Q&A: Nikbakht on Iranian regime’s war on Christmas & Christians
With news of the release of four Iranian Americans held in captivity by the Iranian regime, including one Iranian American Christian pastor, I had the chance to sit down and chat with Frank Nikabkht, an Iranian American Jewish activist on the status of Christians and other religious minorities still living in Iran. Nikabkht, who heads the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, shed light on how the Iranian regime launched a successful campaign of severely restricting the celebration of Christmas last month and the regime has even recently confiscated a church in Tehran to repress Christian living in Iran. He also spoke about the status of the remaining shrinking Jewish community still living in Iran today. The following is a portion of my interview with him…
From the news released from Iranian state-run media, it seems as if the Iranian regime has recently launched an all-out war against Christmas being celebrated in Iran, can you give us some insights into the regime’s behavior against the holiday?
Ever since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the Iranian authorities have had a big problem with any open display of alternative religious beliefs. According to the Shariah laws incorporated within Iranian civil laws, even the sound of church bells is illegal. Now Christmas, being a happy and colorful event, has always attracted the attention of people, and in particular the youth and therefore extra measures have been necessary to prevent open displays of Christmas. This past year’s Christmas sanctions, are part of this ongoing trend. On or about December 8th 2015, the Trade Development Organization, a department under the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Trade in the Islamic Republic of Iran, issued a list of 227 banned items from the United States. Among the items which range from food stuffs to cigarettes, one encounters “things for Christmas celebrations”, which we can assume, includes items such as Christmas tree ornaments, lights, Christian symbols, nativity displays, religious pictures and statues.
An Iranian-American pastor was arrested and imprisoned in 2014 in Iran for supposed apostasy and has recently released. It seems as if the Iranian regime has been seriously cracking down on Christians and those who are leaving Shiite Islam for Christianity in Iran, what have you heard about this situation for Christians in Iran?
The Islamic Republic of Iran, has routinely confiscated and burned truckloads of Bibles sent to Iran by Christians abroad for years, calling it “contraband”. Christian churches in Iran are under close scrutiny while lists of church members are kept in order to pick out Muslims who go to churches, or who are inclined to convert. The penalty for conversion out of Islam– which is considered as apostasy– is death. Ever since the Islamic revolution, Christian converts have been assassinated, even though more recently, they are given death penalties, but are not actually executed. They keep them in jail for long periods, in order to keep the community in fear and to have hostages to exchange with their agents abroad. This Christmas, there were several Christians in Iran jailed for their beliefs. Building new churches, or major repairs to existing ones is technically illegal, and subject to special permits by the Islamic governments. This is particularly meant to make sure the Christian influence and population is kept in check by the Islamic authorities.
I understand the Assyrian representative at the Islamic Assembly in Iran, who is Christian, has publically protested takeover of a church property by Islamic groups in Iran. Can you shed some light on the situation facing Assyrian Christians in Iran?
The Assyrians are being ethnically cleansed in Iran, while a lot of Iranians living outside of Iran are silent about it. The Assyrian representative has also said that the infamous ex-intelligence minister in Iran, now assigned to the special “Presidential Council for the Religious Minorities”, has washed his hands off the issue of the church take over, saying there is nothing he can do. At the same time, the Farsi language American government radio based in Europe called “Farda Radio” recently pointed out that Iran’s current president Rouhani has not honored any of his promises to the religious minorities, as we had predicted in several interviews at the outset of his charm offensive for the West, a couple of years ago. There are currently at least two major church properties in Tehran, taken over by Islamic entities supported by the government. Such takeovers are not uncommon and in addition to their economic impact, are extremely humiliating traditions, helping push the minorities out of the country.
How have the Assyrian leadership in Iran today been trying to lead the way for greater protections and rights in the current Iranian regime?
The Assyrians, are the same people who back in the early 2000s, challenged the un-equal “Life Value” of Muslims and non-Muslims in Iran. Other religious minorities followed them and finally had the Iranian Assembly act upon it. Of course the Supreme Islamic Guardian Council in Iran, declared equality of Muslims and non-Muslims under the law, as “un-Islamic” and voided the law. Later, some Iranian regime officials decided to make Muslims and non-Muslims “equal”, only in traffic accidents, where the difference between the life value of Muslims and non-Muslims would be paid by the insurance companies! This was then falsely advertised as the “equality” of all Iranian citizens, partly thanks to pro-Iranian regime advocates in the West. The Assyrians are also the ones who are being thrown out of Iraq after thousands of years in their own territories, mostly occupied by Muslim Arabs.
I’ve interviewed many Iranian Christians, especially younger people, who had in recent years fled Iran after secretly converting to Christianity from Islam. How common is this conversion in Iran today and is this a reason why the regime has been cracking down on Christians in Iran?
The new generations not only are espousing softer forms of Islamic practice, such as modern Sufism which is itself being persecuted in Iran, because it is a more personal form of Islam and is considered as a rival to the institutionalized Islam represented in the government. In addition, there are relatively large numbers of young Iranians- perhaps in hundreds of thousands- escaping Islam as a whole, and embracing Christianity, Zoroastrianism and other religions. While this is happening both inside and outside Iran, the Islamist government in Iran is cracking down as hard as it can on Christian converts who are considered as a non-stoppable phenomenon, if unchecked at this stage.
The Iranian regime’s officials repeatedly claim that they give equal rights and protection to non-Muslims in Iran today. You are very familiar with the current regime’s official laws on religious minority status in Iran, are their claims accurate?
