Charles Mwewa teaches Canadian Immigration and Refugee Law in Canadian colleges. These are his spontaneous notes on refugee claims in Canada by Iranian nationals. Charles Mwewa has represented and won numerous refugee claims and offers helpful free knowledge of how to make a successful claim in Canada. The reader should be warned that these notes are spontaneous and unedited. They are not to be copied or reproduced in any form without the author's express permission. Thanks.
I Definition of a Refugee and Protected Persons
Section 96 and subsection 97(1) of Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA)define a refugee and a person in need of protection, respectively:
96 A Convention refugee is a person who, by reason of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion,
(a) is outside each of their countries of nationality and is unable or, by reason of that fear, unwilling to avail themself of the protection of each of those countries; or
(b) not having a country of nationality, is outside the country of their former habitual residence and is unable or, by reason of that fear, unwilling to return to that country.
Person in need of protection
97 (1) A person in need of protection is a person in Canada whose removal to their country or countries of nationality or, if they do not have a country of nationality, their country of former habitual residence, would subject them personally
(a) to a danger, believed on substantial grounds to exist, of torture within the meaning of Article 1 of the Convention Against Torture; or
(b) to a risk to their life or to a risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment if
(i) the person is unable or, because of that risk, unwilling to avail themself of the protection of that country,
(ii) the risk would be faced by the person in every part of that country and is not faced generally by other individuals in or from that country,
(iii) the risk is not inherent or incidental to lawful sanctions, unless imposed in disregard of accepted international standards, and
(iv) the risk is not caused by the inability of that country to provide adequate health or medical care.
Person in need of protection
(2) A person in Canada who is a member of a class of persons prescribed by the regulations as being in need of protection is also a person in need of protection.
A refugee is a person who has a founded fear of persecution in their country of citizenship or of habitual residence. This fear must both be subjective (it affects them personally) and objective (the state conditions make persecution possible). To make a successful refugee claim in Canada, the Claimant (the person making a refugee claim) must have left their country of citizenship or habitual residence and must be within Canada. The claim can be made in two ways:
The claim can be made at the Point of Entry (POE) either at the airport or the border, depends won where the Claimant first enters Canada. This applies to those who are seeking asylum straight upon arrival in Canada, and mostly it concerns those who have no lawful right or authorization to enter into Canada. Those who make claims at the POE are briefly detained by the CBSA officers. They are detained (arrested) because they are inadmissible to Canada. If they decided or show intention to made a refugee claim, they will be issued with removal orders subject to appearing before an adjudicator. At this point these people are neither refugee claimants or refugees; they are considered foreign nationals who must be subject to examination by a CBSA officer to a hearing to determine whether they have met the criteria of being refugee claimants in Canada. If the foreign national does not show any intention to claim for refugee in Canada, a CBSA officer will refer the matter to the ID for an Inadmissibility Hearing. If the foreign national indicates that they would like to make a refugee claim, the CBSA officer will refer them to an in-land reporting centre to make a refugee claim within fifteen (15) days.
The claim may be made within Canada. This applies to all those who came to Canada with lawful authorization (Visas) and who subsequently made a refugee claim in Canada. These must report themselves to the In-Land Reporting Centre and make a claim there.
In-land reporting is a two-step process. First, the foreign national must attend at the centre with the following documents and forms: All identity documents, such as passports, birth certificates, national identity documents or any such documents. The foreign national must also take to the centre completed immigration and refugee forms, including the following immigration forms: Generic, Schedule A – Background Declaration, and Family Information Form. The foreign national should also complete the following refugee forms: Basis of Claim or BOC form (formerly the Personal Information Form or PIF) with the narrative thereto, and Schedule 12. The BOC form is a very important refugee claim form and details will be provided in Chapter 2. The foreign national must also take four (4) passport-photos, and the checklist.
The IRCC/CBSA officers at the centre will review the BOC narrative and forms and the immigration forms and ascertain that the person has met the criteria for making a refugee claim in Canada. Once that has been satisfied, the officer will arrange for an Interview. The purpose of the interview is to determine if there are any issues, usually security in nature or otherwise that might not qualify the foreign national to making a successful refugee claim in Canada. The officers will also review the foreign national’s previous immigration history to make sure that the person is credible or otherwise has misrepresented. Depending on the outcome, the person will be provided with a document called Refugee Protection Claimant’s Document or RPCD, which technically entitles the “Claimant” to the Rule of Natural Justice or the Right to be Heard (or due process of law). Even if credibility or misrepresentation issues have been discovered by the officers, the Claimant will still be entitled to procedural fairness so that the Claimant can defend the claim and allegations of misrepresentation. Whether the Minister has elected to Intervene or not, the matter will now be referred to the Board for a judicial determination. (Ministerial Intervention means that the Minister of Immigration will be opposing the refugee claim on the basis of credibility findings. The Minister’s Counsel, as the Minister’s representative is referred to, may intervene directly by appearing at the hearing or may only make written submissions without attending at the hearing).
A Claimant is further entitled to some limited access to social, health and employment privileges while she waits for her hearing in Canada. The Notice of Hearing, which is a notice provided to the Claimant to appear before an adjudicator to defend the claim, may be given to the Claimant at the Interview or may be mailed later to the Claimant at the address provided in the Generic and the BOC forms. It is important that the Claimant notifies the Board whenever there is a change of address in order not to miss the hearing.
The limited social, health and employment needs the Claimant is entitled to at this stage are the requirement to attend at a Panel Physician’s office and undergo medial examination. A Panel Physician, formerly Designated Medical Doctor, is an IRCC-appointed or designated medical who can perform medical tests and report directly to IRCC the results. IRCC does not accept the medical results of any other doctors. Other entitlements are Work Permit, Social Welfare, if needed, and health coverage. Note that the federal government will automatically cover the Claimant’s first three months under the Interim Federal Health Program. Afterwards, the provincial health system will kick in, depending on the health insurance plan that exists in the province from which the refugee claim was made. For example, if the claim was made from Ontario Province, the province’s Ontario Health Insurance Plan or OHIP will kick in.
The Board will provide two dates, one is the actual date of hearing, and the other is reserved for those who may miss the hearing. It is important to notify counsel way in advance of the Claimant will not attend the hearing at the date scheduled. Counsel then may make an application for a change of hearing date or for an adjournment. As long as this requisition does not prejudice the Minister, is made for a legitimate reason and in good faith and in good time, the Board may consider changing the hearing date to an earliest available future date.
To be granted a refugee status, a Claimant must prove, on a balance of probabilities that they meet the definition of a refugee protected person pursuant to section 96 and subsection 97(1) of IRPA. The Balance of Probabilities is a legal standard required to prove that the person is a refugee. The standard is lower than the criminal law threshold which requires the Crown (the Government) to prove a case Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, that is, to only convict an accused where it is very certain that he had committed a crime. Therefore, the Board’s Member will grant refugee status to a Claimant who, on the preponderance of evidence, proves or establishes that they are more probable than not to be subjected to persecution if they returned to their country of citizenship or habitual residence. If it is a scale of 100 percent, the Claimant will succeed in making a refugee claim if they only established about 51 percent.
The Basis of Claim or BOC is, arguably, the most important document so far as a refugee claim is concerned. It is the basis or the notable information the Claimant provides as the basis of their refugee claim. This information, subject to amendment before the hearing, becomes the Claimant’s record in the Canadian immigration database. It cannot be easily changed afterwards without inviting allegations of misrepresentation.
The BOC narrative must be though-through wisely, cogently and with accuracy. No refugee claim was successful without a well-written and presented BOC narrative or simply, the “Story.” The story must accurately identify the Claimant, including their legal names, dates of birth, country of origin or citizenship, marital status, number of children, if any – this should include their names, ages and marital statuses and so on – educational levels, academic designation/qualification, if applicable, and any pertinent identifying information necessary to establishing a credible claim.
The BOC narrative must show a relationship between the State and the allege persecution. Canada cannot protect people who are not in danger of their own government or whose government can protect them if asked. Canada is a signatory to international conventions, but Canada will be declaring war with another sovereign state if it arbitrarily attempts to protect nationals for other sovereign states. The basis for protection is the assumption that the Claimant is either stateless or his own country and government cannot protect him, directly or indirectly. Only state actors and agents can truly persecute the foreign national under the law.
The Meaning of Credibility in Law
Most, if not, all, refugee claims are won and lost on credibility. Evidence is essential. However, one should look at it from this point of view: How can a total stranger who happen to be hearing the claim believe for certain in your story or the evidence thus proffered, who was not there, and who has no idea whether you are telling the truth? The simple answer is: Credibility.
Board Members are human. They cannot know what happened to the Claimant just by intuition or guessing. The only thing they have, usually, is the BOC story, the National Documentation Package (NDP), and the evidence submitted, if any, with the claim. They will expect that the Claimant’s testimony will be consistent with the BOC story submitted.
Credibility is synonymous with believability. It is the quality of being trusted and believed. And in relation to the witness’ testimony (viva voce), credibility relates to the testimony of a witness during a hearing. There are generally five bases of credibility:
First, to be found credible, the Claimant must be able to be trusted. Trust can be illusive in refugee hearing but particular attention to what the Claimant says, how they appear, their voice projection and general demeanor, can go a long way to establish trust with the adjudicator. As the saying goes, trust is earned and not gained. It follows that the Claimant should pay attention to their choice of words, how polite, respectful or careful they are with their general presentation. Once the adjudicator believes and observes that the Claimant is whole and upright, and therefore, candid and candor with their overall presentation, the adjudicator will begin to trust the Claimant. Trust is also earned when the Claimant paid particular attention to procedural matters, such as filing the evidence in good time, making necessary changes to the BOC story before the hearing, and making necessary applications in good time and in good faith.
Second, credibility is built through the reliability of what the Claimant says. Reliability means the truthfulness of what is said which is manifested through accuracy and exactitude of the statements made. Reliability is the accuracy of the testimony. It is one’s ability to answer questions truthfully and accurately. Only the adjudicator and counsel, if represented, will have access to the BOC narrative. The Claimant will not, and will be expected to answer questions according to the BOC narrative. The Claimant cannot deviate from the story nor can she change the original story in the process. She must keep the same tenor and sequence of the story. To be reliable, the Claimant should remember names, places, dates and important landmarks in the story. It should be emphasized that reliability, and thus, credibility, will be impeached where the Claimant is forgetful or negligent in answering questions asked, or is inconsistent with the submitted BOC narrative.
Third, the logical flow of the Claimant’s testimony establishes credibility. The story must have a logical trajectory – each paragraph connecting the next in a logical and seamless flow of ideas and sense. The story should have a sensible start, middle and ending. In terms of a refugee story, it must establish the following:
(a) That the Claimant was born a Muslim;
(b) That the Claimant converted to another religion other than Islam consciously and deliberately;
(c) That this change of religion came to the attention of the State or state-agents, such as, in the case of Iran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGs), the police, the Intelligence forces, Sepher, or Basij;
(d) That as a result of the exposure, and how the exposure occurred, the Claimant was or is in danger of being persecuted. Or as in most cases, the Claimant was arrested, interrogated or even tortured, and was made (forced) to sign a commitment (pledge) that they would not be involved with a new religion ever, and if found to be in breach of the commitment, they would be subjected to worst treatment or even death.
