The Islamic Republic of Iran is the Middle East’s defender of Christianity. Last week, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei paid a surprise visit to a Christian Iranian family, and said: “Our respect for Christianity is this way: In Islam, whoever denies the infallibility of Hazrat Jesus and Hazrat Mary” is not a Muslim.
On a giant screen in Byblos, Lebanon, the predominantly Christian town expressed gratitude to Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, for their generous donation to the erection and decoration of the town’s Christmas tree.
Praising the prophet Jesus and funding Christmas trees is a smart public relations campaign that shows Iran and its armed militias across the Middle East, in contrast to some Sunni Salafist groups that prohibit Muslims from celebrating Christmas.
But cozying up to Christians is one thing — safeguarding their freedom of worship is another. When leaders of the Islamic Republic talk about Christianity, they mean Christianity as dictated by Islamic teachings that — despite revering Christ — downgrade him from lord and savior to a mere infallible prophet. What Iran perceives as a sign of goodwill toward Christians is, in fact, offensive to their creed.
Then there is the problem of Iran patronizing other Muslims over how they should perceive Christianity. By saying that whoever believes this or that is not Muslim, Shiite Iran practices the same act of takfir (accusing other Muslims of being infidels) that it claims to be fighting in its war on Sunni radical groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
And despite its charm offensive to win Christian hearts, Tehran still oppresses Christian communities in Iran and accuses them of attempting to corrupt Islam.
In 2010, Khamenei called on the government to “deal with” house churches. That year, Iranian authorities arrested 60 Christians, including Pastor Farshid Fathi, who was released last week. In 2011, Tehran Governor Morteza Tamaddon described the arrested Christians as extremists who “penetrate the body of Islam like corrupt and deviant people.”
Iran also encourages converting Christians to Islam, or restricting their religious freedom, across the region. In cities like Baghdad, where Iran’s allies dominate, Shiite militias earlier this month pasted images of the Virgin Mary with a question addressing Christian Iraqi women: “Why was Virgin Mary, Peace be Upon Her, veiled?”
The Iraqi Shiite poster suggested that Mary was veiled because her attire was consistent with the “way of the prophets,” and therefore something Iraqi Christians should endorse.
While the world highlights the atrocities of ISIS against non-Muslim communities in northeastern Iraq, the pressure that Iran and its allies have been applying on Christians goes unnoticed, or is sometimes depicted as Iran’s friendly treatment of Christians.
In Lebanon, despite the signs of good will that Hezbollah has shown Christians since 2006, the party has played — since its inception in 1982 — a major role in displacing Christians out of predominantly Shiite towns and villages, often by imposing Islamic rules and applying pressure on non-Muslims and non-practicing Muslims alike.
In Syria, Iran has projected itself as the sponsor of minorities such as Christians and Alawites, from which President Bashar Assad hails. Yet the alliance between Muslim Iran and non-Muslim Syrian minorities is likely only a temporary one that will weaken when they figure out how to beat their common enemy, the Sunni majority.
Political differences between Assad and Iran are clear. While Assad tries to sell himself as the West’s best ally to beat Sunni terrorism, Iran markets itself as a replacement for Western power in the region, and accuses the West and America of secretly supporting terrorism to undermine Iran’s rising leadership.
Iran’s charm offensive toward Christians is a political tactic. Like other Muslim communities intolerant of non-Muslims, Iran wants to convert Christians to Islam, or at least impose on them its own understanding of the Christian creed.
The constitution of the Islamic Republic is full of articles stipulating that non-Muslim Iranians can practice their various faiths, but only in ways consistent with Islam and its teachings. This makes it impossible for Christians, and others, to worship freely in Iran, or indeed in any Middle Eastern territory where Iran’s allies rule.
Iran might not be enslaving Christians like ISIS, but neither it is allowing them freedom of worship. Iran’s reverence of Jesus and Christianity, as defined by Christians, is deceptive propaganda.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain