Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif shared a Christmas message commemorating the birth of Jesus to Twitter on Monday, as the Islamic Republic continues to crack down on Christian converts.
Quoting a verse from the Islamic holy book the Quran, Zarif wrote: "The angels said, 'Mary, God gives you good tidings of a Word from Him whose name is Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary; high honored shall he be in this world and the next, near stationed to God.' (QURAN 2:45) May the blessings of the birth of Jesus usher peace and joy to all in 2019."
Although Islam does not consider Jesus to be God as do Christians, it recognizes him as an important prophet. While Christmas is not traditionally celebrated in Islam, many Muslims around the world commemorate the holiday in remembrance of Jesus's birth. Iran is also home to an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Christians, primarily of Armenian and Assyrian descent. This Christian minority is guaranteed representation in the country's government, as is the Islamic Republic's minority Jewish community.
But Iran, which has a population that is about 90 percent Shia Muslim, also takes a hardline stance against adherents of Islam who convert to Christianity. British newspaper The Telegraph reported earlier this month that 114 converts in the country were recently detained by Iranian authorities and accused of "proselytizing." Although individuals who are born into traditionally Christian families are free to worship as they please, those who convert from Islam can face more than 10 years of imprisonment.
"The government [of Iran] is committed to expanding the influence of Shia Islam," Open Doors UK, an organization that advocates for Christians around the world, wrote on its website. "House churches for believers from Muslim backgrounds have been raided and leaders given long prison sentences. Consequently," the website explained. "Christians from the government-approved historical Armenian and Assyrian Christians who reach out to Muslims have reported discrimination, harassment, physical abuse and imprisonment."
In August, Amnesty International reported that Iranian nationals Victor Bet-Tamraz, Shamiram Issavi, Amin Afshar-Naderi and Hadi Asgari had been convicted to a combined total of 45 years in prison for practicing Christianity, as well as "attending Christmas gatherings and organizing house churches."
Reports have also circulated that President Donald Trump's decision to reimplement sanctions on Iran has led to a greater crackdown on Christians in the Persian Gulf nation.
"There are many reports that this has contributed to the government's ever-increasing dependence on hardline Islamic ayatollahs, who naturally see Christianity as a threat to their power," Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern, told The Telegraph.