(e) That in some way, this commitment was breached, usually, at the whim of a whistleblower or state informant. Most Claimants, once they become aware of the fact that the state had become aware of the breach, do all and anything to run away from Iran. The Iranian government is known to make people disappear who are in violation of security warning. A person who is warned and breaches the commitment is said to have insulted the Islamic religion and such people could be in danger of being executed for apostasy. Apostacyis considered a capital crime in Iran. It is the public rejection (pouring scorn on Islam and its prophet) and conviction is punishable by death.
(f) That the Claimant had either attempted to run to another town or province or could not have done so because the state security forces control the entire nation.
(g) And that finally, the Claimant escaped to Canada and made a refugee claim.
Fourth, it is the sincerity and personal credibility of the testimony that establishes credibility. The message and the medium are the same. The person telling the story cannot be separated from the story. It is, therefore, important that the witnesses establish personal credibility by the way they tell their story and answer questions. Generally, the Claimant (witness) must do the following three things:
(a) They must only answer the questions being asked. Failure to follow this rule may send a negative inference to the decision-maker, and this may damage credibility beyond repair.
(b) State so if they do not understand the question or ask the adjudicator to restate or rephrase the question.
(c) Say so if they do not know or cannot remember the answer. It is better to not answer a question one does not know or cannot remember than to guess or answer a question one does not know. Credibility means that one is able to say they do not know if they don’t know!
Fifth and last, the refugee hearing process is an inquisitorial process. This means that the adjudicator conducts the hearing like an inquiry. The hearing only becomes adversarial when the Minister decides to intervene. Otherwise, both the Claimant and her counsel must be prepared to follow the guideline and process as determined by the adjudicator. The adjudicator sets the tone and trajectory of how the hearing is to be conducted. All that both the Claimant and counsel should do is to be prepared.
Because the Board sets the direction of how the hearing should be conducted, the adjudicator has freedom and ample opportunity to observe both how the Claimant answers questions and also, she behaves during the hearing. This is called observing the personal demeanor and emotional disposition of the witness (Claimant). This will generally involve the following three aspects:
(a) How and what the Claimant wears. It is always better to be dressed modestly and avoiding both over- and underdressing. The best precaution is to error on the side of decency and morality, rather than being overtly extravagant and casual. The Claimant must observe basic hygiene, modest dressing, well combed hair and clothes that are well-pressed and in good teste. It is advisable to avoid outrageous colours – navy blue, black, dark grey suites or pants are ideal for men. For woman, closed shoes, long dresses or skirts and less tight clothing is advisable. Both men and women should avoid wearing expensive jewelry and heavily-scented perfumes.
(b) Eye contact with the adjudicator.
(c) And a strong voice that can be heard but that is not excessive and irritating to the adjudicator. If there is an interpreter, the Claimant (witness) should speak short sentences and allow the interpreter to finish the interpretation before saying another word. It is good policy to allow the interpreter to finish talking before the witness can say another word. It is equally important to allow the adjudicator to finish the sentence before the witness can answer.
The IRB publishes country-specific information about different countries. IRB adjudicators rely upon this information in the refugee determination process. The National Documentation Package (NDP), as the document is known, assists the Board in accessing the objective basis of the Claimants’ fear of persecution in their own country of origin. The BOC narrative, which highlights the subjective basis of fear of persecution must align with the NDP.
For the NDP to be efficacious, it must be the latest one published at the IRB website. Information change, and the IRB updates country-specific information from time to time. Counsel, especially, must ensure that she is relying on the recommended NDP for that particular period.
The NDP is created to provide additional assessment criteria in determining refugee or other asylum-based claims. It documents Country of Origin Information (COI) and policy guidance to IRB adjudicators on handling refugee claims. The information contained in the NDP is necessary to justify the finding that the Claimant has Founded Fear of persecution in their country of citizenship or habitual residence. Conversely, the NDP provides the certification of claims which may be “Clearly Unfounded” pursuant to s. 94 of the
Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002.
“Decision makers must consider claims on an individual basis, taking into account the case specific facts and all relevant evidence, including: the policy guidance contained with this note; the available COI; any applicable caselaw; and the Home Office casework guidance in relation to relevant policies.”
The NDP for Iran vis-à-vis religious persecution is reproduced below, with minor modifications.
Religious Freedom in Iran
Sources indicate that Shia Muslims represent (about) 90 per cent (AA, March 2015a; USDOS, 28 July 2014, section 1) or 90 to 95 per cent (CIA, 1 September 2015, based on 2011estimates) of the country’s population. Sources indicate the share of Sunni Muslims as about 9 per cent (USDOS, 28 July 2014, section 1), 10 per cent (AA, March 2015a, MRG, July 2014) or 5 to 10 per cent (CIA, 1 September 2015) of the population. As noted by Minority Rights Group International (MRG), Iran’s Shia Islam is “strongly dominated by the Twelver Ja’fari School (referred to as Ithna’ashari in Arabic)”. Other Islamic groups besides Twelver Shia and Sunni Islam include Ismaili Islam and Ahl-e Haqq (MRG, July 2014).
Minority Rights Group International (MRG), a UK-based NGO campaigning for the rights of minority ethnic, religious and linguistic communities, states in its July 2014 World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples that “[m]ost Kurds, Turkmens, Baluch and some Arabs are Sunni” although these communities “do not form a cohesive coherent whole as Sunnis” and “tend to express their identity in ethnic terms” (MRG, July 2014). Global Security, a US-based think tank that provides information and analysis on a variety of security-related issues, notes that there are also “small communities” of ethnic Persians in southern Iran and Khorasan who
are Sunnis (Global Security, 7 September 2011).
Furthermore, the July 2014 US Department of State (USDOS) International Religious Freedom Report (which covers the year 2013) notes that “[t]here are no official statistics available on the size of the Sufi Muslim population” but that “some reports estimate [that] between two and five million people practice Sufism” (USDOS, 28 July 2014, section 1).
According to the 2011 National Population and Housing Census 2011 presented by the Statistical Centre of Iran (AMAR), non-Muslims (referred to as Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian) account for 0.3 per cent of the population, while other groups (labelled as “nonstated” groups) make up another 0.3 per cent (AMAR, August 2012, p. 26). The USDOS, however, notes that groups including Bahais, Christians, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, and Zoroastrians represent 1 per cent of the population, with Baha’is and Christians being the “two largest non-Muslim minorities” (USDOS, 28 July 2014, section 1). Sources indicate the number of Baha’is as approximately 300,000 (USDOS, 28 July 2014, section 1) or 300-350,000 (MRG, July 2014). The USDOS quotes United Nations (UN) figures as indicating that “300,000 Christians live in the country, although the Statistical Center of Iran (AMAR) reports the number of Christians as 117,700 while “some NGOs estimate [that] there may be as many as 370,000”. The July 2014 USDOS report elaborates on the figures of Christians in Iran:
“The majority of Christians are ethnic Armenians concentrated in Tehran and Isfahan. Unofficial estimates of the Assyrian Christian population range between 10,000 and 20,000. There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical groups. Christian groups outside the country estimate the size of the Protestant Christian community to be less than 10,000, although many Protestant Christians reportedly practice in secret.” (USDOS, 28 July 2014, section 1)
According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the number of Zoroastrians is between 30,000 and 35,000 (USCIRF, 30 April 2015, p. 47). The USDOS notes that the Statistical Center of Iran (AMAR) “estimated in 2011 that there were approximately 25,300 Zoroastrians, who are primarily ethnic Persians” whereas “Zoroastrian groups report 60,000 members” (USDOS, 28 July 2014, section 1).
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) indicates that some 20,000 persons belong to the Jewish community (USCIRF, 30 April 2015, p. 47). As indicated by the USDOS, “[t]here are from 5,000 to 10,000 Sabean-Mandaeans” (USDOS, 28 July 2014, section 1). Results of the 2011 National Population and Housing Census reported by AMAR indicate that the number of Muslims has increased from approx. 70 million in 2006 to about 74.68 million in 2011. AMAR also notes a rise in the Christian population from 109,415 in 2006 to some 117,704 in 2011. The number of Jews is indicated to have decreased from 9,252 in 2006 to
8,756 in 2011, while the number of Zoroastrians is reported to have risen from 19,823 in 2006 to 25,271 in 2011. (AMAR, August 2012, p. 26).
In Iran, the government executed at least 20 individuals on charges of moharebeh, translatable as “enmity towards god,” among them a number of Sunni Kurds. A number of other prisoners, including several Sunni preachers, remained in custody awaiting a government decision to implement their death sentences. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center database of prisoners, at least 380 religious practitioners remained imprisoned at the end of the year for their membership in, or activities on behalf of, a minority religious group, including approximately 250 Sunnis, 82 Baha’is, 26 Christian converts, 16 non-Sunni Sufis, 10 Yarsanis, three Sunni converts, and two Zoroastrians. According to representatives of the Baha’i community, the government continued to prohibit the Baha’is from officially assembling or maintaining administrative institutions, actively closed such institutions, harassed Baha’is, and disregarded their property rights. Christians, particularly evangelicals and converts, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to reports from exiled Christians.
In the past year, religious freedom in Iran continued to deteriorate for both recognized and unrecognized religious groups, with the government targeting Baha’is and Christian converts in particular. While several high-profile Baha’i prisoners were released during the reporting period following completion of their sentences, others were arbitrarily detained based on their religion, and long-term trends of economic and educational persecution of the community continue. Christian converts and house church leaders faced increasingly harsh sentencing: many were sentenced to at least 10 years in prison for their religious activities. Religious reformers and dissenters faced
prolonged detention and possible execution, while the government’s growing ability to enforce official interpretations of religion online posed new threats to the freedom and safety of internet users. In a new, troubling development, the suspension of a Zoroastrian elected to the local council of Yazd sparked national debate about limiting the political rights of religious minorities. While the Rouhani Administration signaled its intent to address some religious freedom violations, these promises have yet to be implemented and the number of individuals imprisoned for their beliefs continues to climb. Based on these particularly severe religious freedom violations, USCIRF again recommends in 2018 that Iran be designated as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC. Since 1999, the U.S. Department of State has designated Iran as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), most recently in December 2017.
Christianity and Iran
According to a publication about Protestants and Christian converts in Iran, written by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI), an independent New York-based non-profit organization that aims to promote human rights in Iran through research and international media advocacy (ICHRI n.d.), the majority of Christians in Iran are "ethnic Christians, which refers to Armenians and the Assyrians (or Chaldeans) who possess their own linguistic and cultural traditions" (ICHRI 2013, 6). ICHRI states that "most ethnic Christians are members of their community's Orthodox church" (ibid.), "but some are also Catholics or Protestants" (ibid., 17). According to ICHRI, "[n]on-ethnic Christians are for the most part members of Protestant churches" (ibid., 6). Sources similarly indicate that non-ethnic Christians are mostly "Protestants and Evangelicals" (Minority Rights Group International n.d.; FIDH July 2010, 25). The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) states that "many [non-ethnic Christians] are converts from Islam (ibid.). ICHRI also says that "most, though not all [non-ethnic Christians], are converts who came from Muslim backgrounds" (2013, 6).
