December15, 2005, 8:38 a.m.

Freedom to Believe

Iran'sChristians have a high price to pay.

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

OnSundays after I return from transatlantic travels, I joke withfriends at church that Communion somehow becomes more meaningfulafter a stay in "formerly Christian" Europe.

It's meant as a gentle rebuke, an admonition of one possible futurethat could be ours should we bow too far to the secularists who wouldban expression of praise and thanksgiving from our societies.

The leaders of today's Islamic Republic of Iran, however, take theirreligion very seriously. They resemble a dark chapter in Europe'sdistant past - except that they are living it today, withoutrepentance.

A few weeks ago in Iran, an Iranian convert to Christianity waskidnapped from his home in northeastern Iran and stabbed to death.The vigilantes who took him tossed his bleeding body in front of hishome a few hours later, a stark warning against any who would followhis example.

Within hours of the November 22 murder, secret police officersarrived at the martyred pastor's home, searching for Bibles and otherbanned Christian books he had been distributing in Persiantranslations.

News of the martyrdom of pastor Ghorban Tori, 50, was broadcast by
CompassDirect, a website dedicatedto bringing "news of Christians worldwide who are persecuted fortheir faith." As I write this, no print or broadcast media in theUnited States has bothered to report this.

According to their sources in Iran, representatives of the ministryof information and security (MOIS), part of Iran's dreaded secretpolice, have arrested and severely tortured ten other Christians inseveral cities, including Tehran.

In addition, MOIS officials have reportedly visited known Christianleaders since Tori's murder and have instructed them to warnacquaintances in the secret "house churches" that "the governmentknows what you are doing, and we will come for you soon."

Tori is the fifth Protestant pastor assassinated in Iran in the pasteleven years. Three of the five were former Muslims, making themsubject under Iranian law to the death penalty for having committedapostasy.

Tori's murder came just days after Iran's new president, MahmoudAhmadinejad, called an open meeting with the nation's 30 provincialgovernors, and vowed to crack down on the burgeoning movement ofhouse churches across Iran.

"I will stop Christianity in this country," Ahmadinejad reportedlysaid.

This is not the first time that the Islamic Republic authorities haveharassed, jailed, or murdered fellow Iranians because of theirfaith.

Mina Nevisa, another convert from Islam, was forced to flee Iran inthe early 1980s after members of her house church were arrested,tortured, and executed. Today, she and her husband are based innorthern Virginia, where they proselytize to the Muslimcommunity.

She tells the story of her escape from Iran in a powerful book,
Miracleof Miracles, andcontinues to work with house churches in Iran today.

Christians are not the only victims of religious persecution intoday's Iran. The State Department's latest report on InternationalReligious Freedom paints a devastating picture of religiouspersecution that makes Torquemada's Spanish Inquisition look like aliberal revival. Just a few highlights:

 Iranian members of the Bahai faith, which began in the 1840s asa reformist movement within Shia islam, are regularly arrested,tortured, and jailed because of their beliefs. Since 1979, more than10,000 Bahais have been dismissed from government and universityjobs. Bahais are not allowed to attend state-run universities. Overthe past eighteen months, Bahai holy sites and cemeteries have beendestroyed, community leaders arrested, and their property seized."The Government considers Bahais to be apostates," the report states.Under Islamic sharia law, in force in Iran, apostasy is punishable bydeath.

 Numerous Sunni Muslim clerics have been killed in recent years.Sunnis are routinely discriminated against when it comes togovernment jobs, and are barred from running for president. As a signof this discrimination, "Sunnis cite the lack of a Sunni mosque inTehran, despite the presence of over 1 million adherents there," thereport states.

  Iran's Jewish community has regularly been subject toarbitrary arrests and collective punishment. More than three quartersof the 80,000 Jews who lived in Iran before the Revolution havefled.

 Even Iran's Shiite Muslim clerics are under close supervision,to ensure they do not deviate from the ruling orthodoxy. FormerSupreme Leader designate, Ayatollah Hossein Montazeri, remains underhouse arrest after openly challenging regime leaders. Other dissidentShiite clerics are routinely arrested and accused of "insultingIslam" or "calling into question the Islamic foundation of theRepublic" if they dare to promote political reform.

Many Americans today believe that religious freedom means freedomfrom religion. In today's Iran, religious freedom means keeping yourmouth shut and your heart sealed, and praying that government thugsignore you.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is executive director of the Foundation forDemocracy in Iran and author of Countdown to Crisis: the ComingNuclear Showdown with Iran.