Iran (MNN) — The headlines are blaring a moderate as the winner of Iran's presidential elections. Hassan Rowhani scored just over half of the approximately 36 million votes cast in the six-way race. On August 3, Rowhani will be inaugurated as the new president.
Rowhani is known for his skill as a negotiator, having shown his prowess over the country's nuclear weapons program. Further, during his campaign he called for an end to the repressive atmosphere in Iran–including the lifting of economic sanctions– and pledged to open the door to more individual liberties and better relations with the West.
But is change really coming to the Islamic Republic? Spokesman with The Voice of the Martyrs USA Todd Nettleton sums up the results this way: "My favorite description of the Iranian election process comes from Joel Rosenberg who says, ‘It may look like democracy on TV, but don't be confused. It is not. In fact, all of the people who were allowed to run for president were determined by the Supreme Leader and by the mullahs, who have the real power in Iran.'"
Allowed to run? Nettleton explains further. Since all six candidates were vetted first, was there really a choice in the election? "Thinking that one of those candidates is suddenly going to bring about dramatic change in direction for the country is hard to imagine because a candidate that wanted to do that wouldn't be allowed to run."
Clarified in that light, Rowhani doesn't seem more than a figurehead–a notion Nettleton doesn't dispel. In fact, he adds that in the past, the president has been positioned as a scapegoat. "The Supreme Leader holds the power, he sets the agenda, he decides who can run for president, but then he can turn around and use the president for his own agenda and for his own ends."
At the same time celebrations clogged the streets of Tehran, it seems the distraction of the election also paved the way for the sitting regime to act on religious freedom cases. According to Mohabat News, with human rights attentions diverted, the regime convicted six Christians converts.
Two (a mother and son) received a two-year suspended prison sentence. However, Nettleton says, "Four Christian men (Mojtaba Seyyed-Alaedin Hossein, Mohammad-Reza Partoei (Koorosh), Vahid Hakkani, and Homayoun Shokouhi ) were found guilty of attending house church meetings, spreading Christianity, having contact with foreign ministries and propaganda against the regime, disrupting national security. Each of those four men was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison."
The charges reveal a government mindset that has earned it the dubious distinction of occupying spot the #8 on the Open Doors World Watch List (a ranking of the 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe). Nettleton explains, "'Having contact with foreign ministries: obviously, they consider that a very serious crime. But ‘disrupting national security:' they equate spreading Christianity, being a witness for Christ, with disrupting the security of the entire nation of Iran. That tells you what the regime thinks of Christianity." What's more, notes the report from Mohabat News, after the sentencing, all contact was severed with the Christian prisoners.
The action seems to suggest a religious dictatorship, especially since persecution of certain minorities has intensified since 2005. This is mainly aimed at the Baha'i, Sufi Muslims, and Christians, especially believers from a Muslim background.
According to the Voice of the Martyrs, nearly all Christian activity is illegal, especially when it occurs in Persian languages: from evangelism to Bible training to publishing Scripture and Christian books. Yet, says Nettleton, the regime's harsh treatment of Christians only further fuels the flames of church growth. "Obviously, we want to pray for the Christians in Iran. We want to pray for these that have just been sentenced, or others that are being held in prison in Iran. I think also we want to pray for the government in Iran. As this transition happens, pray that the Lord will surprise us and that there will be legitimate development toward peace and toward religious freedom in Iran."
When believers have been isolated, knowing they haven't been forgotten keeps hope alive. Nettleton adds, "If you're praying that the Lord will be encouraging prisoners, you can be a part of that by writing a letter to them on prisoneralert.com."
Pray that the Body of Christ will continue to multiply and mature despite persecution. Pray that the government will be open to change and allow full rights and protection for non-Muslims. Pray that those who are in prison will be strong in their hope and be bold enough to share it behind prison walls.