affected by the embargo. I have also written on Shia Islam, as more open to dialogue than Sunni Islam. This is best evinced by the fact that the Catechism of the Catholic Church was translated into Farsi by various Muslim scholars.

The fate of the country’s 350,000 Christians is still an open question. Some belong to Churches that endure suffocating persecution; others enjoy wonderful freedom.

Although problems exist, including violence, Christians certainly enjoy a higher degree of religious freedom than in other countries in the region. This is especially significant if we consider that Muslims constitute 98 per cent of the country’s population (86.1 per cent Shia; 10.1 per cent Sunni; 2 per cent other Muslim).

My journey among Iran’s Christians of Iran began with a visit to the ministry of minorities, led Hojatoleslam Ali Younesi, who is charge of relations with Christians and Jews, but also other ethnic groups.

President Hassan Rouhani is behind this ministry. He "cares for the rights of every citizen, whatever their religion, race, or culture. Every Iranian has to enjoy the same rights and the same dignity."

A Christian Member of the Majlis (Iran’s parliament), Yonathan Betkolia, an Assyrian, is thrilled by Rouhani and his new course.

He explained to me that the Chaldean and Assyrian communities have lived in Iran for 3,000 years (as ethnic groups perhaps). Christians and Muslims have lived side from the beginning, 1,400 years ago.

The city of Urmia, in northern Iran, has some of the earliest evidence of Christian presence, including the Magi’s tombs. It is also home to many churches, which are now cared for by Muslims after Christians left.

I asked him if Christians MPs have brought some improvements to the religious freedom for Christians. To illustrate his point, he told me an interesting story.

Until recently, people could pay "blood money" to a murder victim’s family. For a Muslim, the price was 60 million rials; for a Christian, it was 3 million rials. Minority communities were successful in getting the same price for everyone: 150 million rials for both Christians and Muslims.

Another law that is slated for change is in the area of inheritance. Under existing legislation, if a family member is Muslim, he gets everything him and the others get nothing. This has often led to phoney conversions to Islam to seize family assets. Minister Younesi wants to change the existing law.

Conversions from Islam to other religions and vice versa are conversely a source of grave concern. “We do not like to see Muslims force minorities to become Muslim,” he told me. “We also do not like minorities to proselytise (i.e. convert to their faith or religion)”.

“We want people to live side by side, the mosque next to the church. We dislike proselytising, and change [conversion]. They threaten national unity and security. The current balance between us and minorities is favourable to minorities. And we do not want to break that balance.”

Conversions, whatever the religion, are banned for “security" reasons. Converts are prosecuted. Protestant groups are well aware of this because their members are often active in public, encourage Muslims to convert and their communities often name Muslim converts in positions of authority.

According to Christian Today, an Anglican publication, since 27 October 2014, at least 49 Protestants have been jailed for "proselytising".

Whilst proselytising, understood as pressure and manipulation of someone else’s conscience, is to be condemned, the fact remains that even publicly speaking about one’s Christian faith is often enough for conviction on proselytising charges.

Unable to speak openly about their faith to outsiders, many Christian communities have turned inward, increasing demographically through natural growth and the baptism of Christian children.

For the Vatican nuncio, Mgr Leo Boccardi, despite the obstacles on the path of the mission, “there is room for fruitful dialogue with the Islamic world.”

“In any case,” he noted, in Iran, “Churches enjoy freedom of worship, which is impossible to see elsewhere. They are safe and no one touches them. There is no terrorism.”

The nuncio is very optimistic. In his view, with Rouhani, there is a "new atmosphere" and a greater sense of freedom.

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