Historical churches in Iran vandalized by extremists

The Dzor Dzor Armenian church in Iran. | Wikimedia Commons/Afshin Iranpour

International groups have ignored the destruction of a number of historical churches in Iran that was carried out by Islamic extremists, a Christian news outlet has claimed.

According to Mohabat News, many of Iran's roughly 500 historical churches are now abandoned or "on the verge of destruction." Historic sites, including Armenian and evangelical churches, have been vandalized by Islamic extremists in recent years.

The news outlet has criticized UNESCO, the UN agency that recognizes the cultural significance of places across the globe, for overlooking the destruction of the historic sites.

It reported that in 2012, a group of extremists destroyed a historic Christian cemetery that is more that 200 years old. A few years ago, an evangelical church that was designated as a national heritage site in 2005 was also destroyed.

The most recent case reported by the news outlet was the destruction of St. Mary Church in Salmas County in Urumia province in May 2016. A mal-intended group allegedly broke into the church building through the roof and destroyed the cross using sledgehammers and axes. The statues of Mary and the pictures on the wall have been ruined as well.

According to World Magazine, the Iranian government is responsible for confiscation of land owned by non-Muslims, and it has allowed historic Christian sites to fall into disrepair.

In 2013, it was reported that government officials revoked the license of the Doulab cemetery. The land, which was supposed to be a protected cultural site, was said to be in danger of "rotting away" after the officials revoked the license.

"Constructors and investors have cast an eye on this piece of land. There are plans to convert this area into a park. But this cemetery is part of [Iran's] national cultural heritage and is protected," said Siavesh Rastegar, whose grandmother was buried in the cemetery.

The authorities also confiscated the Sharon Gardens, a property belonging to a Protestant community called Jama'at-e Rabbani, after they were accused of espionage. An appeals court upheld the confiscation of the land in December 2016.

"Christians out of fear kept quiet about a lot of church property confiscations in the past," a spokesman named Borji told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. "But confiscating Sharon Gardens is not a simple matter. They can accuse all the other Christian groups of espionage and working for the CIA and take away their properties, too," he continued.

Since 1979, the government has not allowed construction of new religious buildings. Christians have also been banned from conducting services in Farsi and from proselytizing to Muslims.

Iran is ranked on the Open Doors World Watch List as the eighth nation where Christians face the most severe persecution.