In January 1979, the Iranian Islamic revolution, led by the exiled spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, succeeded in ending the 37-year reign of Shah Reza Pahlavi. On April 1st 1979, Iran voted by national referendum to become an Islamic Republic and to approve a theocratic constitution whereby Ayatollah Khomeini became Shi’a Islam’s Supreme Leader (Vali Faqih) in Iran in December 1979.
As Supreme Leader of the Islamic Repulic, Ayatollah Khomeini had absolute authority. Although Iran holds elections for President and Parliament, the ultimate authority written into the constitution is not the will of the people, but the will of God, who is represented by the supreme religious leader. As a scholar of Sharia Law he was seen to be more knowledgeable than anyone about law and justice, and therefore any decisions made by a president or government legislation could be overruled. Ayatollah Khomeini remained Supreme Leader until his death in 1989 when he was succeeded by Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei (Formerly President of the Republic) who remains Supreme Leader to this day.
One of the first things that Khomeini did to secure his support was to create the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah to defend the revolution against coup attempts. The Revolutionary Guards (also known as The Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution) are designed to fight against anything they believe can harm the revolution, it’s goals and values. They have approximately 125,000 military personnel including ground, aerospace and naval forces. Since its origin as an ideologically driven militia, the Revolutionary Guards have taken an ever more assertive role in virtually every aspect of Iranian society.
Persecution & discrimination
Life in the Islamic Republic of Iran remains highly oppressive under strict Sharia Law, with severe consequences for anyone who is seen to go against it. This includes heavy persecution of journalists, human rights campaigners, homosexuals, those belonging to a minority religion or speaking against the Government. Charges are often vague, and prison and interrogation practices severe. Floggings and torture are commonplace, including blinding, amputation, forced ‘confessions’ and death sentences for a range of crimes. Iran executes a very high percentage of criminals, often with unfair trials.
Members of religious minorities, including Christian converts from Islam, Baha’is, Sufi and Sunni Muslims, face discrimination in employment and restrictions on their access to education and freedom to practise their faith. Arrest and imprisonment is common, including for those providing education for Baha’i students who are denied access to higher education. Disadvantaged ethnic groups are also discriminated against in employment, housing and civil rights, and women continue to face discrimination under the law, especially criminal and family law.
Christian minorities who are considered ‘ethnic Christians’ (Armenian and Assyrians) are allowed to practice their faith in Iran, but it must be in their own language and amongst themselves. Any Christian activity in Farsi is illegal. Conversion from Islam to Christianity is a severe crime and is punishable by death.
Pressure from the Iranian regime has forced the Iranian church underground, but meetings are heavily monitored by the Revolutionary Guard, especially the activity of Christian leaders. Fear of the regime holds many back from attending churches, and many become fearful of not only the intelligence agents, but of their neighbours and their own friends and family. In addition to government pressure, as with many Muslim cultures, converts in Iran face serious consequences from their own family for their faith in Christ. Despite this, the Church in Iran continues to grow. Among the world’s top ten most persecuted places to be a believer, Iran has one of the highest rates of people putting their faith in Christ. For more on the growth of the church, see ‘a growing church’.
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