Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

https://www.iranrights.org
Omid, a memorial in defense of human rights in Iran
One Person’s Story

Mohammad Baqer Yusefi

About

Age: 36
Nationality: Iran
Religion: Christianity
Civil Status: Married

Case

Date of Killing: September 27, 1996
Location of Killing: Savad Kuh, Mazandaran Province, Iran
Mode of Killing: Extrajudicial killing

About this Case

Information about the extrajudicial killing of Mohammad Baqer Yusefi, married father of two (9-year-old Rasmina and 7-year-old Stephen), was collected from an interview with his wife conducted by Article 18 published September 28, 2020 (A18), a November 11, 1996 article by Christianity Today (CT), an Amnesty International report dated April 10, 1997, Kalameh articles dated April 5, 2005 and January 2, 2020, a speech by Intelligence Minister Saïd Emami given in Autumn of 1996 and published to YouTube on November 17, 2020 (SE), an undated publication from Farsinet.com (FN), and an IranWire article published May 25, 2021 (IW). Background information about the persecution of Christians in Iran was collected from 1993, 1995, and 1996 annual reports by Human Rights Watch (HRW), reports from the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran dated January 28, 1993  and September 23, 1998 (UN), a 2003 report by the International Federation of Human Rights (IFHR), an article published in the International Journal for Religious Freedom in January 2009 (IJRF), a 2013 report by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI), a 2015 report by the Suuntaus project, an article published in Mission Studies in April 2015 (MS), a report by the Center for Human Rights in Iran published December 19, 2016 (CHR), and a 2020 survey conducted by the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (Gamaan).

Mohammad Baqer Yusefi was born in the early 1960’s (1340-1343) in Mazandaran province, Iran (ABC research). He was raised in a Muslim family (FN) and took an interest in spiritual matters from childhood. At age 24 he converted to Christianity and attended Garden of Sharon Bible School in Karaj before being appointed a pastor himself in 1990 by Haik Hovsepian [1]-Mehr (Kalameh 2005, CT) and began pastoring Assembly of God churches in the cities of Sari, Qaemshahr, and Gorgan (FN), all three of which had been operating underground since being forcibly closed by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance (CT). In 1984, despite their modest means, Reverend Yusefi and his wife, also a Christian convert, took in the sons of Reverend Mehdi Dibaj [2], aged 16 and 14, when the latter was imprisoned for evangelism (Kalameh 2005).

Based on available information, Reverend Yusefi demonstrated broad reach as a religious leader. He was an active supporter of Jama’at-e Rabbani, previously the largest congregation of Persian-speaking protestants in Tehran (Suuntaus, CHR). In Mazandaran he became a key support to the regional faith community, and his services began to draw in congregants from remote villages. He was given the nickname Ravanbakhsh, or “soul-giver” in Persian (FN).

Reverend Yusefi continued to provide religious and community services despite persistent warnings from the Intelligence Ministry to cease his activities (Kalameh 2005, IW). 

Background

While Christianity counts among the three Abrahamic religions officially recognized in Iran, the status carved out for Christians by the Constitution and civil and penal code is markedly inferior. In practice, religious tolerance applies only to ethnic groups who are historically Christian, i.e. Armenians and Assyrians, and not to believers or converts from Muslim backgrounds (UN 1992). The Iranian government has implemented policies that demarcate, monitor, and aggressively suppress Christian civic presence.

The Constitution bars Christians from becoming President, members of the Guardian Council, Army Commanders, School Principals, and from holding senior government positions (UN 1998, IFHR). They are prohibited from running in General Parliamentary elections, and the three seats allocated to Christians in Parliament are exclusively for Armenian, Assyrian, and Chaldean representatives (IFHR).

Civil and criminal statutes explicitly disadvantage Christian parties. They are entitled to less compensation in car-accident settlements and cannot inherit property from Muslims (UN 1998, IFHR). Several offenses punishable by lashings for Muslims are for Christians punishable by death.