In a telephone interview with the Research Directorate, a senior researcher in the Human Rights in Iran Unit at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, indicated that the experiences of ethnic and non-ethnic Christians in Iran are "entirely different" (21 Feb. 2014). The ICHRI states that "authorities have granted ethnic Christians some rights to religious practice, such as holding their church services, running religious schools, and celebrating their major religious holidays," though they are not permitted to hold Persian language services (ICHRI 2013, 6). According to the UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, "[i]n general, Christian religious practice is monitored and heavily regulated. For example, Muslim converts to Christianity cannot enter Armenian or Assyrian Churches, as all churchgoers must register with the Government. Authorities often place cameras in churches..." (UN 13 Mar. 2014, 80)
ICHRI indicates that Protestants face "far more aggressive government restrictions and human rights abuses than ethnic Christian groups" (ibid.). ICHRI states that this is "largely" due to the use of the Persian language for church services and literature, "their commitment to proselytizing," which may "facilitate conversion," as well as potential affiliations with church networks located abroad (ibid.). The BBC reports that "[e]vangelical Christians are not recognized and face heavy discrimination" (11 Oct. 2011). According to the report by the UN Special Rapporteur, "The Christians most commonly prosecuted appear to be converts from Muslim backgrounds or those that proselytize or minister to Iranian Muslims. Iranian authorities at the highest levels have designated house churches and evangelical Christians as threats to national security" (UN 13 Mar. 2014, 11). The UN Special Rapporteur adds that
[i]n recent years, Christians, many of whom are converts from Muslim backgrounds, have faced a similar pattern of persecution. At least 49 Christians were reportedly being detained in the Islamic Republic of Iran as at January 2014. In 2013 alone, the authorities reportedly arrested at least 42 Christians, of whom 35 were convicted for participation in informal "house churches", association with churches outside the Islamic Republic of Iran, perceived or real evangelical activity, and other standard Christian activities. Sentences range from one to 10 years of imprisonment. (ibid. 10-11)
Sources indicate that some non-ethnic Christians in Iran identify with denominations, and some do not (Senior Researcher 21 Feb. 2014; Pastor 24 Feb. 2014). The Pastor indicated that some non-ethnic Christians may or may not know about the existence of different denominations (ibid.). The Pastor also said that whether or not a non-ethnic Iranian Christian knows their denomination depends on the person mentoring them (ibid.). In a telephone interview with the Research Directorate, the President of Iranian Christians International (ICI), a non-profit Colorado-based evangelical Christian group that "ministers to the approximately 8 million Iranians and Afghans living outside their countries today" (ICI n.d.), indicated that "most house churches" do not focus on the issue of denomination; they teach their own theology and doctrine, but will not necessarily specify which denomination they belong to (26 Feb. 2014).
The senior researcher indicated that there are many ways that non-ethnic Iranian Christians identify or describe themselves, for example, some may identify as Protestant, Pentecostal or another denomination, while others may identify as Evangelical or belonging to the Evangelical movement, Proselytizing, or belonging to the Assembly of God, an Evangelical Iranian group, an International Christian movement, the International set of churches (an international church network), or a Bible Church (21 Feb. 2014). The senior researcher added that many of these terms are not commonly used in Persian and may be challenging to translate to English (21 Feb. 2014). Sources also indicated that some non-ethnic Christians identify themselves as being a follower of a particular Christian television channel, television personality or televangelist (Senior Researcher 21 Feb. 2014; Pastor 24 Feb. 2014).
According to the senior researcher, although some Iranian converts take a theological meaning of Christianity, some others take a social meaning from the religion (21 Feb. 2014). The senior researcher said that sometimes Christianity is defined as a way of moving away from social norms that people find to be restrictive in Iran, and moving towards a form of social liberation (21 Feb. 2014). The Danish and Norwegian fact-finding mission indicated that, according to an international organization in Ankara, in some cases "the appeal lies less in Christianity as such and more in being part of a community which is warm and welcoming" (Feb. 2014, 17).
Sources indicated that some non-ethnic Christians define Christianity in relation to Islam (Senior Researcher 21 Feb. 2014; Pastor 24 Feb. 2014; ICI 26 Feb. 2014). The Pastor indicated that some Iranians convert to Christianity because of their "hatred of Islam rather than for their love of Jesus" (ibid.). The President of ICI similarly stated that some people convert to Christianity and other religions as a rebellion (26 Feb. 2014). The Danish and Norwegian fact-finding mission indicated that, according to a source, "a large number of people in Iran are fed up with the way political Islam is practiced by the regime and are looking for alternatives" (Feb. 2014, 16).
Two sources note the active presence of Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons in Iran (ICI 26 Feb. 2014; Pastor 24 Feb. 2014), as well as other "non-conventional forms of Christianity" (ibid.).
3. Teachings and Interpretations of Christianity
Sources indicate that there is great variance in the way Christianity is interpreted by non-ethnic protestant and converted Christians in Iran (Senior Researcher 21 Feb. 2014; Pastor 24 Feb. 2014). In a telephone interview with the Research Directorate, the Pastor of the Iranian Church of Richmond Hill in Toronto, who received his ministry credentials with the Evangelical Free Church of Canada, said that interpretations of Christianity are based on a person's denomination and how he or she learns about Christianity (ibid.; ibid. 21 Mar. 2014). According to the senior researcher, for non-ethnic Christians, there are many differences in the practices, teachings and knowledge of Christianity, and a person's identification with the religion (21 Feb. 2014).
Several sources indicate that there can be a range of knowledge about Christianity among non-ethnic Christians in Iran (ICI 26 Feb. 2014; Senior Researcher 21 Feb. 2014; Pastor 24 Feb. 2014). The Pastor indicated that a person's knowledge of Christianity is dependent on the type of exposure they have had to Christianity (24 Feb. 2014). The senior researcher said that Iranian non-ethnic Christians do not grow up in a Christian-centred society (21 Feb. 2014). The President of ICI indicated that sometimes the information that converts have received about Christianity comes from teachings in Islam, which are not the same as Christian teachings (26 Feb. 2014). The senior researcher indicated that some non-ethnic Christians are ordained outside of Iran or have otherwise acquired a high level of Christian education, while others know very little about Christianity (21 Feb. 2014). A fact-finding mission conducted by the Danish Refugee Council, LANDINFO, and the Danish Immigration Service indicates that, according to an international organization in Ankara, "converts may not be very knowledgeable about Christianity" (Denmark and Norway Feb. 2013, 17). A senior legal advisor at the Swedish Migration Board interviewed by the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), and evangelical news outlet (CBN n.d.), said that "not all converts have a deeper knowledge or details about the religion" (ibid. 14 June 2013).
Sources indicate that some non-ethnic Iranian Christians do not believe in the Trinity (Senior Researcher 21 Feb. 2014; Denmark and Norway Feb. 2013, 18). According to the President of ICI, there are some groups who present Christianity through an Islamic lens, such as the "Jesus-only group," who does not believe in the Trinity (26 Feb. 2014). The Danish and Norwegian fact-finding mission similarly states that "many of the house churches in Iran are non-Trinitarian which means that they believe in 'Jesus only'" making them "quite different from established Protestantism" (Feb. 2013, 15, 18).
4.1 House Churches
Sources report that some non-ethnic Iranian Christians attend house churches (Senior Researcher 21 Feb. 2014; Pastor 24 Feb. 2014). The Danish and Norwegian fact-finding mission to Iran reports that, according to a Western embassy, "established churches effectively do not accept converts and consequently, converts are pushed to the underground house churches" (Feb. 2013, 17). The President of ICI also indicated that some converts attend house churches (26 Feb. 2014).
The President of ICI indicated that pastors of house churches are "usually not well trained" (26 Feb. 2014). The senior researcher noted that some house churches have Bible classes, some of which are taught by new Christians themselves, and some house churches are "non-traditional," and may be led by clergy without a theological understanding (21 Feb. 2014). The President of ICI indicated that the knowledge of Christianity gained in house churches varies, and depends on which house church a person has attended (26 Feb. 2014). He added that there may be many gaps in knowledge among Christians who attend house churches, as their teachings may be, in his view, "incomplete and insufficient" (26 Feb. 2014).
Several sources indicate that some Iranian house church leaders are trained abroad (Senior Researcher 21 Feb. 2014; Denmark and Norway Feb. 2013, 20; Pastor 24 Feb. 2014). The Pastor indicated that sometimes leaders of churches are trained in Turkey or Armenia (24 Feb. 2014). The senior researcher also stated that sometimes people who teach in house churches attend seminars in Turkey, Armenia or elsewhere and learn about Christian teachings and how to promote conversions (21 Feb. 2014). The Danish and Norwegian fact-finding mission adds that, according to an Iranian leader of a home church network, training of leaders of house churches can also occur through television satellite channels (Feb. 2013, 20). According to the same source, leaders also "rely on informal modes of learning through personal mentoring, a sort of apprenticeship that also involves the reading of theological books and learning from more knowledgeable and experienced leaders" (ibid.).
According to the Pastor, there is a limited number of people preaching and providing Christian teachings in Iran, which has led to, in his opinion, some "bad teachings" and misunderstandings about Christianity (24 Feb. 2014). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.
4.2 Television Satellite Stations
Several sources report that there are Christian television satellite stations that broadcast in Iran (Senior Researcher 21 Feb. 2014; Pastor 24 Feb. 2014; ICI 26 Feb. 2014). The Pastor explained that this is because of the lack of freedom to teach Christianity to non-ethnic Christians (24 Feb. 2014). The senior researcher indicates that some people's concept of conversion is just following a Christian television show because some non-ethnic Iranian Christians may not have access to other Christians, and may therefore acquire their "entire understanding" of Christianity from a Christian television show (21 Feb. 2014). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.
4.3 Christian Materials
Sources indicate that Christian Bibles are confiscated in Iran (US 20 May 2013, 4; Senior Researcher 21 Feb. 2014). The Senior Researcher indicated that Persian-language bibles are confiscated, mostly from house churches (ibid. 26 Mar. 2014). The Senior Researcher added that, although the government allows one translation of the Persian language bible with an Islamic interpretation, Persian-speaking Protestants generally do not use this version (ibid.). The Pastor indicated that if someone has a Bible, they can get into "big trouble" and that Bibles are "not readily available" (24 Feb. 2014). However, in contrast, the senior researcher indicated that most non-ethnic Christians have Bibles (21 Feb. 2014).
According to the senior researcher, the Persian translation of the Bible is not printed in Iran (21 Feb. 2014). The President of ICI said that some churches print small quantities of Bibles, but this can be dangerous (26 Feb. 2014). The President of ICI said that, although Bibles were smuggled in before, "in recent years" there is less smuggling because it is expensive and sometimes shipments are confiscated (26 Feb. 2014).
