Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Newsweek on September 30, 2022.
On a mid-September afternoon, the world was introduced on Twitter to a beautiful 22-year-old Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, also known as Jina Amini. She first appeared in hospital photographs, comatose and connected to life-support equipment, with bleeding visible in her right ear. Before long, earlier and happier photos of Mahsa were also posted, notably with her dark hair mostly covered but partially revealed.
Mahsa was "severely beaten by the security forces in a van and was taken to the capital's Kasra Hospital due to the severity of her injuries. ... Reports indicate that her death was due to a fracture on her skull due to heavy blows to her head," reported The Associated Press.
Mahsa was attacked because she was not wearing her hijab properly. In Iran, the hijab is a required-by-law head covering for all women, Muslim or not. Her crime? Some of her hair was exposed. For this crime Mahsa Amini was beaten to death.
In the days that followed, enraged Iranian women and men have flooded the streets of Tehran and cities far beyond, protesting the radical Islamist regime's cruelties. "In several of the videos of the uprising that have torn across social media, women rip off their head scarves and burn them in street bonfires, including in deeply religious cities such as Qum and Mashhad," The New York Times reported.
Abuses of women and of non-Muslim minorities are widespread and notorious in Iran—both are perceived by Islamist leaders as threats to their radical cult, which rules the country with an iron fist. The focus of the regime's religious system is the return of the Twelfth Imam, a messianic Islamic figure, and the required purging of enemies that must precede his arrival. Empowered women have no place in that scenario—nor do Christian converts from Islam.
To make matters worse, a report titled "Women Rebuilding the Future of the Church" revealed that Christian women—most of them converts from Islam—are taking a leadership role as evangelists, house church leaders and teachers. Under Iran's Islamist law, women do not have equal standing with men. Nonetheless, more Iranian women are actively involved in Christian ministry than in Western nations, according to World Watch Monitor.
Historic Iranian Christian denominations that worship in their native languages—such as Armenians and Assyrians—have church sanctuaries; their services are permitted by the regime, albeit with various restrictions. But far worse in the mullahs' eyes are former Muslims who have converted to Christianity. Farsi-Persian speaking Christians who meet in "house churches" are illegal and frequently suffer violent invasions, arrests, abuse and sometimes far worse; they are at least as provocative as Mahsa and may suffer similar treatment.
"One of the most striking trends in 2021 was the increased involvement of Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the crackdown on Persian-speaking Christians. The IRCG was responsible for 12 of the 38 documented incidents of arrests of Christians or raids on their homes or house churches in 2021," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported in May.
What does the mullahcracy fear? One obvious concern has been cited by scholar and researcher Daniel Pipes. In a June 2021 Newsweek article, he quoted an Iranian church leader who asked, "What if I told you the mosques are empty inside Iran? What if I told you no one follows Islam inside of Iran? ... What if I told you the best evangelist for Jesus was the Ayatollah Khomeini [the founder of the Islamic Republic]?"
Another related distress for the regime is summed up in a recent survey conducted by Gamaan, a non-profit research foundation based in the Netherlands. They found that 1.5 percent of the 50,000 Iranians surveyed identified as Christian. This means that there are at least a million Christians in Iran and probably many more. And they are almost entirely converts from Islam.
Why this en masse departure from the regime's theology?
Iranian Christian converts often observe that the harsh violence which take place in the name of enforcing Islamist rules and regulations—including the recent uproar over women's hijab violations—continue to stir up deep disillusionment among young Muslims. Unsurprisingly, this has often led to renouncement of Islam and conversion to Christianity.
To make matters worse for the regime, those Christian conversions bring together two of the mullah's most despised rivals: courageous women like Mahsa and spiritually inspired Christians. It is widely reported that women comprise a substantial portion of Iran's house churches' leadership. In fact, one underground overseer of a dozen of these churches recently told Newsweek that seven of the 12 churches he works with are led by energetic, courageous women—all converts from Islam.
The Bible—a book beloved by Iran's new Christians—records the story of an ancient, arrogant Middle Eastern king who was warned in a mysterious script about the demise of his kingdom—words that were interpreted by the faithful Hebrew prophet Daniel. Today's remarkable shift in Iranian religious devotion is virtually undecipherable to the rest of the world. But for Iran's doddering and desperate regime, the witness of a million new Christian believers—led by thousands of powerful, inspiring women—may well be the proverbial "writing on the wall." If only the mullahs could read it.