DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Iran has arrested about 70 Christians since Christmas in a crackdown that demonstrates the limits of religious tolerance by Islamic leaders who often boast they provide room for other faiths.
The latest raids have targeted grass-roots Christian groups Iran describes as "hard-liners" who pose a threat to the Islamic state. Authorities increasingly view them with suspicions that range from trying to convert Muslims to being possible footholds for foreign influence.
Christian activists claim their Iranian brethren are being persecuted simply for worshipping outside officially sanctioned mainstream churches.
Caught in the middle is the small community of Iranian Christians who get together for prayer and Bible readings in private residences and out of sight of authorities. They are part of a wider "house church" movement that has taken root in other places with tight controls on Christian activities such as China and Indonesia.
Iran's constitution gives protected status to Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, but many religious minorities sense growing pressures from the Islamic state as hard-edged forces such as the powerful Revolutionary Guard exert more influence. There are few social barriers separating Muslims and Iran's religious minorities such as separate neighborhoods or universities. But they are effectively blocked from high government and military posts.
Iran has claimed as a point of pride that it makes space for other religions. It reserves parliament seats for Jewish and Christian lawmakers and permits churches — Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox and others — as well as synagogues and Zoroastrian temples that are under sporadic watch by authorities. Religious celebrations are allowed, but no political messages or overtones are tolerated.
In past years, authorities have staged arrests on Christians and other religious minorities, but the latest sweeps appears to be among the biggest and most coordinated.