The President of ICI indicated that although hard copies of Bibles are not very accessible, Bibles can be accessed online (26 Feb. 2014). He added that internet speeds are intentionally slow, and it is difficult to download documents (ICI 26 Feb. 2014). The Danish and Norwegian fact-finding mission to Iran reports that, according to Elam Ministries, a UK-based evangelist Christian organization that aims to "strengthen and expand" Christianity in Iran by accelerating church growth and training Iranian church leaders (Elam n.d.), access to materials is inhibited by the "filtering and blocking" of websites by the authorities (Feb. 2013, 20-21). According to the ICHRI," Persian-language Christian websites are blocked, and the four Persian language Christian satellite stations are intermittently jammed" (2013, 11). However, according to the President of ICI, Christians from non-ethnic backgrounds can do research about Christianity "on their own," as information about Christianity is available on the Internet (26 Feb. 2014). The senior researcher indicated some non-ethnic Christians have DVDs which contain Christian materials, such as songs and videos (21 Feb. 2014). The Senior Researcher said that some people convert "before ever touching a Bible," and then later absorb Christian materials (21 Feb. 2014).
Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.
4.4 Christian Holidays
The Pastor expressed the view that knowledge of Christian holidays may be limited for non-ethnic Iranian Christians, depending on their exposure to Western culture and events, which are "heavily influenced" by Christian traditions (24 Feb. 2014). The Danish and Norwegian fact-finding mission similarly indicates that
most conversions are directly related to the reading of the Bible. Converts, as a result, are readily referring to the source, i.e. the Bible, and the stories that are encountered in it and perhaps not so much to the well-known religious holidays that Christians generally refer to. It was explained that there is no mention of an actual Christmas celebration in the Bible. The Christmas celebration is a tradition that emerged later on in history after Christianity had been embraced as state religion. It is thus a product of Christian culture more than of biblical faith. Also, according to the Bible, the Easter story of Jesus death and resurrection is commemorated consistently by Christians every Sunday, forming the central theme of sermons and through the sharing of communion (bread and wine). Easter of course was also observed by Jews in biblical times, being rooted in the Old Testament story of Israel's deliverance out of Egypt. Consequently, the theological meaning of why Jesus came and why he died and rose again is the very core of what Iranian converts believe and celebrate consistently. However, the significance lies in the meaning of these stories for their personal lives and relationship with God, rather than in the way these events may be celebrated at special occasions during the year. The Christian holidays tend to get more attention in societies that have a historical cultural heritage of Christianity and thus follow the Christian calendar. (Denmark and Norway Feb. 2013, 14)
The Pastor indicated that some non-ethnic Christians in Iran practice on Friday, because it is a day off in Iran (24 Feb. 2014). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.
According to the senior researcher, not all non-ethnic Christians are baptized (21 Feb. 2014). The President of ICI indicated that baptisms of non-ethnic Christians are "not done in Iran these days" because the government said that a person who performs baptisms will be subject to severe punishment (26 Feb. 2014). The Danish and Norwegian fact-finding mission found that, according to the Assembly of God [reportedly "a recognized church that operates in Persian" in Iran (ICHRI 2013, 66)], they stopped baptizing Muslims some years ago (Denmark and Norway 2013, 13). Reference was made to a pastor that had been locked up for baptizing prior to this, and it was added that baptism is not a requirement in order to become a member of the Assembly of God Church (ibid.). The senior researcher similarly indicated that ethnic churches "more or less" stopped baptizing non-ethnic Christians, however this "doesn't mean that it does not happen secretly" (26 Mar. 2014). The senior researcher added that conducting baptisms is perceived to be dangerous and individuals in the church fear reprisals (21 Feb. 2014). The Danish and Norwegian fact-finding mission to Iran found that, according to an international organization in Ankara "many of the house church members are not baptized as baptism is the proof of conversion" and the consequences someone could face are "serious, according to the law" (Feb. 2013, 14). The President of the ICI indicated punishment may include the death penalty (26 Feb. 2014). Similarly, the ICHRI reports that Iranian authorities perceive apostasy as a crime "punishable by death" (2013, 7).
The Pastor indicated although Iranian pastors living in Iran normally do not baptize Muslims because of the dangers, some non-ethnic Christians may "still be baptized" in Iran (24 Feb. 2014; Pastor 21 Mar. 2014). The Danish and Norwegian fact-finding mission states that, according to an elder from the International Protestant Church of Ankara, sometimes house churches may baptize someone (Feb. 2013, 15). The senior researcher also said that some people are baptized in house churches "depending on the house church," and added that the decision of whether to baptize someone lies with the defacto leader of the house church (Senior Researcher 21 Feb. 2014). He added that some non-ethnic Christians who have been baptized consider themselves to have converted to Christianity before they were baptized (ibid.).
Several sources indicate that some non-ethnic Christians are baptized outside of Iran, such as in Turkey (Senior Researcher 21 Feb. 2014; Pastor 24 Feb. 2014; ICI 26 Feb. 2014), or Armenia and Azerbaijan (Denmark and Norway 2013, 13). The President of ICI indicated that, in his view, this process "may take some time" as the Pastor would build a relationship with the person to ensure that their request for baptism is "genuine" (ibid.).
The Pastor indicated that many non-ethnic Christians, even if they were baptized, will not have baptismal records (Pastor 24 Feb. 2014). He said that, if a baptismal record is given to authorities, the record would incriminate the person who was baptized, and the person who performed the baptism and signed the record would "face problems with the regime" (ibid.). The Pastor added that some non-ethnic Christians who have been baptized might receive their baptismal records late, such as when they are leaving Iran or when they have left Iran (ibid.). He also said that letters of baptism "may come from a third party," such as American Christian organizations which are connected with underground churches and baptize Iranians in secret (Pastor 24 Feb. 2014; ibid. 21 Mar. 2014). According to the Danish and Norwegian fact-finding mission to Iran, referring to a source from the Assembly of God:
[r]egarding documentation of baptism, the source considered it very unlikely that established churches would issue such documents. Whether house churches would issue such documents, the source considered that they might baptize each other within the movement but that they have no formal theological education and they are very much on their own. Finally, the source stated that the source could not imagine that any official church leader would baptize Muslims formally and officially. (Denmark and Norway Feb. 2013, 13).
House Churches and Converts
Control with the house churches and converts
It is difficult for the authorities to control house churches as they are dispersed, not structured and unknown.4 The closure of churches affiliated with the ‘’Assembly of God’’ in 2013 has resulted in the spread of house churches, as people who were attending the Church services began to go to house churches instead.5 One source noted that house churches are quite common in Iran and their numbers are growing.
According to the source, the increasing number of house churches show that they have space to operate, even though they are illegal.6 The authorities fear the expansion of the house churches phenomenon in Iran.
The authorities use informers to infiltrate the house churches. The infiltrators are identified and selected by the authorities. To prevent infiltration and intervention, house churches organize themselves as a
mobile group consisting of a small number of people. A source mentioned that the prevention of external infiltration is difficult, as the authorities use informers who pretend to be converts. One source explained that it would be a strategy for the authorities to either monitor or arrest and release members of a house church to make an informant out of them. The authorities could use information on the person’s background to put pressure on them.
House churches are monitored by the authorities. If the authorities receive a report about a specific house church, a monitoring process will be initiated, one source noted. However, the authorities will not
act immediately, as the authorities want to collect information about both the members and who is doing what in the community. Flourishing house churches are more in danger, as the authorities see these churches as a bigger threat. Whether the authorities will intervene depends on the activities of the house church and the size of the group. A source said that the house churches are systematically raided.
There have not been any significant changes in the authorities’ control with house churches recently. One source pointed out that there has been a change in the authorities monitoring of social media and online activities. Another source added that there is a widespread monitoring of telecommunication and electronic communication if a Christian has caught the interest of the authorities. Certain keywords serve as base for the electronic surveillance e.g. “church”, “Jesus”, “Christian” and “baptism”. As it is well-known that the authorities are tapping phones, the house members are cautious and turn off their phones long before they reach their meeting place. Furthermore, the authorities are more alerted to activities threatening the established system.
There has been a change in the way the Iranian authorities look at Christians in general. The change started after the green revolution in 2009, as the Christians are perceived to bring ideas of freedom. It is unknown to what extent the Iranian authorities have the capacity to monitor everybody. The authorities do not monitor everyone all the time; what the authorities want is to create a fear among people that they are being monitored all the time, a source highlighted.
Follow-up activities of the authorities in cases related to members of house churches and converts
Neighbours, who have become aware of unusual activities around a house, can cause a house church to be revealed for the authorities. A foreigner interacting with Christians in Iran added that otherwise, the
authorities do not have the possibility to know about the house church as members are discrete about it. It is unlikely that a family member will report to the authorities on a converted family member. However, it occurs in cases where the family member is a government employee or whose professional and/or social status is affected by the Christian family member. One source added that many families are loyal to the regime and have a Basij member within the family. If there are children in the family, they could also inform
their teachers about activities in their homes, at school.
The authorities are primarily targeting the house church leaders and secondary the members and converts. Two other sources stated that the authorities target both the leaders of the house churches and
The typical pattern of targeting is by arresting and releasing the house church leaders, as the authorities want to weaken the house church. Ordinary members of house churches also risk arrest in a house church. However, they will be released again on the condition that they stay away from proselytizing. If they stop proselytizing, the authorities will stop gathering information about them, a source added. One source mentioned that it would be possible for an arrested convert to pay his/her way out of an arrest. The source added that even if it is known that the person is a converted Muslim, it would be a question of the amount of money paid to be released. Whether a house church member is targeted also depends on his/her conducted activities and if he/she is known abroad, the same source noted. Ordinary house church members risk being called in for interrogation on a regular basis as the authorities want to harass
and intimidate them, a source explained.
If a house church member is arrested for the first time, he/she will normally be released within 24 hours. If he/she has been detained in prison, he/she will receive his charge within 24 hours and come to court within ten days, a source mentioned.
A conversion and an anonymous life as a converted Christian in itself do not lead to an arrest, but if the conversion is followed up by other activities as for instance proselytizing and training others, the case differs; the same applies if family members report the convert to the authorities. One source highlighted that if a convert does not proselytize or promote a house church, the authorities will not know about him/her. Middle East Concern, however, did not consider a life as an anonymous Christian as sustainable, as converts, in this case, have to lie about their faith and act against their religion. Amnesty International added that a conversion might be revealed to the surrounding community if the convert does not participate in Islamic events as many social norms and cultural activities are connected to Islam.
Converts who tell their family about their conversion risk getting into trouble; they risk exclusion and threats from the family who might think that the converted family members will create a problem for
them. According to one source many converts do not tell their families about the conversion.
