Though Iran and Western nations have agreed on the framework of a nuclear deal, Middle East experts say the final agreement probably will not serve as a catalyst for religious freedom in the Persian nation.
“As long as you have Islam and an Islamic regime as the authoritative government and they hold the sword, Christians will be persecuted. Sanctions or no sanctions, Christians in Iran will not have freedom, period,” said Paul Golhashem, a Christian author for Persian World Outreach, a ministry to the 80 million Farsi-speaking people worldwide. Golhashem left Iran in 1995 and now is a U.S. citizen living in Dallas.
After weeks of negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland, diplomats announced the framework of a nuclear deal April 2 that would limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of European Union and U.S. sanctions as Iran complies with demands, The New York Times reported.
Chief Iranian diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif said the deal does not “require closing any of our [nuclear] facilities,” according to The Times. The deal reportedly also reaches President Barack Obama’s goal of keeping Iran more than a year away from producing a nuclear weapon.
Screen capture from CNN.com
The framework nuclear deal between Western nations and Iran is historic, President Obama said April 2 at a White House press conference.
Details of a final agreement have to be negotiated before a June 30 deadline.
Meanwhile, Naghmeh Abedini, the wife of imprisoned American pastor Saeed Abedini has said her husband’s release should be among the conditions of any U.S. nuclear deal with Iran. Preliminary news reports of the framework agreement did not appear to reference Abedini.
Though some have suggested the U.S. should demand increased religious freedom in Iran as part of the final agreement, Golhashem said such freedom is unlikely to be granted.
Iran’s Shiite Islamic regime will never allow Christians to practice their faith freely, Golhashem said in written comments. Still, Christianity in Iran has grown significantly over the past decade, with between 200,000 and 1 million people coming to faith in Christ, according to reports from Elam House, a United Kingdom-based advocacy group that seeks to strengthen and expand the church in the Iran region.
“Persecution of Christians in Iran has a 2,000 year history,” Golhashem said. “From a very early time, Christians in Iran have been killed and persecuted because of their religion. At first, persecution stemmed from Greek and Roman influence. … After the invasion by Islam, the persecution never stopped.”
Golhashem, who has translated books by Charles Spurgeon, John Piper and Charles Swindoll into Farsi, said at least 15 high-profile Christians in Iran have been martyred since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Despite the framework agreement, Iran has a “strong commitment” to obtain nuclear weapons for “two main reasons,” Golhashem said.
Iran could use nuclear weapons against Saudi Arabia, which is controlled by Sunni Muslims, “to force them to release [control] over Mecca and other [Muslim] holy shrines,” Golhashem said. Iran could also use nuclear weapons against Israel to “take back the land from them.”
Craig Mitchell, associate professor of philosophy, politics and economics at Criswell College in Dallas, said missions must continue in Iran regardless of the outcome of nuclear talks.
“There is no direct relationship between international negotiations with Iran and evangelism there, since the negotiations focus on their plans for nuclear weapons. Since Iran is motivated by their desire to maintain their religious exclusivity, pressure caused by sanctions will neither help nor hurt the cause of missions,” Mitchell wrote.
“Christians need to be praying for Iran, that the Lord will work on the hearts of those in leadership. At the same time, those who are called as missionaries to the Iranian people must be faithful regardless of how the Iranian government responds,” Mitchell said.
The U.S. government, as well as the United Nations, “should be strong advocates of religious liberty” and press Iran to stop persecuting Christians, Mitchell said. He urged Christians to contact their elected officials, “reminding them of their need to intervene.”
Mitchell added, “The best situation is one in which Iran does not have nuclear weapons.”
Religious freedom advocates have continued to urge the U.S. to make Abedini’s release from Iran’s Rajai Shahr prison a condition of the final nuclear deal. Naghmeh Abedini said her husband’s release will become more unlikely if it is not part of the deal.
“I do believe his case is entangled in this nuclear deal issue,” Naghmeh Abedini told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren March 31. “If there is no deal or if there is a deal without [the release of] Saeed, I think it will be very difficult to get Saeed home. … If there is a deal, I hope Saeed and other Americans are released as a precondition.”
Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. diplomats “have mentioned Saeed on the sidelines of the nuclear talks,” Naghmeh Abedini said.
Saeed Abedini has been imprisoned since Sept. 26, 2012. He was sentenced Jan. 27, 2013, to eight years in prison on charges he threatened national security by planting house churches in Iran years earlier, and had been under house arrest since July 2012.
Despite the oppression of Abedini and other Christians, people in Iran are embracing the gospel, with more than 200 Iranians and Afghans baptized in two cities this year, Elam House reported on its website.
“The baptisms were joyful day-long occasions, full of worship, prayer, fellowship over meals and the sharing of testimonies. One new believer at one of the ceremonies recalled how finding a New Testament by accident had started him on his journey to Christ. Remarkable stories of the Lord’s providence abounded during both days,” Elam House reported.
“Most of the new believers had never seen so many Christians gathered in one place before their baptism day. The gathered crowds were a huge encouragement, especially to many who had spent a number of years feeling isolated as believers in Iran,” Elam House said.
In addition to Iran’s persecution of Christians, its leaders are also hostile toward Jews. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has called Israel a “cancerous tumor” to be removed, and in 2006 Iran’s government hosted a conference questioning the historicity of the Holocaust.
Iran’s “toxic relationship” with Israel “has intensified” since its nuclear ambitions came to light, a 2012/13 Elam House magazine reported, noting that “Iran can produce weapons grade uranium.” In an email to BP, an Elam House spokesman cited the article as representative of the ministry’s current position.
Christians should pray for the spread of the gospel in Iran and for the rise of “righteous rulers,” Elam House said.
“The best hope is that Iran’s leaders would promote peace. Christians should pray with faith that Iran will have righteous rulers who serve their people, their region and the world well. This is by no means impossible. Throughout history nations have changed, especially when the gospel impacts the people on a large scale,” according to Elam House.
Golhashem, the Iranian believer in Dallas, longs for the day when God will supernaturally change Iran – and he wonders whether the first stirrings of such change are the discontent of many Muslims with Iran’s brutal regime.
“The day Iran becomes an open door for religious freedom – mainly open to the gospel – the whole Middle East will change,” Golhashem said. “Why has God not allowed this? All I know is it is not His time yet.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)