FOR FATHER MANSOUR, Christianity in Iran has all the excitement of the persecuted early church. In homes across the country he delivers his sermons in code, calling Jesus “Jamsheed”. He leads songs of praise in silence. “We lip-synch because we can’t worship out loud,” he says. The risks are great: proselytisation is banned; dozens of missionaries have been jailed. But so too are the spiritual rewards. Local pastors report hundreds of secret churches attracting hundreds of thousands of worshippers. Evangelicals claim Christianity is growing faster in Iran than in any other country.
The spiritual gap between Iran’s Shia ayatollahs and the people they rule is widening. The strictures of the theocracy and the doctrine of Shia supremacy alienate many. So growing numbers of Iranians seem to be leaving religion or experimenting with alternatives to Shiism. Christians, Zoroastrians and Bahais all report soaring interest. Leaders of other forms of Islam speak of popular revivals. “There’s a loyalty change,” says Yaser Mirdamadi, a Shia cleric in exile. “Iranians are turning to other religions because they no longer find satisfaction in the official faith.”
Formally, the ayatollahs recognise other monotheistic religions, as long as they predate Islam. The constitution allocates non-Muslim “peoples of the book”—Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians—five of the 290 seats in parliament. They have their own schools (with Muslim headmasters) and places of worship. Iran hosts the Muslim world’s largest Jewish community.
But the clerics prefer to keep non-Shias separate, cloistered and subservient. Religious diversity, they fear, could adulterate the Shia identity of the state. Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, there has never been a non-Shia minister. The clerics sometimes denounce religious minorities as infidels and spies. Conversion to non-Muslim religions is punishable by death.
The repression isn’t working. The state says over 99.5% of Iran’s 82m people are Muslim. But its numbers are not reliable. A poll of more than 50,000 Iranians (about 90% of whom live in Iran) conducted online by Gamaan, a Dutch research group, found a country in religious flux. About half of the respondents said they had lost or changed their religion. Less than a third identified as Shia. If these numbers are even close to correct, Iran is much more diverse than its official census shows.
Zoroastrianism, Iran’s oldest faith, is perhaps the country’s second-biggest religion. Nowruz and Yalda, two of its holy days, are celebrated as national holidays. Officially, it has only 23,000 adherents (some of whom are pictured). They follow the teachings of Zarathustra, a Persian prophet from the 6th century BC. But 8% of respondents told Gamaan they were Zoroastrian. Some are attracted to the faith’s indigenous roots, Persian creed and hostility to Islam, which they deride as an Arab implant. Such was the popularity of Zoroastrian-style weddings, conducted with Persian prayers around a fire, that the authorities banned them in 2019.
The clerics see Sufism, or mystical Islam, as a bigger threat. Long targeted by the government with harassment and arbitrary arrests, Sufis protested in 2018. Five members of the security forces were killed; over 300 Sufis were arrested. Noor Ali Tabandeh, leader of the Gonabadis, the most popular Sufi order, was then placed under house arrest until his death in December 2019. But Gonabadi mystics say their retreats attract a growing number of Iranians.
Iran’s Sunni population is also growing, in part due to high birth rates. They are thought to be 10% of the population and live mostly on the country’s periphery. The authorities want to keep it that way. They have demolished all Sunni mosques in the capital, Tehran. Still, every Friday thousands of Sunnis spill out of large villas in Tehran which Sunnis use as prayer halls.
Millions more have joined Islam’s other offshoots, such as the Yarsanis, who follow the teachings of a 14th-century holy man, and the Bahais, who follow those of a 19th-century prophet. Their universalism and rites incorporating music, dancing and the mixing of the sexes draw many seeking a respite from the theocracy founded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who reportedly said, “There is no fun in Islam.”
Many Christian converts like the fact that women may take part in services alongside men. Some draw parallels between the martyrdom of Shia imams and Christ. But some new members of Iran’s minority religions may also be attracted by certain non-spiritual benefits. For example, they can apply for refugee status in America as persecuted minorities, usually leading to quicker approval.
President Hassan Rouhani unveiled a citizen’s charter in 2016 that promised to end religious discrimination. But it wasn’t binding. The ruling clerics still seem to think that theocracy is best protected by persecution. As a result, they may be turning Iran into a less Shia state. ■
This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “The not-so-Shia state”
This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.