Several sources addressed the issue regarding Iranian converts returning from Europe. According to two sources, converted returnees who do not carry out activities related to Christianity upon return will not be of interest to the authorities. Middle East Concern made the distinction whether the converted person was known before leaving Iran or not; returning will cause problems if the convert has been known by the authorities before leaving. If the opposite is the case, going back to Iran would not be problematic. Converts who announce their conversion in public may face serious problems.
If the returned convert has been very outspoken about his/her conversion on social media, including Facebook, the authorities might become aware of it and arrest and interrogate the convert upon return. A Western embassy (3) said that the subsequent process would depend on what the returnees inform the authorities about. The embassy did not consider that the converts would receive harsh punishment if they are not high-profiled and are not involved in propagating Christianity or activities perceived as a threat to national security.
Declaring conversion on Facebook in itself does not lead to persecution but likely to monitoring. One source explained that a photo indicating a conversion posted on the internet would be evaluated by the authorities along with the profile and activities of the converted person. If the person did not have any previous affiliation with Christianity before leaving the country, he/she will not be persecuted.
If a converted person uses the religion politically to for instance compare disadvantages of Islam with advantages of Christianity or another religion on social media, it could be a problem for him, a source mentioned. Most Iranians are not very religious, but they might see conversion as a way to come closer to Western values, and as a protest against the system, another source mentioned. However, it was underlined that it would apply to a person who has made his/her own analysis of the two religions and not someone who has used “copy paste” phrases.
A baptism in itself will not have significance, according to two sources. A foreigner interacting with Christians in Iran noted that it is doubtful whether it would make a difference for the authorities if the
convert is baptized. Middle East Concern source considered that a baptism, which is documented, could alert the authorities and prove to be problematic.
Recent trial cases related to house churches and converts
Christian converts are typically not charged with apostasy; convert cases are usually considered as national security matters59 which are handled by the Revolutionary Court. A source added that the authorities perceive activities related to conversion as political activities.
Death penalty in cases related to conversion is not a common punishment. A Western embassy (4) highlighted that the implementation of the death penalty in Iran is related to drug and murder cases, and more rarely to high-profile political cases. A Western embassy (1) noted that there has not been issued a death sentence for conversion the last 10 years.
The authorities are not filing cases against converts, and no one in Iran has been arrested solely because of a conversion, a Western embassy (4) stated. Middle East Consultancy Service added that there is no legislation on apostasy in the Penal Code, however, many converts are prosecuted.
Organizers of house churches might risk accusations of “Crimes against God” which would carry the death penalty, a source stated. However, the source did not know of any cases where this accusation has resulted in actual execution of the accused.
As regards prosecution of house church members, one source stated that it would probably only be the leader of the House Church, while another source said that this goes both for low profile cases and for
house church leader.
Religious Crimes in Iran
An August 2014 note of the UN Secretary-General to the UN General Assembly states that the Islamic Penal Code (IPC) that came into force in 2013 “omits references to apostasy, witchcraft and heresy” (UN General Assembly, 27 August 2014, p. 4). However, as indicated by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), the IPC includes criminal provisions for swearing at the Prophet (IHRDC, 30 July 2014, p. 1).
As noted in the July 2014 US Department of State (USDOS) International Religious Freedom Report on the year 2013, the Iranian state “automatically considers a child born to a Muslim father to be a Muslim and deems conversion from Islam to be apostasy” (USDOS, 28 July 2014, section 2). The June 2015 Country Report on Human Rights Practices of the USDOS, which covers events of 2014, states:
“The law does not stipulate the death penalty for apostasy or heresy, but courts handed down capital punishments in prior years based on their interpretation of fatwas (legal opinions or decrees handed down by an Islamic religious leader).” (USDOS, 25 June 2015, section 1a)
A May 2014 publication of the US Library of Congress (LoC) on laws criminalizing apostasy in the Middle East briefly outlines the legal situation with regard to apostasy in Iran:
“Iran’s current Penal Code, which was approved by the country’s Guardian Council on January 18, 2012, does not include provisions criminalizing apostasy. However, a draft form of the Code containing several provisions on apostasy had been approved by the Iranian Parliament in principal on September 9, 2008, but was not subsequently adopted.
While Iranian law does not provide for the death penalty for apostasy, the courts can hand down that punishment, and have done so in previous years, based on their interpretation of Shari’a law and fatwas (legal opinions or decrees issued by Islamic religious leaders).” (LoC, May 2014, p. 7)
An October 2013 report of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) notes that “[a]postasy, sorcery, witchcraft and other such issues have not been explicitly mentioned in the new IPC, although Apostasy has been specifically referred to in the Press Code (Article 26)”. The source further states that “[u]nder the sharia, the punishment for apostasy is death, which a judge can impose by invoking Article 167 of the Constitution.” (FIDH, October 2013, p. 6)
The UK-based Economist newspaper states that judgment on apostasy “rests on fatwas by the country’s dozen-odd grand ayatollahs, who are divided on the matter”, mentioning that
“the supreme leader supports the death penalty for apostasy” (Economist, 14 September 2012).
In July 2014, the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC) published a detailed report on judicial dealings with apostasy as well as swearing at the Prophet in Iran. The report states that “[u]nder Iranian law, a Muslim who leaves his or her faith or converts to another religion can be charged with apostasy” and that apostasy is a capital offence. Although apostasy “has not been explicitly mentioned as a crime” in the IPC, “provisions in the Islamic Penal Code and the Iranian Constitution state that Shari’a, or Islamic religious law, applies to situations in which the law is silent, thus enabling the judiciary to “bring apostasy charges based on its interpretation of Shari’a law”. (IHRDC, 30 July 2014, p. 1)
The role of state law with regard to apostasy is detailed as follows:
“Despite the fact that Iranian courts have found many individuals guilty of apostasy, there is no provision in the IPC [Islamic Penal Code] criminalizing the act. There are, however, several legal provisions that give judges the discretion to find defendants guilty of apostasy. Article 167 of Iran’s Constitution declares:
The judge is bound to endeavor to judge each case on the basis of the codified law. In case of the absence of any such law, he has to deliver his judgment on the basis of authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwa. He, on the pretext of the silence of or deficiency of law in the matter, or its brevity or contradictory nature, cannot refrain from admitting and examining cases and delivering his judgment.
Accordingly, Article 220 of the IPC states, Article 167 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran applies regarding the hudūd not specified in this code. Hudūd is the plural for hadd. Article 15 of the IPC defines hadd as a punishment for which its cause, category, quantity and quality are determined by Shari’a law. As such, Article 220 of the IPC effectively states that crimes punishable under Iranian law are not limited to the ones specified in the IPC. This provision leaves the door open for prosecutors and judges to bring charges and render convictions based on crimes not explicitly defined or even mentioned in any code. Article 8 of the Establishing Law for the Public and Revolutionary Courts also states that judges should rely on existing laws as well as Article 167 of the Constitution in resolving disputes. The principle that Shari’a law should be enforced when there is no codified law is also applicable in civil matters.” (IHRDC, 30 July 2014, pp. 10-11)
The same report states that due to the lack of specific provisions on apostasy in the IPC, “there is no explicit provision describing the manner in which a charge of apostasy may be proven”. The report outlines that Article 160 of the IPC deals with methods of proving
criminal conduct in general:
“Nevertheless, Article 160 of the IPC mentions the different methods by which the commission of a crime may be proven. According to this article, confessions, the testimony of two male witnesses or the ‘knowledge of the judge’ can each be the basis
for a conviction.” (IHRDC, 30 July 2014, p. 13)
As regards Shi’a jurisprudence on apostasy, the IHRDC notes that a distinction is made whether an apostate is born to Muslim or non-Muslim parents. Furthermore, Shia jurists hold that female apostates should be exempted from execution:
“Shi’a jurisprudence makes a distinction between an apostate who is born to Muslim parents (murtad-i fitri) and an apostate who is born to non-Muslim parents (murtad-imilli). According to jurists such as Ayatollah Khomeini, the repentance of apostates born to Muslim parents cannot be accepted. Therefore, such apostates are to be killed. Even if only one of the parents is a Muslim at the time of conception, that person is considered to be a Muslim. An apostate who is not born to Muslim parents is considered to be a murtad-i milli. Such an apostate will be given a chance to repent, and he is only to be executed if he does not repent. Some jurists have held that a murtad-e milli should be given a three-day period to repent, and he should be killed if he refuses to repent after three days. […]
Based on a number of oral traditions attributed to Shi’a Imams, Shi’a jurists believe that female apostates are not to be killed. Ayatollah Khomeini states that a female apostate is to be imprisoned for life, beaten at times of prayer and afforded only a small amount of food. If she repents, she is to be set free.” (IHRDC, 30 July 2014, pp. 8-9)
As regards judicial practice, the IHRDC notes that apostasy cases are “rare occurrences” in Iran. Nonetheless, as the report goes on to say, a “diverse group of individuals” has been charged with apostasy and swearing at the Prophet, “Muslim-born converts to Christianity, Bahá’ís, Muslims who challenge the prevailing interpretation of Islam, and others who espouse unconventional religious beliefs have been targeted and prosecuted by the Iranian state.” The report adds that “[i]n some instances, apostasy cases have clear political overtones, while others seem to be primarily of a religious nature”. (IHRDC, 30 July 2014, p. 1)
The June 2015 USDOS Country report on human rights practices during 2014 notes that if an alleged act of “libel, insult, or criticism involves Islam or national security, the responsible person may be charged with apostasy and crimes against national security, respectively” (USDOS, 25 June 2015, section 2a). A June 2014 report of the Danish Immigration Service (DIS) fact-finding mission report on the situation of Christian converts states with reference to information provided by an international organization in Turkey that “[t]he latest case where a convert has been charged with apostasy is that of Yousef Naderkhani, a Church of Iran pastor” (DIS, 23 June 2014, p. 7) who was “charged with apostasy in 2010, but was later acquitted.” (DIS, 23 June 2014, p. 13, footnote 9). The international organization in Turkey and Amnesty International (AI) are referred to as noting the following developments in charges brought against Christian converts since 2009-2010:
“In 2009-2010, when Naderkhani’s case came up, courts were being pressured by the regime to make use of apostasy charges in cases regarding converts. However, the courts were reluctant as apostasy cases were reserved to special religious courts for clergy. Religious courts were legally the only courts that could try apostasy charges and
therefore, only in the instance where a religious cleric had converted, would such a charge be applicable. Instead, in courts outside of the religious courts, the cases involving converts would then rather be on charges of disturbing the public order than apostasy.
