THE TAKE AWAY
Persecution of the Saints
By Kersley Fitzgerald
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In July of 2012, Pastor Saeed Abedini left his wife and kids in their home in Idaho and traveled to his home country of Iran to visit his family and to continue supporting the construction of a state-run, secular orphanage in the city of Rasht on the Caspian Sea. While there, the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (a branch of the Iranian military that enforces Islamic order) pulled him off a bus and arrested him.
Shortly after his arrest, he was taken to the dangerous Evin Prison. In January 2013, he was tried and sentenced to eight years in prison, although the charges were never made public. His family believes he was convicted for his work in Iran's home-church movement in the early 2000s. Saeed has been a mouse to the Iranian government's cat, alternating between enduring beatings by guards and prisoners and lying shackled and ignored in a Tehran hospital; meanwhile the government ignores calls for his release from the international community.
The story behind the story is a long one. Iran is located between the Arabian Sea and the Caspian Sea. Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan lie to the east, while Turkey, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf flank the west. The Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian Empires encroached on its western border. Iranians are the Persians of the "Persians and the Medes" mentioned in the Bible (Esther 1:3; Daniel 5:28; 6:8; 8:20). In the 6th Century BC, Cyrus the Great founded the Achaemenid Empire, also known as the First Persian Empire. It was this Cyrus who allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and build the temple (Ezra 1:1-4). Darius I reinforced the order in Ezra 6. Next was Xerxes — the Ahasuerus of Esther. Shortly after came Artaxerxes who allowed Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the wall. Within 100 years, Persia fell to Alexander the Great. After his death came fifty years of political turmoil until the Seleucid administration took possession — the same Seleucids that the Maccabee brothers fought in 164 BC. As Seleucid control crumbled, the satraps gradually gained a measure of independence under the Parthians who ruled Persia and fought with Romans over the western provinces until AD 224. For about the next 400 years, the Sassanians worked to strengthen the area's infrastructure, wash the Greek influence out of society, and join with Zoroastrianism — the state religion. By AD 633, however, the king was young, the nation was weakened, and the Islamic Arabian army was at their border.
The Islamic army swept through Persia relatively easily, changing the political landscape quickly, but altering the religious landscape a little more slowly. Although the new rulers offered the people certain perks if they converted to Islam, they didn't force the issue, and Islam didn't become a dominant religion until the 800s. The Arab rulers also adopted several Persian customs and accepted their scientific advances. In the 16th century, Shi'a Islam took hold. Although Persia saw several centuries of incursion from neighboring nations and even more power shifts, Islam never lost its grip.
In the late 19th century the reigning Qajar shah (from Sahansah — "king of kings") attempted to strengthen Persian autonomy. His successor, however, was so corrupt both the people and the religious leaders demanded a constitution. Russia moved in, and World War I saw the end of the Qajar dynasty. Reza Khan, a military officer, took control of the government. He, too, wanted to modernize Iran, and sent hundreds of Iranians to Europe for training to do so. It was under his rule that the country shed the name "Persia," which only represented one ethnic group, and officially became Iran. Britain controlled Iran's oil, and the USSR was always an annoyance, so Reza looked to Germany for technical advice. Which got interesting when WWII hit. Reza declared Iran neutral, but Great Britain, the USSR, and America invaded to use its new railroad. After the war, Britain and America withdrew, but the USSR's reluctance to give up parts of Azerbaijan helped to start the Cold War.
With the power of Reza's dictatorship broken, the political system saw open elections and economic growth, but Reza's son, Mohammad Reza Shah, didn't make too many friends among the people or the religious leaders. He was an ally of the west against the Soviets and worked for literacy and women's suffrage, but also maintained authority over the army and used the secret police to control his enemies. His alliance with the US and disregard for democratic processes earned him the resentment of the people. In 1978, the exiled cleric Ayatollah Khomeini stepped in.
Mohammad Reza, the last shah of Iran, was overthrown in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini ("ayatollah" is the name given to high-ranking Shi'a clerics). Since then, Iran has been an Islamic Republic. There are several Islamic Republics across the world, and they mean different things in each country. In Iran, it means Shi'a Islam is the state religion. The country is governed by an elected president, parliament, and a religious counsel — the Assembly of Experts which is led by the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader also manages several secret units charged with maintaining the cultural (Islamic) character of Iran.
The "Supreme Leader" of Iran kind of combines the role of shah and head cleric into the political and religious leader of Iran. He oversees the military and has great influence over the civil and judicial sides of the government. The constitution written after the Islamic Revolution created and defined the Supreme Leader position, which is always held by an Islamic cleric. The Ayatollah Khomeini served as Supreme Leader from 1979 until his death in 1989; former president and founder of the Islamic Republican Party Seyed Ali Khamenei has held the position since. The term is eight years, and there is no limit as to how many terms a person may serve. As a cleric and a civil judge, the Supreme Leader is given judicial authority until the Twelfth Imam arrives with Isa (Jesus) to bring peace and justice to the world. Since the Supreme Leader is to prepare for the Twelfth Imam's international rule, he is not necessarily limited by the constitution of Iran. As such, his authority is vast — possibly unlimited within Iran, depending on the political climate.
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