Tehran Christian says Iran needs positive response to protests

By Ecumenical News International
June 19, 2009

Iran's leadership needs to respond to the mass demonstrations against disputed presidential elections or face greater problems in the future, says a German Protestant pastor based in Tehran.

"Politicians must deal with the discontent or they will find themselves sitting on a pressure cooker," the Rev Karl Jacobi, pastor of the German-speaking Protestant congregation in the Iranian capital, said in an interview from Tehran with the Frankfurt-based German Protestant news agency epd.

As many as 32 people are reported to have been killed since the demonstrations broke out after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of 12 June 2009 presidential elections. Protesters charged that the election had been rigged in favour of Ahmadinejad, who was given about 63 per cent of the vote compared to 34 per cent for his closest rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi.

The deaths were a "bad sign", Jacobi said in his 17 June interview with epd, but he added that it was good that young people were ready to stand up for freedom and for their rights.

The pastor described the youth as representing "an enormous potential as far as the desire for renewal is concerned". Still, any assault on the foundations of the Islamic Republic of Iran might provoke a severe reaction from the country's leaders, he warned.

Mousavi on 18 June called for further street protests, urging his supporters to wear black to mourn those killed in clashes, while the BBC reported that Iran's Guardian Council had said it is investigating 646 complaints from the three defeated presidential candidates.

Jacobi, who came to Tehran from Germany in 2005, said he did not believe that the official election results were completely inaccurate, though there may have been some irregularities.

"A lead of nine million votes for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is still significant," said Jacobi, adding that he believed it was possible that Ahmadinejad might offer a number of concessions.

"The question is whether that this will be enough, because both sides are digging in," while the strategy of the regime appears to be to allow demonstrators some latitude in order to "let off steam," said Jacobi.

The German-speaking Protestant congregation in Tehran was established in 1957 and is made up mainly of economic experts, German-speaking women married to Iranians, and embassy personnel.

Overall, the 3000 western foreigners in Iran appeared very nervous, Jacobi reported. He said that at a time when things were unstable, the congregation was trying to remain as normal a place as possible, offering space for dialogue, and praying for peace and justice.

Jacobi said he was pessimistic about the situation of Christians in the country, whose numbers have fallen from about 200,000 in the 1980s to 85,000 today.

"This is not just to do with politics, but because of economic conditions," and "is a problem that affects the whole of the Middle East", Jacobi added.

He said that even if presidential challenger Mousavi wants to see a greater separation of State and religion, it is questionable whether this is actually possible in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Jacobi said, "Iran has no interest as a state to maintain the Christian community."

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]

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