Since 2011, the only significant change in the way the authorities are treating the converts to Christianity is the crystallization that apostasy is not applicable to converts to Christianity. The Iranian authorities stated in 2009 to 2011 that house churches were linked to outside movements, for example Zionist movements, and organizations abroad, for example in the US. The regime sees the efforts of evangelical movements as a drive against the Iranian regime. As a result, evangelical churches and house churches are viewed in a national security frame. This view of the regime explains why some cases involving converts, specifically leaders of house churches, also involved charges of a more political nature. […]
According to AIIS [Amnesty International Secretariat], the pattern of
persecution of religious minorities appears to have seen a shift over time. In the early years following the 1979 Islamic Revolution into the 1980s and 1990’s, there appeared to be more cases regarding religious minorities in which the accusations against individuals explicitly mentioned the religious belief or faith of an individual. […]
Now, the authorities are likely to charge converts with vaguely worded and broadly defined charges such as ‘forming of illegal groups’, ‘acting against national security through illegal gatherings’ and other similar charges that are imprecise and potentially could capture a range of activities. It was added that this trend was not specific to the group of Christian converts but that these sorts of charges are used to silence a large group of people, including members of religious minorities such as Baha’is, members of ethnic minorities, and others who peacefully express their rights.” (DIS, 23 June 2014, pp. 7-8)
In a March 2014 report to the Human Rights Council (HRC), the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran quotes sources as reporting that “although prosecutions for the capital offence of apostasy are very rare, officials routinely threaten to prosecute Christian converts for apostasy”. While apostasy is “not found in any Iranian criminal law”, this offense “has been prosecuted based on an Islamic law interpretation”. (HRC, 18 March 2014, p. 11)
The June 2014 fact-finding mission report of the Danish Immigration Service (DIS) quotes Mansour Borji, an advocacy officer at Article 18, a London-based initiative of the United Council of Iranian Churches, as saying that there are “no recent cases in court where an
individual has been charged with apostasy”. However, the same report refers to representatives of the Istanbul-based Union Church, according to whom a “high number” of people has been arrested and “accused of apostasy” (DIS, 23 June 2014, p. 11).
The same report goes on to quote Elam Ministries, a UK-based Iranian Christian NGO, as informing that “[w]hen a house church is raided, the authorities will detain the whole of the group and interrogate them often intimidating and threatening them with charges of apostasy but most often they are released without charges” (DIS, 23 June 2014, p. 32)
A May 2015 thematic report of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken, BZ) indicates in its section on apostasy that at present, prosecution takes place through application of penal code articles that relate to crimes against state security, with “moharebeh” (enmity against God and thus against the state) and mofsed-e-filarz (spreading corruption against the social order) being the most frequently invoked offences. Both offences may be punished by death. The BZ states that during the reporting period (December 2013 to April 2015), the death penalty for “moharebeh” was imposed several times. (BZ, 7 May 2015, p. 11)
State Monitoring Online Activities of Iranian Converts
Amnesty International technologist Claudio Guarnieri and Collin Anderson, an independent cyber researcher, who have been studying Iranian hacking activities for several years, provide the following overview in a report published in August 2016:
“[S]ince the propagandic defacements of international communications platforms and political dissident sites conducted by an organization describing itself as the ’Iranian Cyber Army’ beginning in late 2009, Iranian actors have been attributed in campaigns of intrusions and disruptions of private companies, foreign government entities, domestic opposition, regional adversaries and international critics. […] Civil society and political opponents are a primary target of Iranian intrusion campaigns […].
Our research incurs classic issues applicable to all reports on intrusion campaigns, primarily questions of attribution and intent. The end objective of particular CNO [Computer Network Operations] activities is not always discernable based on the tactics used or the data accessed, as the end implications of the disclosure of particular information is often distant and concealed from even the target. Where such intent is made evident, the reasons for Iranian intrusion campaigns range from retaliatory campaigns against adversaries, as a result of identifiable grievances, to surveillance of domestic opposition in support of the Islamic Republic establishment. Iranian intrusion sets appear to be interested in a broad field of challenges to the political and religious hegemony of the Islamic Republic. Previous reports on Iranian campaigns have referred to the targeting of Iranian dissidents, however, in practice those targeted range from reformists operating within the establishment from inside of Iran to violent extremist organizations outside.
Therefore, Iranian CNO activities should be considered as a tool in the context broader state activities and policies, including offline events.” (Guarnieri/Anderson, August 2016, pp. 1-2)
The March 2017 US Department of State (USDOS) country report on human rights practices 2016, which covers events of 2016, reports that the Iranian authorities “monitored private online communications” and “collected personally identifiable information in connection with citizens’ peaceful expression of political, religious, or ideological opinion or beliefs” (USDOS, 3 March 2017, section 2a).
The same report refers to the Basij ‘Cyber Council’ and the Cyber Police (FATA) as examples of state organizations involved in “targeted citizens’ activities on social networking websites officially banned”:
“Government organizations, including the Basij ‘Cyber Council, ‘the Cyber Police, and the Cyber Army, which observers presumed to be controlled by the IRGC, monitored, identified, and countered alleged cyber threats to national security. These organizations especially targeted citizens’ activities on social networking websites officially banned by the Committee in Charge of Determining Offensive Content, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, and reportedly harassed persons who criticized the government or raised sensitive social problems.” (USDOS, 3 March 2017, section 2a)
A brief summary of the objectives of the Cyber Police (FATA), an institution created in 2011, can be found on the organization’s undated website:
“The purpose of establishing cyber police is to secure cyber space, to protect national and religious identity, community values, legal liberty, national critical infrastructure against electronic attacks, to preserve interests and national authority in cyberspace and to assure
people in all legal affairs such as economic, social and cultural activities in order to preserve national power and sovereignty. Cyber police of Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 2011 based on internal and international standards in order to prevent, investigate and combat cybercrime.” (FATA, undated)
The Freedom House Freedom on the Net 2016 report of November 2016, which covers developments from June 2015 up to May 2016, gives the following overview of efforts by the Iranian state to monitor cyberspace:
“The online sphere is heavily monitored by the state in Iran. In preparation for elections to the legislature and Assembly of Experts, Iran’s deputy interior minister for security announced a new ‘Elections Security Headquarters’ would be established ‘to monitor
cyberspace.’ Similarly, the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] launched a military exercise named ‘Eghtedare Sarallah’ in September 2015, which included the monitoring of social media activities. In June 2015, Iran’s Cyber Police (FATA) created a new unit for monitoring computer games.
It remains unclear how the authorities can technically monitor the content of messages on foreign social networks, given that some apps encrypt their messages. However, all platforms and content hosted in Iran are subject to arbitrary requests by various authorities to provide more information on their users. Local equivalents of international platforms do not guarantee an adequate level of protection for users, which may explain users’ hesitancy to adopt domestic platforms. An August 2015 survey of 904 Iranian internet users found that they felt less comfortable using Iranian social networks.
In a troubling development, the Supreme Council on Cyberspace announced in May 2016 that all foreign messaging apps must move all data on Iranian users to servers located within the country. The order seemed targeted at Telegram, used by some 20 million Iranians, which has been under increased pressure by the authorities over the past year. Storing data on local servers would make it easier for the authorities to compel the company to hand over data on government critics and censor unfavorable views.” (Freedom House, November 2016)
Freedom House goes on to note with regard to the legal status of encryption:
“The legal status of encryption in Iran is somewhat murky. Chapter 2, Article 10 of the Computer Crimes Law prohibits ‘concealing data, changing passwords, and/or encoding data that could deny access of authorized individuals to data, computer and telecommunication systems.’ This could be understood to prohibit encryption, but enforcement is not common. Nonetheless, the Iranian authorities have periodically blocked encrypted traffic from entering the country through international gateways, particularly during contentious moments such as elections.” (Freedom House, November 2016)
The March 2017 USDOS report provides details on government measures taken with regard to the above-mentioned Telegram messaging application:
“An estimated 20 million Iranians use the online messaging application Telegram, which has security features that make the content of users’ communications more difficult to be read by a third party. CPJ [Committee to Protect Journalists] nevertheless reported in June that users were at risk of being monitored, as had happened with other similar applications in the past. Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace announced on May 29  that Telegram had one year to move all of its data to servers inside Iran or risk being closed entirely. Telegram users in Iran continued to be harassed for content posted through its servers. According to local media reports, the Iranian Cyber Police arrested three Telegram channels administrators on August 9  for publishing material ‘insulting religious sanctities.’” (USDOS, 3 March 2017, section 2a)
An August 2016 article of the Reuters news agency reports that over a dozen Telegram accounts belonging to “political activists involved in reformist movements and opposition organizations” have been hacked:
“Iranian hackers have compromised more than a dozen accounts on the Telegram instant messaging service and identified the phone numbers of 15 million Iranian users, the largest known breach of the encrypted communications system, cyber researchers told Reuters. The attacks, which took place this year and have not been previously reported, jeopardized the communications of activists, journalists and other people in sensitive positions in Iran, where Telegram is used by some 20 million people, said independent cyber researcher Collin Anderson and Amnesty International technologist Claudio Guarnieri, who have been studying Iranian hacking groups for three years. […]
Telegram’s vulnerability, according to Anderson and Guarnieri, lies in its use of SMS text messages to activate new devices. When users want to log on to Telegram from a new phone, the company sends them authorization codes via SMS, which can be intercepted by the phone company and shared with the hackers, the researchers said. Armed with the codes, the hackers can add new devices to a person’s Telegram account, enabling them to read chat histories as well as new messages. […]
The Telegram hackers, the researchers said, belonged to a group known as Rocket Kitten, which used Persian-language references in their code and carried out ‘a common pattern of spearphishing campaigns reflecting the interests and activities of the Iranian security
apparatus.’ Anderson and Guarnieri declined to comment on whether the hackers were employed by the Iranian government. Other cyber experts have said Rocket Kitten’s attacks were similar to ones attributed to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards. The researchers
said the Telegram victims included political activists involved in reformist movements and opposition organizations. They declined to name the targets, citing concerns for their safety. ‘We see instances in which people ... are targeted prior to their arrest,’ Anderson said. ‘We see a continuous alignment across these actions.’
The researchers said they also found evidence that the hackers took advantage of a programing interface built into Telegram to identify at least 15 million Iranian phone numbers with Telegram accounts registered to them, as well as the associated user IDs.
That information could provide a map of the Iranian user base that could be useful for future attacks and investigations, they said. […]
While Facebook and Twitter are banned in Iran, Telegram is widely used by groups across the political spectrum. They shared content on Telegram ‘channels’ and urged followers to vote ahead of Iran’s parliamentary elections in February 2016. […]
Amir Rashidi, an internet security researcher at the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, has worked with Iranian hacking victims. He said he knew of Telegram users who were spied on even after they had set passwords.” (Reuters, 2 August 2016)
In a May 2015 press release, Article 19, a London-based human rights NGO focusing on defending and promoting freedom of expression and information, notes that “Operation Ankaboot” (or “Spider”), “a surveillance operation”, is “believed to have been launched in the fall of 2014 to identify and root out Facebook pages and activities that spread ‘corruption’ and western-inspired lifestyles”. The operation was acknowledged by the IRGC in January 2015:
“Operation Ankaboot was acknowledged by officials on January 31st, 2015, when the IRGC Center for Investigation of Organized Cyber Crimes, a subsidiary of the IRGC Cyber Defense Command, put out a press release to inform the public about the shutting down of 130 Facebook pages, the arrest of 12 and detainment of 24 individuals.” (Article 19, 14 May 2015)
The March 2017 USDOS report mentions that the government’s operations “Spider I” and “Spider II” have led to the arrest of [e]ight online models” and the closure of an “unannounced number of online Instagram, Telegram, and Facebook pages in May 2016 “for ‘immoral content’ after images were posted that did not adhere to government-sanctioned dress requirements” (USDOS, 3 March 2017, section 2a).
