(Adds links to tweets)
(CNSNews.com) – Iranian leaders have been relaying their customary Christmas goodwill messages, but behind the tweets and statements the regime in Tehran continues to be accused of persecution of Christians and other religious minorities.
Over recent days supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has posted several tweets relating to the birth of Jesus Christ – some including an underlying political message about undefined “oppression” and “arrogant powers.”
“The birth of Jesus marked the birth of mercy & blessings in world for people drowning in darkness, ignorance, corruption, deprivation & discrimination, due to domination of arrogant powers & pressures of degrading systems. Jesus’ message was to save humanity from all this …” Khamenei tweeted to the 413,000-plus followers of his English-language account.
In another tweet he said, “The sufferings that the divine Prophet Jesus endured were all on the path of fighting oppressors and the corrupt. It is expected that his followers and all those who admire him follow his model.”
In a message reproduced on an official website on Christmas Day, Khamenei also made a political point, evidently aimed at the United States and its support for Israel: “Today, some of those who claim to follow this great divine messenger act like the very Pharaohs and tyrants that Prophet Jesus Christ was up against.”
Another Khamenei tweet said, “The value of Jesus Christ (pbuh) through the eyes of Muslims is, certainly, no less than his value and status through the eyes of believing Christians.”
Despite that tweet – and Khamenei’s use of the word “divine” – Islamic doctrine teaches that Jesus was a prophet, not God in the flesh.
Islamic texts also say that Jesus was not crucified (Qur’an 4:157) – denying the central tenet of the Christian faith, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The Qur’an also states, in 9:30: “the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah … may Allah destroy them.”
Christmas messages also came from President Hasan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani among others.
Religious freedom campaigners consider the Iranian regime to be among the world’s worst persecutors of Christians, Baha’i and other non-Shi’ite Muslim minorities.
For the past 14 years, Iran has featured in the top ten on Open Doors USA’s annual list of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians, reaching as high as second place in 2010 and 2011.
Iran is also one of 10 countries currently designed “countries of particular concern” under U.S. law for egregious violations of religious freedom
Iran carries out more executions each year than any country apart from China, applying the death penalty for offenses including apostasy, insulting Mohammed and other “grand prophets,” moharebeh (enmity against Allah) and “corruption on earth.”
‘Free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies’
The regime claims to respect freedom of religion, with officials frequently responding to criticism by pointing out that seats in parliament are reserved for Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian representatives.
Iran’s constitution states that, “Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities who, within limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.”
Just two weeks before Christmas, however, the independent Iranian Christian news agency Mohabat News reported that security forces raided six houses in Karaj, Iran’s fourth-largest city, where Christians hold house church services.
It said four converts to Christianity were arrested and that shops owned by two of the men were also raided.
Official news agency IRNA later reported that, “Elements of a devious Christian cult who were promoting it, and attempting to disrupt the market and economic order, have been arrested.”
Crackdowns on Christian converts are not new. Last July, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that in the space of less than two months, a revolutionary court judge in Tehran had handed down lengthy prison sentences to at least 11 Christian converts.
Four of the Christians received ten year prison sentences, after being convicted of engaging in missionary activities and “conducting activities against national security,” Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported at the time.
“The charges and sentences against these four men are unwarranted and unjustifiable, given the paucity of the evidence against them,” said CSW chief executive Mervyn Thomas.
Christians are not the only minority targeted. Followers of the Baha’i faith do not even have token constitutional protection, and at least 90 Baha’i adherents are imprisoned in Iran.
On Sunday evening, a synagogue in the city of Shiraz was reportedly vandalized. Two Torah scrolls were destroyed and prayer books were placed in the toilets, according to a report by The Yeshiva World.
Iran had as many as 150,000 Jews in 1948, and around 80,000 just before the 1979 Islamic revolution. Estimates vary, but by mid-2012, census figures indicated that the community was less than 9,000-strong.