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Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Iran as the defender of Christianity

The Islamic Republic’s charm offensive toward Christians in the Middle East is an empty political tactic.

Christmas tree. (AFP/Patrick Baz)

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

A post-modern Christmas tree, purportedly donated by Hezbollah, stands in the ancient Lebanese city of Byblos on 26 November 2015. (AFP/Patrick Baz)

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.

  • Diocletian

    Good article. The way I see it the Lebanese are being given a choice between two alignments: - The Saudi axis: Worse, because Saudi Arabia is (in my view) more backwards, lacks culture, is losing the regional conflict and shows no signs of reform. Better because their allies in Lebanon, centered around Hariri display big signs of moderation and won't overwhelm the other Lebanese voices. - The Iranian axis: Better, because Iran is improving relations with the world, winning the conflict, showing signs of reform and their culture (at least before 1978) resembled our own. Worse, because their local allies (Hezbo and Assad) are already on top and arent going anywhere. This makes it harder for all the other local voices to act as a counterweight, and Hezbollah and fundamentalist shias risk to dominate Lebanon. The only way an alignment with Iran can work is if other local powers can coalesce into a political counterweight to Hezbollah, while still showing willingness to cooperate with Iran. In my opinion, it's the riskier of the two but also stands to advance the country more (if done right) than stagnating with the Saudis.

    April 5, 2016

  • Edward M.

    "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 ..." Shows them doing what? If you're writing an article, please try to finish the sentence.

    February 29, 2016

  • Elvis

    Christians may not be fully free in Iran but at least they can practice their religion in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tell me sir, are Christians able to practice their faith in Saudi Arabia, the state you often defend? As far as I am aware not only are they not permitted to have any temples of worship but they can't even practice their faith. If they do, they risk death.

    January 20, 2016

  • keyvan

    Very informative piece . good to know that Ayatollahs have manipulated religion for their power and in many cases they have killed and mutilated pastors and church leaders in order to accuse the opposition for the murder.

    January 9, 2016

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Tanseer (تنصير) = evangelization is a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, not in Iran. There are no churches in Saudi Arabia. There are hundreds of churches and synagogues in Iran. Your desperate pro-Saudi, anti-Iranian, rantings smack of absolute imbecility because between two evils, and contrary to reason, you ask readers to accept the worst, not the least, of two evils. It's as if you are asking people to believe that Bronze Age barbarism is somehow better than medieval barbarism. Thanks, but no thanks. NOW: Where do you find these luminaries to enlighten us?

    January 5, 2016

  • WVD

    (...)But as Saudi Arabia and its Salafist gangs have been busy with US support to destroy churches and kill Christians it is no surprise Hezbollah is popular among Christians. They defend Christians, not the Saudi's or the US.

    January 4, 2016

  • daahireeto.mohamud

    "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" does''int this lien tell us the foolishness of the writer, every religion has its own beliefs and doctrines, the Christians even believe Prophet Mohamed was prophet, the Muslims believe that Jesus was one five key prophets and his book was valid, does it make much sense if a Muslims does not believe taht Jesus was not God but a prophet.

    January 4, 2016

  • Beiruti

    Christians do not believe Muhammad was a prophet. The Christian faith was formed hundreds of years before Muhammad who nowhere appears in Christian theology. For Islam, on the other hand, it post dated Christianity and so Jesus is explained as a Prophet. Muslims did not accept Jesus as divine because he died crucified on a tree and that was the most disgraceful way to die. Moslems could not accept this. Jews on the other hand view Jesus as a lunatic or a heretic or worse. Between Jews and Moslems, Moslems have a more charitable view of Jesus in their faith tradition than do the Jews.

    January 5, 2016