The May Article 19 press release notes with regard to the Iranian authorities’ online monitoring capabilities:
“Beyond anecdotal evidence, documenting and confirming evidence of surveillance and monitoring of social media has proved difficult. However, at times, officials have publicly stated that they are actively monitoring Iranian citizens’ activities on both blocked and unblocked websites and platforms. For instance, in September of 2014, The Chief of Iran’s Cyber Police (FATA), warned the public about FATA’s ability to monitor messaging applications such as Viber and Whatsapp. This announcement was made subsequent to the arrest of a number of Viber users who were targeted based on the exchange of
‘inappropriate content.’ While not offering conclusive evidence of surveillance, public statements by officials acknowledging surveillance activities does work to perpetuate concern, if not fear over whether the government’s activities and capacity to monitor online activity, in particular social media. […]
Following the press release announcing Operation Ankaboot, Mostafa Alizadeh, a cyber expert with the IRGC explained that the IRGC can monitor all social networks, and those who have deemed these platforms a safe place should reconsider, as they are being watched. However, from a technical perspective, the possibility of this level of surveillance and scale of probing remains unverifiable [...].” (Article 19, 14 May 2015)
An older query response of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) of January 2014 refers to several sources as saying that Iran’s authorities “monitor online activities […] including online activities outside of Iran”. The query response quotes a professor of political science and public policy at York University (Canada) as saying that “all Iranian websites are closely monitored by the regime”. The query response also quotes a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Toronto with research experience in Iran as indicating that Iranian authorities are “very active’ in cyber-monitoring, including monitoring e-mail and online conversations”. Meanwhile, the IRB, with reference to the Director of the UK-based NGO Small Media and the history professor, notes that the authorities do not monitor all online activities of Iranians:
“The Director of Small Media indicated that Iranian authorities do not have the technical capacity to conduct ‘blanket monitoring,’ which means that they do not follow all Iranian citizens’ online activities (14 Jan. 2014). Similarly, the Professor of history indicated that the government does not seem to monitor all online activities (Professor of History 13 Jan. 2014).” (IRB, 20 January 2014)
Small Media, a UK-based NGO providing digital research, training and advocacy solutionsto civil society actors who assist groups at risk, notes in an older September/October 2013 article that “[g]enerally, Iranian organizations”, including the cyber police [FATA], have had “problems securing access to skilled workers and technical resources”. As a result, the article states, FATA has been using “unconventional methods” to identify and track down persons online, including “acts of manipulation on social networking sites”:
“One of the most popular methods used by FATA is the creation of fake Facebook profiles, through which they may encourage other users to divulge personal information. Over the course of an investigation, a FATA agent can collect numerous pieces of information about a user from their social network accounts, linking them together to build a completer and more accurate image of the user.” (Small Media, September/October 2013, p. 3)
The same report further notes with regard to FATA’s capabilities:
“FATA’s Central Unit has always shared the latest technical research on surveillance and enforcement methods with other FATA offices around the country. In addition, this unit attempts to locate loopholes and zero-day vulnerabilities in Iranian computer systems and software, in an effort to prevent security weaknesses from being exploited. Besides this Central Unit, FATA is also composed of a number of more specialist sections, with the Technical Department being one of them. Here, a number of technical workers receive regular training regarding Internet and computer networks and security issues (though it should be noted that most staff at FATA are not technically-trained). Regardless, FATA claims that its activities are incredibly far-ranging, with FATA’s chief in Kerman Province, Kambiz Esmaeili, stating that the organization monitors all activity on websites, blogs and forums on a 24/7 basis.” (Small Media, September/October 2013, pp. 3-4)
A November 2015 article of Al-Monitor, an online news platform focusing on coverage of the Middle East, notes that “Iran’s security apparatus has been accumulating the skills and expertise to limit the security risks presented by social media ever since the protests in the
aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election”. The article goes on to state that the government has acquired expertise in “data-mining techniques, enabling it to find potential troublemakers who use the web as a tool for stirring political unrest”. (Al-Monitor, 8 November 2015)
A January 2015 Small Media report quotes analysts as saying that the authorities have been using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology since the disputed 2009 presidential election to “analyse email content and track browsing history” of Internet users (Small Media, January 2015, p. 27).
In a July 2015 report, Article 19 describes the infiltration of internet groups as a method commonly used by Iranian authorities:
“Infiltrating online groups is a commonly used strategy by the authorities. They use a variety of methods to ascertain the offline identities of individuals such as moderators or administrators of online groups. The methods employed vary, depending on the platform. Facebook, for instance, has been the platform the authorities have most commonly used. Methods employed in order to gather information and personal data have included the following:
Citing an Iranian web provider, a 2016 article of the CHRI notes that “strict censorship and ‘security’ laws” compel internet service providers (ISPs) to “expose their customers’ information and online activities”:
“Iranian Internet service providers are particularly handicapped by strict censorship and ‘security’ laws that expose their customers’ information and online activities. ‘Since a few years ago, web hosting companies have been forced to cooperate with Internet monitoring
agencies and as a result they can order the removal of any content,’ said the web provider, speaking on condition of anonymity. […] Deleting information from a website requires web hosting companies to violate privacy agreements so that state agencies can access the server’s information bank. Internet providers are thus unable to protect customer data.” (CHRI, 14 March 2016)
The same report points to several patterns of online behaviour among Iranian internet users that put them at risk of being monitored by the state. These include a tendency of not using the Blind Carbon Copy (BCC) function when sending emails to multiple addressees (thus making the names and email addresses of all persons on the mailing list visible to everyone, “including unreliable contacts”), the use of real names in online activities, and general unawareness of the way information shared on Facebook can be used against them by authorities (including a poor understanding of privacy settings on Facebook). With regard to Facebook, the report specifies that users’ common vulnerabilities include “[a]llowing lists of friends to be visible to the public”, “[d]istributing mass invitations to events” and “[c]reating open or public groups that allow anyone to join, enabling them to see the details of all group members and activities”. The same report further points to some cases where users have been “identified through activity logs on public computers and printers in places such as university campuses or the workplace” and
notes that Internet café computers also log their clients’ personal information and browsing data”. The report goes on to note that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are obliged to provide information on subscribers to the authority as requested and points to possible risks in the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) as a means of circumventing the filtering and blocking and websites:
“The findings of this report show that ISPs [Internet Service Providers] in Iran do not generally protect the personal information of their subscribers. In fact, Iranian ISPs are mandated by law to provide all information about their subscribers as the authorities require. All ISPs are subject to strict control and regulations by the authorities and follow national policies on filtering and censorship. As a result, some internet users take steps to access the internet in ways that avoid the authorities’ filtering and blocking of websites, such as setting up Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). VPN use is common as it is very easy to set up. However, the reliability of VPNs was sometimes called into question; one interviewee believed that his VPN – purchased online – was corrupt, claiming that the authorities had access to it. In some interrogations, the authorities claimed to have gathered information directly from users’ VPNs which, whether true or false, decreased Iranians’ trust in VPNs. Iranians do not always pay attention to the source of the VPNs, or the software used to run them, that they use to access filtered websites such as Facebook.
In some cases, the authorities established their own VPNs, enabling them to channel users’ information through a monitored route, which made surveillance easy.” (Article 19, 2 July 2015, pp. 22-25) The March 2017 USDOS report refers to inte ernet activists as saying that there is a lack of clarity as to whether or not the use of VPNs is illegal:
“The computer crimes law makes it illegal to distribute circumvention tools and virtual private networks, but the law is not clear whether the use of such tools is illegal, according to internet activists.” (USDOS, 3 March 2017, section 2a)
Freedom House states in its Freedom on the Net 2016 report of November 2016 that “[t]he use of VPNs does not appear to be criminalized, unlike the selling or promoting of VPN use”, indicating that “several individuals were arrested in late 2015 for promoting, selling, or training individuals to use circumvention tools” (Freedom House, November 2016).
A November 2016 article by Guarnieri and Anderson, which partly refers to information presented at “Black Hat” information security events, notes apparent attempts by Iranian authorities to collect IP addresses using so-called WebRTC protocols. These efforts appear to
target political opposition activists and human rights activists:
“In late December, several domains were registered in the name of the Oshkosh Corporation, an American defense industrial firm with subsidiaries in Saudi Arabia. The activities of fictitious social media profiles further indicated a sustained interested in the company, and aligned with a broader campaign of espionage directed at the defense
industrial base. The typographic domains impersonated internal VPN resources to obtain employee credentials to private network resources, such as email accounts and shared file servers. Based on common patterns and registration information, the Oshkosh Corporation domains appeared to be maintained by Iranian actors – the same group behind the Ghambar malware documented at Black Hat that we believe to be related to Cylance’s Operation Cleaver. The impersonation sites themselves contained another function we had not seen amongst Iranian actors previously – an attempt to enumerate internal IP addresses in order to conduct network reconnaissance. This approached has continued to arise in subsequent spearphishing attempts, including more banal Google credential phishing sites targeting Iranian dissidents, across different campaigns and different groups.
While at first this tactic could be directed at identifying security researchers, subsequent campaign indicates a deeper purpose. The WebRTC protocol was designed to enable responsive real-time communications over the Internet, and is instrumental in allowing streaming video and conferencing applications to run in the browser. In order to easily facilitate direct connections between computers (bypassing the need for a central server to act as a gatekeeper), WebRTC provides functionality to automatically collect the local and public IP addresses of Internet users (ICE or STUN). These functions do not require consent from the user, and can be instantiated by sites that a user visits without their awareness. The potential privacy implications of this aspect of WebRTC are well documented, and certain browsers have provided options to limit its behavior.” (Guarnieri/Collins, 11 November 2016)
The same article goes on to describe the context in which these intrusions have taken place, pointing to government censorship of social media platforms (and users’ strategies of circumventing them) and to arrests of members of banned online communities such as 11
dissidents and religious activists and, more recently, of “modelling communities, artists, and other social groups engaged in activities persecuted by the hardline establishment”:
“The Iranian government’s aggressive censorship of social media platforms has inadvertently supported a culture of privacy amongst Internet users. In response to high publicized campaigns against online activists prior to and during the Green Movement, use of pseudonyms on social media is common in Iran. Individuals frequently use initials or locations as their profile names. Moreover, the necessary use of VPNs or circumvention services to bypass the government’s filter has afforded an additional degree of protection against passive network surveillance. This also aligns with our direct observation that a significant portion of the Iranian activists compromised by the Infy malware campaign regularly used VPN services […].
Taken in the context of increased adoption of HTTPS, the government has little direct awareness of the content of certain Internet traffic. In absence of compliance by foreign technology companies to Iranian government requests, the use of anti-filtering tools and consistent maintenance of pseudonyms affords a meaningful degree of privacy to online activists against identification by domestic security agencies. Quite simply, without intrusions or social engineering, the Iranian government has little visibility into who is participating in certain online communities – or whether they are even in the country.
