(CNSNews.com) – The clerical regime in Iran is pursuing a deliberate strategy of coercion against Christians within its sphere of influence across the Middle East, designed to drive them out, according to a new report.
This “invisible jihad,” orchestrated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and regime proxies, is having a severe impact on embattled Christian communities in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, it says.
Released by the Philos Project, an organization dedicated to protecting Christians in the Near East, the report examines the plight of Christian communities in four countries that are largely under Tehran’s sway, where they face a campaign of “demographic reduction through coerced emigration.”
“Iran’s systematic program of invisible jihad has never been recognized, let alone challenged,” Farhad Rezaei, Philos Project senior research fellow and the report’s author, writes in the conclusion, urging action by the U.S. government, United Nations, and others.
The report traces the religious foundations of the anti-Christian drive to the emergence of “Khomenism” in post-Islamic revolution Iran.
In a departure from historical Shia theology, Rezaei writes, “Khomenism called upon the faithful to cleanse Islam and Iran of Judeo-Christian impurity.”
He says the arch-conservative cleric who developed Khomenism, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, “understood that the regime could not murder Christians en masse, thus opting for the alternative policy of eliminationism through coercive immigration.”
And it was the IRGC and its foreign operations wing, Qods Force, that helped to institutionalize the policy.
(Mesbah-Yazdi headed Iran’s judiciary from 1989 to 1999 and served on two of the Islamic republic’s top legal-religious institutions, the Council of Guardians and Assembly of Experts. He died in 2021.)
The Philos Project report attributes the shrinkage of Christian communities in the four countries to a deliberate IRGC-led campaign to goad Christians to leave, while acknowledging that other factors have also played a role.
In Lebanon, a Christian population of some 54 percent in the 1950s declined to below 34 percent by 2020.
Rezaei says Hezbollah, the Iranian-created proxy militia, helped to spur Christian emigration by imposing strict dress codes, alcohol prohibitions, and a ban on sexes mixing in public in mixed Christian-Muslim areas under its control; undertaking campaigns to impede conversion; coordinating evictions and expulsions of Christians from property in rural and urban areas; and using its positions in the Lebanese government to benefit Shi’a at the expense of Christians (and Sunnis).
In Iraq, one of the faith’s most ancient communities has dwindled today to around 141,000, from 1.5 million Christians recorded in a 1987 census.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and over the next 15 years, Iraq Christians suffered greatly at the hands of the Sunni jihadists of al-Qaeda in Iraq and ISIS, and of the Iranian-backed Shi’a militias.
The report concedes that is difficult to apportion blame between those violent groups, but says that since 2017, the Shi’a militias have been “indisputably at the forefront of
Iranian-prescribed jihad against Christians.”
It says Iranian proxies have played a “pivotal” role in preventing Christians from returning to their historical heartland – the Nineveh plains near the Kurdish autonomous region – with reports of evictions, expulsions, confiscations, and forced buyouts.
Other difficulties faced by Iraqi Christians at the hands of Iranian proxies outlined in the report include anti-Christian discrimination in employment and service provision, the burning of crops, vandalism of church properties, and enforced Islamic dress and behavior codes.
When the civil war in Syria began in 2011, Christians accounted for about 10.5 percent of the country’s population. Ten years later it had shrunk by 70 percent.
Although multiple players have been involved in the conflict, the report says that “a careful examination of witness reports indicates that Assad forces and pro-Iranian militias have
killed and kidnapped Christians despite the propaganda portraying the community as allies.”
It attributes the deaths of 118 Syrian Christians, more than 550 arrests, incidents of torture, and 75 acts of violence targeting churches and church property to the Assad regime and its Iranian militia allies.
“Bombing these churches had no tactical value; it was a deliberate policy to scare the Christians into fleeing,” the report states. It cites a 2019 report by the independent Syrian Network for Human Rights that held the regime responsible for 61 percent of attacks against Christian places of worship between 2011-2019.
In Yemen, the report says the Iranian proxy Houthi militia has carried out a campaign of killing and kidnapping Christians, and vandalism and looting of church property, aimed at intimidating the community.
Christians are harassed and denied medical services, Bibles are prohibited and Bible-burning is encouraged, and Houthi-controlled school curriculums and media instill hatred for Christians and other religious minorities. The report says that of a community of numerous denominations once numbering some 40,000, there are now only about “3,000 Christian holdovers.”
The report says action is “urgently needed to stop the emigration trend and encourage, whenever possible, the return of respective Christian populations.”
It calls on the State Department to sanction Iran and its proxies, including specific IRGC commanders for forcing Christian immigration or blocking their return, and says the U.N. should mandate a “special rapporteur” to investigate efforts by Iran to drive Christians from the region.
Christian charities and international bodies should provide financial help to Christian communities struggling to rebuild, the report says.
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