From the very start, the Islamic Republic of Iran implemented policies aimed at “cleansing” their newly acquired territory– the country of Iran, of all non-Muslims, by reducing their rights to second or third class citizens and even non-citizens with no rights, in the case of the “non- protected infidels”, such as the Baha’i’s.
Some new laws which tolerated advantages to non-Muslim minorities in case of their population increase, were scrapped from the Constitution. Finally, pressures were gradually increased, properties were confiscated and even legal freedoms were limited, succeeding in ousting over two thirds of non-Muslims from their country. Non-Muslims were them placed under close scrutiny by the Intelligence Ministry and other institutions, in order to make sure they did not increase numerically and they stayed submissive to Islamic laws and Muslims in their vicinity. However, with Islamic pressures affecting most of the Muslim population in many other ways, the new Muslim Iranian generation began to seek other ways to get out of the humiliating and tightly controlled religious spaces and limitations imposed on them.
Can you please discuss how the rights of religious minorities living in the Iranian regime today such as Christians, Jews or Zoroastrians are unequal to those of Muslims?
As the law stands today, the value of life of a Muslim, also called “Blood Value” is much higher than others. This is the compensation due the victim or his “owners” in case of loss of life and limb. BY the way, even in the case of Muslim women, their life value is officially half of a Muslim man’s life. The penalty for murdering non-Muslims by Muslims is also much less, and can simply be bought by financial compensation, whereas the other way around, carries a possible death penalty. Traditionally, except for the brief historical period of the Pahlavi Dynasty, inheritance rights had been an important opportunity to gain Muslim converts. Such inhumane Shariah laws have now been revived in Iran. For example, the Iranian regime’s “Civil Code 881” states that an ‘infidel, or non-Muslim cannot inherit from a Muslim'. This is part of an age old Shariah legal code, which says that as soon as a non- Muslim, even a submissive Dhimmi Infidel—meaning if Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians convert to Islam, he or she will inherit all of the assets of the deceased parent. It has even been interpreted that the same applies to the larger family as well, like when inheriting a grandfather's assets. This ongoing problem, is a nasty source of family devastation during inheritance fights which is not uncommon, and is in fact imposed and implemented precisely for that reason: the devastation of non-Muslim families, and the conversion of the greediest ones and their descendants into Islam.
And what about the rights of Baha’is in Iran?
The Baha’is in Iran do not have even Dhimmi rights– or some limited personal and civil rights for “recognized” religious minorities such as Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians under Islamic law. This means the Baha’is have no right to life and property in Iran, which is why their killers have been set free in the past, because legally, they have murdered people who had no right to life and property in an “Islamic land” in the first place.
What is the situation and status of Jews living in Iran today? The Iranian president Rouhani and Foreign Minister come to Western TV programs and claimed the lives of Jews in Iran are supposedly rosy. They even allowed a Jewish journalist from the Jewish “Forward” newspaper a visa to visit Iran and write about the situation of the Jews in the country?
Well, as they used to say during the Cold War– “refugees vote with their feet”. Ninety percent of the Iranian Jews, have left their country of 2,700 years and have settled in the United States, Israel, and some European countries. No bought off journalist, or duped self-deluding ideologue, can cover this up! When they mention the brutal but common pro-Iranian regime propaganda expression that “Iran has still the biggest number of Jews among all Middle Eastern countries”, they are knowingly hiding the fact that 90% of the Jews are gone, the rest are still in the process of leaving and that until the number of Jews has dwindled to perhaps 12 individuals, Iran will still be considered as the one with the “BIGGEST” number of Jews!
Do some Jews convert to Islam in Iran today to escape the persecution?
An important fact that the Iranian regime’s officials are hiding is that many Iranian Jews in Iran have had to convert to Islam in order to either secure their businesses, or to be able to marry Muslim women they loved, without the danger of being arrested and possibly killed for “adultery” – the legal definition of the act of marriage between a non-Muslim man and a Muslim woman, but not the other way around- a small detail about which no sell out journalist ever asks their Jewish subjects when they are in Iran. This is besides the fact that even the Islamist Turkey already surpasses Iran in Jewish numbers, which are sadly, also decreasing there.
In any case, the Jewish minority is under the constant threat of losing everything, due to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is the closest emotional issue in Iran, and is often affecting Iranian Jews even in court rooms. In particular, during military conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians or the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah – which has more rights and privileges, than Jewish citizens – Iranian Jews are in serious danger until the conflict subsides.
Over all, the Iranian government uses the remaining Jews in Iran both as propaganda subjects – like when Goebbels filmed Jewish Theresienstadt concentration camp inmates to show how well the Jews were treated in the Reich – and hostages, reminding Israel that the “biggest number of Jews in the Middle East” can be harmed in a second, if the Iranian regime decides to do it. In fact, this Jewish vulnerability has been openly mentioned to Iranian Jewish representatives outside Iran, over and over by the Islamic Republic representatives who were trying to shut up the Jewish voice abroad and forcing them to be silent on anti-Semitic events in Iran.
The Western news media outlets larger claim Rouhani is a “moderate”, but since his supposed election to the presidency in Iran, has the situation for religious minorities in Iran today improved or gotten worse in your estimation?
Rouhani has not changes anything in Iran, much less in Minority Rights. What he promised to do during his candidacy and his “Western charm” offensive a couple of years ago, was against the Constitution as well as the Shariah, and he knew it too, because he is an Islamic jurist as well as a lawyer in Iran.