The response from the government – notably the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – has been highly-public arrests of members of prohibited online communities, such as dissidents or religious minorities. These arrests, given names such as Operation Spider, have intended to send a chilling message to the public that the state is watching online – even to exaggerate its technical capacities. While earlier campaigns targeted activists, in recent months, announced arrests have also included modelling communities, artists, and other social groups engaged in activities persecuted by the hardline establishment. The arrested are often forced to confess on television, delete their accounts, or turn them over to authorities, which are then taken over to post public warnings.
The IRGC has not disclosed investigatory techniques, unsurprisingly. In at least one case, an individual arrested had posted personal information on their profile and would have been easy to identify. However, based on records sourced from infrastructure of Iranian threat groups, it appears that intrusion groups (e.g. Flying Kitten) have engaged in spearphishing against the same sets of targets.
While the recording of internal IPs in spearphishing attempts against private companies or other institutions could reasonably be attributed to reconnaissance, in other documentations cases, the sole purpose of an engagement was to collect addresses of private individual with no other action in the attack. Taken in the context of the targeting of those attempts, these incidents suggest that certain Iranian groups appear to be leveraging privacy issues with WebRTC toward de-anonymizing social network users.” (Guarnieri/Collins, 11 November 2016)
The same article highlights the following cases where human rights defenders have been approached through their social media accounts, apparently with the purpose of collecting IP addresses:
“In one case, a social media profile with the name ‘Maryam Javadifar’ – which used pictures of DJ and model Mellisa Clarke – approached a human rights activist over Facebook. In a series of messages, Javadifar claimed that the individual’s password was found online, on
a site hidden behind an Iranian short URL service. The site (rinpid.com) promised visitors the ability to buy psychoactive drugs, sex products, and other items prohibited by the ‘Islamic regime.’ Although poorly implemented, with errors and failing to hide messages from the copied code, the sole function of that bait site is to collect visitor IP addresses and report them back to operators. The Javadifar profile is over two years old, and clearly fake. While Iranian threat actors are known for their sustained use of fictitious profiles, it is also notable that the Javadifar has demonstrated a clear interest in specifically targeting hundreds of political dissidents, primarily members of the Green Movement and Monarchists (supporters of the deposed royal family). […]
The same approach would arise again targeting Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRA), a well-known human rights organization with deep connections within the country. HRA has been repeatedly targeted by different Iranian threat groups, and was amongst those targeted in the early IRGC crackdowns. HRA was approached on one of its Telegram accounts by an unknown individual asking about reports that one of its administrators was arrested. The bait posed as an image (domain name: ‘tntnet.ir’) and was once again designed to collect IPs. Perhaps ironically, the IP collection site is based on code copied from a service intended to educate users on such leakages, IPLeak.net. After the approach failed, the attacker then modified the previous messages to clean up their tracks.” (Guarnieri/Collins, 11 November 2016)
The March 2017 USDOS report states that in Iran’s “National Information Network”, which is “intended to act like an ‘intranet’ system, with full content control and user identification”, was launched in August 2016, according to local media reports (USDOS, 3 March 2017, section 2a).
A March 2016 Article 19 report elaborates on the National Information Network (referred to here as the “National Internet Project”), its relevance for monitoring Internet users and its status of implementation at the time of reporting:
“For years, there has been discussion amongst the Iranian Authorities of a ‘national’ or ‘clean’ Internet, while taking steps towards the completion of the ‘National Internet Project’. This project aims to create a national, secure and ‘clean’ Internet, which would be hosted inside the country and have limited access to the content of the World Wide Web. Content within the National Internet would be blocked or filtered according to political, cultural or religious criteria, and its users’ activity would be monitored. It was planned that the National Internet Project would be fully implemented by the end of 2015, in three major phases […] Execution of this three-phase plan has already deviated considerably from expectations. From the onset, severe delays and disorganization have plagued the already daunting task. According to the latest government budget proposal, full implementation of the National Internet Project is not expected before 2019. However, there has been progress in certain areas of implementation, as an example, Iranian authorities celebrate the fact that 40 percent of the content visited by Iranian users is now hosted domestically. […] The Iranian government has repeatedly stated its intention to monitor citizens through the National Internet.” (Article 19, 29 March 2016, pp. 1-2)
Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) reports on the launch of the first phase of the National Information Network in August 2016:
“Two news agencies and several information websites have been blocked since 4 September, a week after the official unveiling of the ‘National Information Network,’ also known as ‘Halal Internet,’ while the Centre for Monitoring Organized Crime (a Revolutionary Guard offshoot) has reported the arrest of around 100 Internet users in recent weeks. […] The first phase of the National Information Network was formally celebrated on 27 August by several government officials including the first vice-president, the minister of
communication and information technology and the secretary-general of the Cyberspace Supreme Council. However, they restricted their statements to the usual slogans and did not explain how this National Information Network will work and what consequences it will have for Iran’s Internet users, who are officially estimated to number 30 million. […] Communication minister Mahmoud Vaezi said, ‘the National Information Network imposes no limits on Internet users’ but this was contradicted by deputy minister Nasrolah Jahangard, who said: ‘In the Network, all connections including mobile connections have identification; without identification, you will not be able to use the Network’s services.’ As well as such propaganda-style statements, the authorities cite the need for protection as justification for the network – protection against cyber-attacks, protection of the country’s sensitive data and the personal data of individual users, and finally protection of Iranian society’s ‘morality.’ In fact, this National Information Network can be likened to a big Intranet, in which content is controlled and all users are identified, an Intranet that can be completely disconnected from the World Wide Web when the authorities so decide. It is a personal Internet or ‘Halal Internet’ based on ‘intelligent filtering.’ […] For the past year, different sections of the Revolutionary Guards have been announcing
the dismantling and systematic arrest of networks of people who act ’against society’s moral security,’ ’modelling criminals’ (those who have photos and videos of models) and those who ’insult religious beliefs.’” (RSF, 6 September 2016)
A March 2017 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) mentions reports of intimidation and prosecution of “Internet users, bloggers and social media activists” (HRC, 6 March 2017, p. 13).
Article 19 reported in 2 July 2015:
“According to the findings of this study, ethnic and religious minority activists (the Baha’i’s and the Dervishes more than others), as well as members of known political groups, are kept under constant offline and online surveillance. This is intended both to control and suppress those activities of members of these groups that may lead to their recognition, and it is often carried out by special units of the intelligence services dedicated to monitoring minority activists. Methods used by the authorities include continuous blocking of websites, as well as ordering hosting providers to remove data and stop providing services to particular groups.” (Article 19, 2 July 2015, p. 24)
The query response of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) of January 2014 refers to several sources as saying that Iran’s authorities “monitor online activities […] including online activities outside of Iran” (IRB, 20 January 2014).
A fact-finding-mission report of the Danish Immigration Service (DIS), published in June 2014, refers to a non-governmental organization in Turkey as saying that Iranian Christian who come to Turkey “feel that they are at risk of surveillance by Iranian agents in Turkey” (DIS, 23 June 2014, p. 37). The DIS quotes an international organization in Turkey as saying that there are reports saying that Iranian authorities have agents and informants in some churches in Turkey, although the source expressed uncertainty as to whether the Iranian authorities’ have the capabilities to “monitor those who are visiting Turkey in order to get baptized, for example, in a systematic way”. The DIS report states with reference to information provided by Amnesty International (AI)’s International Secretariat:
“Regarding risks to individuals who return to Iran after having received religious training in Turkey, AIIS (Amnesty International Secretariat) said that it was possible that Iranian security officials were monitoring activities that take place in Turkey. It was considered that generally, it is probably easier to monitor what goes on in Turkey due to the geographical proximity and the ease with which Iranians can travel to Turkey.” (DIS, 23 June 2014, p. 39)
The DIS report goes on to say with reference to Elam Ministries, a UK-based Iranian Christian group that engages in missionary work in Iran and has a presence in Turkey:
“Elam Ministries stated that the organization knows of many cases of individuals who came for training in Turkey who upon return to Iran, were immediately arrested. Over 500 individuals that were connected to Elam have been arrested and interrogated for shorter or longer periods, within the past three years, and within the past year, the number has been about 200 individuals. The reason behind this high number is that the authorities have obtained quite a bit of information about how the house churches operate. It also seems that the Iranian authorities have agents in Turkey that know of what work Elam is doing there.” (DIS, 23 June 2014, p. 39)
The same report further notes with reference to representatives of the Union Church in Istanbul which aids asylum-seekers while their cases are processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR):
“When asked what obstacles a convert to Christianity faces in Iran, the representatives of the Union Church considered that if a convert returns to Iran, he or she lives in fear of being discovered. […] According to the source the Iranian secret police are reported to be active in Istanbul. Many Iranians who approach the church are cautious and will often use a different name from their own because they fear that news of their contact with other believers will pass on to Iran.” (DIS, 23 June 2014, p. 40)
 CPIN, “Iran: Christians and Christian converts,” March 2018, p. 2
 ACCORD, “Iran: Freedom of Religion, Treatment of Religious and Ethnic Minorities,” September 2015 (
 https://2009-2017.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/#wrapper(Retrieved: September 8th, 2019)
 Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “Iran,” April 2018, p. 44, https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2018USCIRFAR.pdf(Retrieved: September 8th, 2019)
 Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa, “Iran: Teachings, interpretations and knowledge of Christianity among non-ethnic Christians,” March 18th, 2014 (https://irb-cisr.gc.ca/en/country-information/rir/Pages/index.aspx?doc=455192&pls=1)
 Denmark. Danish Immigration Services, “Iran. House Churches and Converts,” (https://www.nyidanmark.dk/-/media/Files/US/Landerapporter/Report---House-churches-and-Converts---220218.pdf?la=en-GB&hash=3A687E2BB8A90B45E253B94BE1AC49684E0A0375, retrieved: January 16th, 2019); also see ACCORD, “Query Response: Iran: House Churches; Situation of Practising Christians; Treatment by Authorities of Christian Converts' Family Members,” June 14th, 2017 (https://www.refworld.org/docid/5943a44d4.html)
 ACCORD, supra. Also see Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, “Apostasy in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” July 30th, 2014 (https://iranhrdc.org/apostasy-in-the-islamic-republic-of-iran/- retrieved: January 12th, 2017)
 Austrian Red Cross. Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation, “Iran: Capacity and Methods of Authorities to Monitor Online Activities and Religious Activities of Iranians Living Abroad,” January 11th, 2018 (http://www.refworld.org/docid/5943a56e4.html, retrieved: September 8th, 2019)
 Ibid. Also, extensive information on Iranian authorities’ efforts for internet control and can be found in the following reports: Guarnieri, Claudio/ Anderson, Collin: Iran and the Soft War for Internet Dominance, August 2016 (https://iranthreats.github.io/us-16-Guarnieri-Anderson-Iran-And-The-Soft-War-ForInternet-Dominance-paper.pdf)
 S.C. 2001, c. 27
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