Iran's Imprisoned Christians Face Yet Another Danger: COVID-19

Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for Religious Freedom at Family Research Council and Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. This article appeared in Religion Unplugged on March 26, 2020.

“The new coronavirus kills one person every 10 minutes in Iran,” according to Kianush Jahanpur, Iran’s health ministry spokesman tweeted. “Based on our information, every 10 minutes one person dies from the coronavirus and some 50 people become infected with the virus every hour in Iran.” On Tuesday, March 24, the death toll in the Middle East’s worst-affected country climbed to 1,934.  More than 24,811 Iranians are currently infected.

No one is more at risk of coronavirus infection than prisoners in Iran. On Mar. 24, Fox News reported that Iran’s theocratic rulers have temporarily released some 85,000 prisoners, including political prisoners, in an effort to prevent the spread of the Middle East’s worst coronavirus outbreak. But they have refused to free many Iranian Christians jailed for practicing their faith.

One woman – Mary Mohammadi – has come to represent the imprisoned persecuted Christians of that Shiite Islamic country, who face vicious treatment and the threat of deadly disease inside Iran’s notoriously filthy and brutal prisons. Their crime?  Belief in Jesus Christ.

Most ordinary Iranians live quiet lives, keeping a low profile, wary of drawing unwelcome attention to themselves. And this is especially true of Iran’s Christian converts from Islam. For them, keeping out of sight can be a matter of life and death.

But not all Iranian Christians choose to keep a low profile.

Fatemeh Mohammadi – who now chooses to be called Mary –  has been arrested more than once for nothing more than living out her faith and speaking up for Iran’s beleaguered Christian community. Her courage and grace are noteworthy. Even President Donald Trump mentioned her by name during his recent National Prayer Breakfast speech, noting that she was imprisoned because “she converted to Christianity and shared the Gospel with others.”

Until recently, Mary was held in Iran’s infamous Qarchak women’s detention center, a germ-infested facility south of Tehran, where she was ferociously beaten and abused. Before being moved there, she was also mistreated in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison.

On Feb. 28, Mary was released on bail prior to her final sentencing, which was scheduled to take place on Monday, Mar. 2. It was postponed because the presiding judge was diagnosed with COVID-19.  And at the time of this writing, Mary Mohammadi’s situation is grave. She is in poor health following her recent prison ordeal. Her sentencing is rescheduled to take place on April 14.This is not the first time that Mary has faced persecution for her faith. In late 2017, when she was 18, Mary was sentenced to six months in prison for her Christian activities, which the regime characterized as “action against national security” and “propaganda against the system.” As if that weren’t enough, recently reported: 

“Last July, Mary faced fresh criminal charges relating to her ‘improper’ wearing of hijab. Those charges, which were eventually quashed, were brought against her after she initially went to police to complain of an assault. Then in December, Mary was kicked out of her Tehran university, without explanation, on the eve of her English-language exams. Then just a few weeks later, on 12 January, Mary was arrested as protests took place in Azadi Square.”

That time around, HRANA (a Persian-language news site) related that both male and female guards had beat Mary so badly that her bruises could be seen for three weeks.

Like most dictatorships, Iran permits a handful of government-approved religions to function. But the regime habitually mistreats other faith groups, particularly Baha’is and evangelical Christians. Worst of all is its hateful treatment of converts from Islam to Christianity. Conversion from Islam is a capital offense under Iran’s Islamic law, although it is infrequently enforced.

Meanwhile, the government claims that “… the Zionists and Westerners have targeted [through Christian converts] our society’s identity and people’s religion.” And now, according to reports on Mar. 24, Iran is refusing to release Christians prisoners, despite having furloughed 85,000 others due to COVID-19.

There are still other reasons for the persecution, based on Iran’s particular version of Shiite Islam. A far cry from more traditional expressions of Shiism, most of Iran’s leadership and their henchmen belong to an apocalyptic religious cult eagerly awaiting the imminent arrival of their messianic figure, the Twelfth Shiite Imam, to usher in the “End of Days.”

At least some of the calls for violence against America, Israel, and Iran’s own Christians are based on the urgency of bringing forth this twelfth Imam. For example, senior Iranian Ayatollah Mohammad Mehdi Mirbagheri pronounced: “In order for the Hidden Imam to reappear we must engage in widespread fighting with the West.”

The new coronavirus has created turbulent times, in Iran as throughout the world. But Christian converts from Islam Like Mary Mohammadi find hope in their newfound faith. Despite her ongoing persecution and the looming danger of viral infection, Mary has courageously reached out through friends on social media, encouraging them to share her story.

But unfortunately, no one can be sure where to find Mary. No one can be sure how her health is. And no one knows what the future holds once her delayed sentencing takes place.

Still, Mary Mohammadi continues to shine as the beautiful and radiant face of Iran’s faithful and persecuted Christians.