Iran is one of the countries hit hardest by the coronavirus. The Iranian regime has struggled to contain the outbreak, leading to tens of thousands of infections and thousands of deaths. Meanwhile, Iran’s religious minorities continue to face persecution during the coronavirus crisis. Christians in Iran are regularly subject to harassment by authorities or arbitrary imprisonment. Even though Iran has released many prisoners due to the spread of the coronavirus and the unsanitary conditions of the prisons, some Christians remain imprisoned, being put in danger by the virus.
Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh converted to Christianity in Iran and experienced persecution at the hands of the Iranian regime. They both spent nine months in prison on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, and anti-government activity because they left the state religion of Islam. Today, they live in the United States and advocate for religious freedom in Iran.
To learn more about what is happening on the ground in Iran, we asked Maryam and Marziyeh what Iranian Christians are facing during the coronavirus crisis.
FRC: What impact, if any, has the outbreak of coronavirus had on the underground church in Iran?
Maryam and Marziyeh: Since the outbreak of the coronavirus in Iran, and especially when the general population became aware of its danger and how fast it can spread, people became concerned and some started the practice of social distancing. We heard underground churches in Iran have cancelled their in-person meetings and instead they meet online either through Skype or other social media apps such as Telegram. They all join online and have their worship, teachings, and fellowship by all members participating and sharing their thoughts.
FRC: What actions has the government taken to respond to the coronavirus crisis and what is the reaction of Iranian Christians to how the government has handled the outbreak?
Maryam and Marziyeh: Since the start of coronavirus outbreak in China the Iranian government was aware of the danger and spread of the virus but didn’t stop the flights from and to China and allowed the virus to spread all across Iran. They invited Chinese Muslims to the city of Qom and for a long time the Iranian government hid the spread of coronavirus in the country, especially at the time of parliamentary election, when they needed people to participate in voting. In some cases, regime hardliners who support the supreme leader reacted to the closure of holy places, opened the doors, and encouraged people to enter and participate in religious rituals in those places for healing. Instead of supporting doctors and nurses who have worked tirelessly since the beginning of the outbreak, the government encouraged and allowed Mullas who would spread their superstitions based on Islamic ideas—call it Islamic medicine—to visit hospitals and patients.
The regime has handled the situation very poorly and adopted no measures to contain the spread of the virus—instead they tried to find another way to put pressure on people. For example, according to Farsi media, those who hide their symptoms would receive a one-year prison sentence. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has hoarded masks and other necessary supplies and sells them with a much higher price. Unfortunately, even the financial and medical help from the international community will not get to the Iranian people; the regime has control over all those supplies and uses them for their benefit. This week, the regime has encouraged and even forced a lot of people to participate in the funeral of Hossein Assadollahi, one of the former commanders of IRGC, at the time that most governments' leaders encourage social distancing to stop the spread of the virus. Many Iranians, including Christians, have been very frustrated by how the regime has handled the situation.
FRC: How are Iranian Christians feeling during the outbreak? What are they most concerned about?
Maryam and Marziyeh: Christians like other Iranians are concerned about how fast the virus is spreading across Iran and the poor handling of this situation by the regime. Christians are particularly concerned for their loved ones who are still in prisons; some of them are not known and no one knows anything about their conditions. We heard the coronavirus has spread among prisoners and there is a lot of concern that political and religious prisoners will be at higher risk if they remain in prisons. According to some news, only about seven Christians who were in prisons got released temporarily. Still, there are many more who are in prisons and at risk of getting sick.
FRC: How can the American church be praying for Iranian Christians—and all Iranians—right now?
Maryam and Marziyeh: A majority of Iranians believe that the Iranian regime is a bigger threat to the safety and security of millions of Iranians than the coronavirus. The terrible handling and poor management of the regime in this situation has led to thousands of deaths already. The regime has always been dishonest and put the regime’s supporters’ safety and security above all other Iranians. Iranians become happy these days to hear that some regime agents and Ayatollahs have died because of the virus. Millions of Iranians want to see the end of the regime that doesn’t care at all for their safety, security, and economic well-being.
The American church can unite with Iranians and pray that the Iranian regime will be overthrown and real freedom can come to Iran in the near future, because while this regime is in power, we will hear about a new crisis every day. Whether it is the regime’s mismanagement of flooding or earthquakes, shooting down a passenger airplane, killing thousands of protestors, or mismanagement of coronavirus, the Iranian people are suffering every day. Please pray for Iranians’ strength to be able to handle these difficult times. Also, please pray that the Lord will strengthen the Iranian Christians’ faith and give them courage and wisdom to share the Gospel with Iranians who need to hear the message of salvation these days.
While the United States is occupied with news of the coronavirus at home, this health crisis is also affecting persecuted believers around the world, making their already tenuous situation more sensitive. As the coronavirus crisis unfolds, we must continue to pray and advocate for religious freedom in Iran and around the world.