The activities of Christian churches and peoples have long been subject to Ministry of Culture surveillance. A law purporting to flag sellers of non-halal foods requires Christian shop owners to display signs reading “designated for religious minorities;” in practice, this signage has been enforced on all Christian businesses as a deterrent to Muslim patrons (UN 1998). Christians have reported denials of academic admissions and business permits on religious grounds (Suuntaus). By the mid-90s all but two Protestant churches had closed under various government pressures, including demands to provide congregants’ names and personal information (Suuntaus, HRW 1995).

Since the revolution, hundreds of Christians have been detained arbitrarily. Many are sentenced to various prison terms and others are released with the specter of charges and investigations against them that are left open indefinitely. Multiple sources who have been arrested or detained reported being threatened by judicial or security officers with apostasy charges, execution, or assassination. With apostasy left unaddressed in penal code, judges defer to the Shar’ia, leaving Christian converts vulnerable to death sentences (ICHRI); it is also left to the personal discretion of judges whether the murder of a Christian by a Muslim even constitutes a crime (IFHR). The state has historically displayed a lack of due diligence in resolving the cases of Christians who die in suspect circumstances, which further exacerbates the precarity of Christians’ social and legal status.

While the Iranian government does not publicize official data on the size of Iran’s Christian population, available sources reflect the consensus that conversions from Islam have been steadily on the rise since the revolution, and that Iranians with Christian leanings could now number as high as 1 million, or 1.5 percent of the population (IJRF, Gamaan, MS). The regime thus continues to invest significantly in the surveillance of Christian activities (IJRF). Scores of Christians have fled Iran and taken refuge in other countries (ICHRI, IJRF, ABC Research). 

The 1990s marked a period of religious crackdowns that staggered, among others, Christian communities. Amid the overall increase in executions, corporal punishments, raids, and press restrictions, scores of Christian converts were imprisoned and tortured (HRW 1996, 1993). In an effort to curb growing public interest in Christianity, Iran placed caps on church attendance, shut down Iran’s main Persian-language bible publisher, prohibited sermons in Persian, confiscated all Christian books, closed all Christian bookstores, and dissolved the Iranian Bible society (Suuntaus, UN 1993). 

The authorities’ heightened reactivity also brought Christian leaders into the crosshairs of the “chain murders,” a string of assassinations during the 1990s of secular intellectual and political dissidents and religious minorities (IW) and other undesirable individuals. Of the seven suspicious deaths of Christian leaders since the revolution, five occurred between 1990 and 1996 (FN). 

Mr. Yusefi's murder

Reverend Yusefi died on September 28, 1996 in suspicious circumstances. He had been detained and threatened with arrest several times prior to his death (CT, WI, Article 18). More than two decades later, his spouse Akhtar Rahmanian provided complementary information in an interview with Article 18 published September 28, 2020.

According to Ms. Rahmanian, Reverend Yusefi was behaving in an agitated manner on the eve of September 28, 1996 and would not explain why, leading her to believe that he had been summoned once again for questioning. He told her that he had to go “meet with someone” the next day after his morning prayers. She requested that he buy bread and take the children to school beforehand, as per usual.

The next morning of September 28, 1996, Reverend Yusefi left to run the promised errands, Ms. Rahmnanian said. One hour later, he phoned his wife at home, saying “take care of yourself and the children” before abruptly hanging up.

Later that day at 4 p.m., Ms. Rahmnanian received a phone call from authorities telling her to come to the courthouse in Savadkuh because her husband had been in an “accident.” Confused as to how her husband could have been in an accident while his car was still parked outside, Ms. Rahmanian headed to the courthouse with a fellow member of the church.

According to Ms. Rahmanian, authorities told them upon their arrival that her husband had actually “committed suicide.” Not believing this to be the case, she demanded to be shown the body. They left and returned with a piece of a tissue box on which someone had scrawled, according to Ms. Rahmanian, “something to the effect of, ‘I am having domestic issues and I am unhappy and I am going to kill myself.’” They showed her this note briefly before taking it away.

Authorities proceeded to tell Ms. Rahmanian that her husband had been found hanged in Savadkuh, in the outskirts of Sari – a considerable detour both from their home and from the route he would have taken to buy bread – with thirty thousand tomans in his pocket. “That was equal to something like several months’ worth of our salary,” Ms. Rahmanian said. “A suicidal person doesn’t go around carrying that much money on them.”

