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The Christians celebrating Easter in secret

Iran: The Christians celebrating Easter in secret

On a table in the living room, Tina - not her real name - has made a display with tealights, pastel-coloured eggs, candles and a little wooden cross. It's her own, intimate way to mark Easter. She and her husband converted to Christianity years ago, something that in their country, Iran, is forbidden by law. They could be arrested at any time.

The Iranian constitution recognises a few religious minorities. Armenian and Assyrian Christians can practise their religion, but they are banned from preaching to other Iranians or even letting them into their churches.Those who converted to Christianity from Islam, can only practise their faith in secret, in so-called house-churches. Tina is one of them.

Authorities have been intensifying raids against these groups, arresting more people and handing over longer prison sentences, so church members are having to take extra precautions.

"We meet in small groups and each time in different places,Tina says. "It could be in the home of one of our members or sometimes even in a park or in a car while driving. It's safer if each group knows as little as possible about the others, so if one group encounters problems, the rest aren't implicated."

Living with the constant threat of being discovered and imprisoned, is challenging, she says. At times, her children have let it slip at school or with friends that their parents are Christians.Tina was summoned by the school for a reprimand several times.

She also says her husband, who runs a business, has been blackmailed by people who had found out about his religion. And yet, she counts herself lucky - they haven't been arrested so far. But many others have.

Mehdi - not his real name - has been arrested twice. The first time, he was just 20. He says he was kept in solitary confinement, interrogated repeatedly and threatened. But it was the second time he was arrested, when he was 24, that really left a mark on him. "I was in solitary confinement for more than a month, he tells me. The interrogations were more intense, and they were going into every single detail. We couldn't see our family and we didn't know for how long we were going to be there. Every time we asked them, they'd just laugh and say 'don't worry about that, you'll be in here for a while'.

Mehdi remained in prison for three years, an experience he says gave him recurring nightmares. He was charged with several things, among which was 'threatening national security' - a political crime which meant that when he was released, he couldn't go back to his old life.

When you have this political accusation, you immediately become a second- or third-class citizen, he says. Anywhere you want to go for work or study, you have a political label, which makes life very difficult for you. "He says he was under almost constant surveillance, and he feared being re-arrested at any time. "It was particularly hard for my family," he says. Every time I was going out for shopping, for example, they feared I wouldn't come back. In the end, his family persuaded him to flee Iran and apply for asylum in neighbouring Turkey.

According to the non-profit organisation Article 18, which advocates for Christians in Iran, at least 166 people were arrested last year, an increase from 2022, when 134 were arrested.

Bails have become more expensive, and often are unaffordable. And prison sentences have become longer.

Mehdi tells me that when he was given his three-year sentence, it was the longest term any Christian in his city had ever received. But now, he says, 10 or even 15-year prison sentences are being handed down to Christians.

"A crackdown and heavy-handed repression of any dissent is a policy the regime has continued to repeat despite the backlash they've seen," explains Mansour Borji, the founder and director of Article 18.

Iranian authorities led a spate of arrests of Christians in the months leading up to the anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini - the young woman who died while in custody of the Iranian morality police who had accused her of not wearing her headscarf properly.

Iran state violence led to Mahsa Amini death, UN says  Iran's defiant women: 'I wear what I like now' In March, a UN fact-finding mission established that her death had been caused by the physical violence she was subjected to and that the Iranian state bore responsibility for it.

At the time of her death, unprecedented protests swept the country. Young women burnt their headscarves in the streets while others clapped, sang and danced.

At least 551 protesters were killed in the police crackdown. Tens of thousands were arrested. Nine men were put to death and executed, and six others are currently awaiting the same fate.

In this climate, religious minorities weren't spared either, but Mansour says that - despite all that - many people have remained defiant. And that also means an increase in conversions.

"The number of those who identify as Zoroastrian is considerable," Mansour explains, referring to one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions founded 3,000 years ago in Persia, now known as Iran.

"A lot of the younger generation consider themselves atheists or agnostics. Despite 40 years or more of propaganda, the Iranian government have - through their actions - alienated the younger generation from their forefathers' beliefs. They want to choose for themselves from multiple choices before them. One of them, of course, is Christianity."

Back in her home, Tina is planning for Easter.

In the past, the Iranian police has been known to make more arrests around Christmas and Easter, so she and her fellow church members have had to adapt."We've never been able to celebrate Christmas or Easter on the actual day. We must shift the timing and do it a few weeks later," she says.

"In a month, or maybe in three weeks, we'll cook together and have a little play for the children," she adds. "We won't deprive ourselves of this celebration, but we have to take precautions because we know the government has plans for those days as well."

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