Islamic factions jockeying for position from out of the ashes of the Arab Spring are posing an increased threat to Middle East Christians, an international human rights group contends.

The British group Barnabas Aid says that Christians in Iran and Azerbaijan are coming under increased pressure from their governments.

Barnabas Aid wrote in its December prayer alert that there is cause for concern for Iran’s persecuted believers, because Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei recently urged more than 2.5 million Muslims on a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia to form “an international Islamic power bloc.”

The Ayatollah Khamenei told the listeners the Arab Spring was guided by Islam and said Muslims worldwide should rally to the Islamic cause.

The prayer alert also said the Iranian leader called on Muslims “to make the most of the opportunity” created by the Arab Spring, as well as the anti-capitalist “Occupy” movement across the world.

International Christian Concern Middle East specialist Aidan Clay said the ayatollah’s call for a power bloc may be an attempt to distract attention from Iran’s domestic problems.

“In the 1979 revolution, many Iranians had thought Islam was the answer,” Clay explained. “However, 32 years later, Iranians have grown disillusioned, as their government has plunged them into economic stagnation and has isolated them from the international community.

“This has led many Iranian youth to seek answers outside of Islam,” he continued. “Thousands are now finding the hope and joy they had been longing for in the Christian faith.”

Clay added, however, that the climbing number of Christians in Iran is problematic for Iran’s leadership.

“The increasing growth of Christianity in Iran is viewed as a threat to the Iranian regime, which uses Islam to control its people,” he said. “In order to maintain control, the regime continues to try to weed Christianity out of the country.”

Clay said this is the likely explanation for the continued persecution of prominent Iranian Christians such as Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani.

“In the past year, more than 130 Iranian Christians have been arrested and interrogated. A few of them remain in prison, including Behnam Irani, Mehdi Foroutan, Farshid Fathi, Noorollah Qabitizade and Youcef Nadarkhani,” Clay said.

Nadarkhani is the pastor who has been detained in jail for his reported conversion to Christianity. Human-rights groups say that his case is awaiting a final verdict.

Jockeying for power

Center for Security Policy senior fellow Clare Lopez said the Ayatollah Khamenei’s call for an Islamic power bloc fits together with the objectives of other Islamic groups and countries.

“Iran’s jihadist objectives are exactly the same as al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey. Indeed, the Iranian leadership was among the first,
most consistent and most vocal of supporters of the ‘Islamic Awakening,'” Lopez said.

“Notice that the Iranians don’t call it the ‘Arab Spring,’ because the Iranians want to be the ones seen as the leaders of the jihadi movement,” Lopez said.

Lopez said the Iranians’ desire to lead the movement may run into a barrier with Turkey.

“Turkish leadership, seized with neo-Caliphate illusions, has decided on claiming that role for themselves. Moreover, the Turks are openly opposed to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and the Alawites, which is an ally of Iran,” Lopez said.

“Plus, the Arab League has decided it wants Turkey to lead the next Caliphate, not a bunch of Shias who long for an Imamate and the imminent return of the 12th Imam Mahdi, together with Armageddon,” Lopez said.

Lopez said Iran is in a battle against the rest of the Muslim world.

“Iran is locked in a macro-level struggle versus the Sunni world that is lining up against it, out of pure fear, of course. Saudis are funding it for sure, the Turks think the next Caliphate is theirs for the asking. Assad may well be on his way out, but his death throes, and Iranian/Hizballah efforts to save him, could well ignite Lebanon,” Lopez said.

She said Iran has another problem with the series of explosions in its nuclear facilities.

“In addition to these external pressures, there is the matter of whomever it is blowing up Iranian Revolutionary Guard and nuclear weapons facilities, probably a combination of Mossad working with internal opposition,” Lopez said.

Lopez added the Iranian regime is not really a completely cohesive unit acting as one voice. She said there are internal “feuds.”

“There are the internecine feuds playing out within the Iranian regime itself: Supreme Leader versus the president, Ahmadinjad, plus various Iranian Revolutionary Guard factions and former regime factions, like those still following Moussavi, Karroubi, Rafsanjani,” Lopez said. “Followers of the former presidents are still not accepting defeat and are working away at retribution and a comeback. Rising power of Jafari and Suleimani bears watching.”

Lopez said all of these factors add up to rough times ahead for the Iranian leaders, adding that U. S. intelligence hasn’t found a way to exploit the problems in Tehran.

Those pesky Christians

Along with the political issues, ICC’s Clay said the Islamic regime in Tehran has to contend with another internal issue – a growing house-church movement.

Clay said the Iranian leadership is dedicating resources to go after the often underground Christians.

“Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi says the house-church movement in Iran is a threat to the country’s youth. If Iran’s regime loses the control of its youth, which is already happening, than it also loses control of Iran’s future,” Clay said.

“The regime has attempted to use propaganda to discredit the powerful house-church movement in Iran and to persuade youth to avoid it. However, the opposite effect is happening. Rather than fighting persecution, Iranian church leaders have accepted it and are using it to their advantage,” he said.

Clay added that in Iran, as in other countries, persecution isn’t harming the house churches.

“In fact, an Iranian pastor recently told me that the church is thriving under persecution,” he said. “And it is the youth who are among those the God is using to spread this incredible movement that is leading thousands of people to Christ in Iran.”

Rubin said Iran’s pragmatism had led it to deal with Sunni Muslim countries, including Sunni Azerbaijan, which recently instituted restrictions on religious liberty.

Clay said the restrictions increase prison terms.

“The government of Azerbaijan is adopting laws that will authorize five-year prison sentences or fines as high as nearly nine years’ official minimum wage on groups who produce or distribute religious literature without authorization,” he said.

“The amendments, which were proposed in late October, have already been approved by two parliamentary committees and may be adopted by the end of the year,” Clay said.

He also said, however, that Azerbaijan taking aim at religious minorities is nothing new.

“The amendments are merely adding to or increasing the punishments in laws that already exist which require those who sell or distribute religious literature to have a state license,” Clay said.

“ICC has received several reports that very few applications for licenses are approved, and booksellers are too afraid to complain, fearful of government reprisals. The system has also prevented thousands of Bibles and other Christian literature from entering the country. One Baptist pastor in Baku said that he must ask permission before he can receive even one book through the post,” Clay said.

Active persecution against religious minorities is on the rise.

“Meanwhile, persecution against religious minorities in Azerbaijan, including Christians, Muslims who follow the teachings of Said Nursi, and Jehovah Witnesses, has continued unabated in 2011. Services are routinely raided and members are detained or fined for worshipping without state authorization,” Clay said.

“During these church raids, religious literature is often confiscated and reviewed by the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations to decide whether or not the material is legal.”

U.S. intelligence failure

Rubin said U. S. diplomats have inaccurately assessed the situation in Tehran.

“While American diplomats are interpreting Iranian pragmatism as a sign that they can reach a peaceful settlement with Iran, in reality, Iranian pragmatism means that Tehran is finding new and creative ways to undermine the United States,” Rubin said.

Lopez agreed with Rubin, but said U. S. difficulties are more severe than a simple matter of misperception.

“It’s too bad U.S. intelligence has demonstrated how totally outclassed it is in these ‘games’ by actually going on record publicly to admit that all those ‘CIA agents’ Hizballah and Iran claimed they’d caught, and, oh yes, they really were ours! Why on earth they’d ever admit such a thing, unless they know for a fact they’re all dead already, escapes me at the moment,” Lopez said.

He said this also spells trouble for Israel:

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