After approximately two days of persistent requests to see his body, Ms. Rahmanian said, Reverend Yusefi’s family was directed to a hospital in Sari. There they were able to view him from afar, and observed that his abdomen and head had been bandaged, seemingly after an autopsy. Ms. Rahmanian said that authorities offered no explanation for the reason behind the autopsy or its findings, apart from vague references to a “strange something” they claimed to have found in Reverend Yusefi’s nose.

According to Ms. Rahmanian, Reverend Yusefi’s remains were not returned to his family. She said that an ambulance carrying his body arrived at their home on October 5, 1996, only to turn around and transport his body to a Christian Cemetery in Tehran, where it was interred next to the grave of Reverend Mehdi Dibaj (A18). 

Authorities' Reaction

State bodies ruled Reverend Yusefi’s death a suicide (multiple sources). Authorities have made no mention of any research into the case by an impartial investigative body that could act independently of the state (Amnesty, FN). While they have claimed to be investigating themselves, they never deviated from their original determination. According to Reverend Yusefi’s wife, authorities have instead attempted to coerce his family members into accepting the suicide narrative, falsely implicating the Christian church, or incriminating each other.

According to Ms. Rahmanian, Judge Mohamadzadeh of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) aggressively insisted that she and her mother-in-law sign a statement that they had “no complaints to raise with authorities” over Reverend Yusefi’s case, and that when Reverend Yusefi’s mother said that she did not understand the statement and refused to sign without her daughter-in-law’s consent, Judge Mohamadzadeh screamed at her, “you prefer to side with this infidel over us?”. Ms. Rahmanian said that her and Reverend Yusefi’s mother then signed with their name and fingerprint, respectively: “My mother-in-law was worried that if she didn’t [sign the statement], that I would be killed on apostasy charges too.”

Following this incident, according to Ms. Rahmanian, authorities attempted to pressure her into “confessing” that her marriage with Reverend Yusefi was strained, and that he had killed himself after angrily leaving their home following a domestic dispute on September 28, 1996. When she refused to provide such a statement, she said that authorities tried to pressure her into filing charges against the Protestant church, alleging that they had conned her into converting to Christianity. Alluding to the loss of income incurred by her husband’s death, they offered to find her a job in exchange for a false accusation.

Ms. Rahmanian said that during this time authorities were also approaching Reverend Yusefi’s side of the family in attempts to elicit allegations from them against her. She added that she was inexplicably barred from leaving the country for several years after her husband’s death (A18).

A short time after Reverend Yusefi’s death, amid heightened attention from international human rights organizations toward murders of Iranian religious minority leaders, Deputy Security Minister with the Ministry of Intelligence Saïd Emami addressed a group of students at Hamedan’s Bu-Ali Sina University. He accused vocal human rights organizations of seeking pretexts to slander the regime (SE). 

Family's reaction

Reverend Yusefi’s wife never believed the state’s claims that her husband died by suicide (IW). She pointed to the inconsistent narrative of her husband’s mysterious death – first an “accident,” then a “suicide” – the alleged autopsy, the unexplicably large sum of money found on his person, and the cagey approach of authorities involved. She named Christian leaders who are also suspected to have been assassinated by the Iranian regime – Mehdi Dibaj, Hossein Soodmand, Tatavous Michaelian, and Haik Hovsepian-Mehr – and indicated the similarities between her husband’s case and theirs (A18).

Supporters from the greater Christian community also express the belief that Reverend Yusefi was killed by the regime, pointing to the numerous threats he had received about his evangelism, his multiple detainments by authorities, the influential role he played in the greater Christian community, and the unexplained nature of his death (CT, IW).

Four years after Reverend Yusefi was murdered, his wife and children managed to leave Iran. (A18). 

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[1]Bishop Hovsepian-Mehr went missing on January 20, 1994; on January 30th, 1994, his son was asked to identify a photograph of his dead body. The circumstances of his death never came to light, and it is widely maintained that he was assassinated by the regime (ABC research).

[2]Reverend Dibaj was released from prison in January of 1994 and found dead in suspicious circumstances on July 5 of the same year. It is widely maintained that he was assassinated by the regime (ABC research).

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