Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Neda Agha-Soltan: A Christian?

Neda Agha-Soltan
Click Photo to Enlarge
(Image from Gabrielle Cusumano)

Readers probably recognize this photo of Neda Soltan, the 26-year-old Iranian woman who was struck by a bullet in the heart on June 20, 2009 during the recent demonstrations in Iran. If you missed the earlier reports, see the Wikipedia entry on the "Death of Neda Agha-Soltan" for information and links.

Truth is hard to come by in a case such as this, for the Iranian government has clamped down on reports and has claimed that foreigners killed her. I certainly don't accept this official Iranian claim. Initially, I assumed that Ms. Soltan had simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and had gotten struck by a stray bullet, for she was apparently not directly involved in a protest at the moment, nor was she especially close to where clashes were occurring. Many reports that I've seen, however, insist that she was deliberately targeted by the Basij, a paramilitary volunteer militia formed to protect the Islamist Iranian state and monitor the Islamic practices of Iranian citizens. But I couldn't understand why someone as innocuous as Ms. Soltan would be targeted.

Now, the buzz on the internet has been growing that Ms. Soltan was a Christian, based on the evidence of what appears to be a Christian cross on the necklace that she is wearing in the photograph above. Click on the photo to enlarge the image, and decide for yourself, but it does appear to be a cross to my eyes -- as well as to the eyes of my wife.

From the fact that Ms. Soltan had studied at Islamic Azad University, majoring in philosophy and religion, I had assumed that she was Muslim, but supposing that she were a convert from Islam to Christianity, then a motive for her execution would become more plausible, for Muslim-background Christian have previously been targeted by Iran's Islamist government (e.g., Hossein Soodmand in 1989, Mehdi Dibaj in 1994, and Ghorban Tourani in 2005), and the popular disorder during the demonstrations may have provided the Basij a perfect opportunity to strike.

So . . . was Ms. Soltan a Christian . . . and was she targeted? I suspect that we'll be hearing more about this soon enough, though definitive answers might be difficult to obtain.

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At 7:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Curious to know whether Islamic universities dominate in the Islamic Republic of Iran, I checked out the list of Iranian universities on Wiki, and it appears that Islamic Azad University has by far the largest student enrollment with dozens of branch campuses, which made me think that it might have been founded by the new regime to promote Islamic education, and indeed it was founded in 1982.

Many Islamic universities admit non-Muslim students, who are excused from prayer and regular group chats although they are required to adhere to campus dress codes. I interviewed with the Islamic University of Malaysia, which attracts not only a diverse international student body of Muslims but also some non-Muslims, mostly ethnic Chinese from the region, seeking an affordable English-language university education.

Apart from the brutal persecution of the Bahais and occasional hanging of Jews on trumped up charges of spying for Israel, Iran is somewhat tolerant of its religious minorities. Non-Muslims gather in their houses of worship and are free to consume pork and alcohol at home.

If Neda was Christian, that would explain why she was so cozy with her boyfriend in personal photos made public. Muslims in Sharia countries do skirt local laws and norms, but given the recent enforcement of a return to more restrictive codes of dress and beahavior, it would surprise me that a Muslim woman would allow herself to be photographed uncovered, hugging male friends.

If she is Christian, I don't think that will weaken her appeal as a martyr among young Iranians, who see her first as Persian.

At 7:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

What I was wondering was not simply if she were Christian but if she were a convert. Iran is relatively tolerant of traditional Christians but rather intolerant of Muslim-background Christians.

By the way, do you think that she's wearing a cross?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It looks like a cross to me. I was surprised to learn that Muslim converts to Christianity even exist in the Islamic republic of Iran. Isn't apostasy a capital offense under Sharia? If she was wearing a cross, it wouldn't have been visible, and I've not read that she was a public figure prior to her death, so I don't see why she'd be singled out.

At 8:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sharia exists in Iran, but it isn't rigidly applied in all areas or the state would have a genuine revolt on its hands.

As for Muslim-background converts to Christianity in Iran, there are a lot of them . . . though a very small percentage of the total population. I don't think that anybody knows how many, really, but estimates place the number in the tens of thousands.

Why single out Ms. Soltan? I don't know, but the witnesses are reported to have said that she was singled out. What are the odds of a random shot directly piercing the heart of a member of the small Christian minority?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, you're just a Wiki-dropping tosser, Jeffrey.

At 11:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Who is this "Jeffrey" person that people keep addressing? He sounds like a jerk.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:05 PM, Blogger Charles Montgomery said...


what.. the sniper knew her personally?

Or the rifle had a sight that picked out crosses?

NOT The Jeffrey Hodges!


At 8:30 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Charles M., although "Jeffrey" wouldn't tell, I will.

No, I don't know that she was wearing the cross at the time of her assassination, for I can't see one in the video, and I also wouldn't expect that the the Basij member knew her personally, but he might have been ordered to target her if she were an apostate from Islam.

I'm just guessing, though. Perhaps she was Muslim and just standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What do you think? Is it a cross?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:11 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

To me, that looks not just like a cross, but possibly even a crucifix. A secret Catholic?

At 8:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

It's certainly not a plain cross, and might be bejeweled, but I can't see it clearly enough to judge.

If it is a crucifix, then she could be Assyrian Christian or Armenian Christian. If so, then she wouldn't be a Muslim-background Christian.

Now, if she's a Catholic, she might still be a convert . . . though most converts are to be found among the evangelicals, especially the Pentecostals, such as the Assemblies of God.

We'll be hearing more about this, I think.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saved the photo and used Photoshop to zoom in. It appears to be an embellished cross, not a crucifix. There appears to be in the center a circular object, not a human figure.

At 3:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, could you send me that zoomed-in image?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't save a zoom, so I enlarged the image enough to see the cross in detail without blurring the pixels. I just sent it to your Yahoo email.

At 7:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Sonagi. I should learn more technical computing stuff so that I might handle things on my own . . . but in some areas, I'm really quite untalented.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did a little googling and no mainstream media has reported on her appearing to be Christian. I think they are deliberately filtering out that information, perhaps to avoid inflaming Christians at home and Muslims at home and abroad. What do you think?

I don't think any cross would have been visible because she was wearing a headscarf, which would have covered her neck. She wasn't the only protester killed, but she has drawn the spotlight because she was beautiful and her death was caught on camera.

I don't think she was targeted for her faith, but I do think the Western media is deliberately avoiding any reference to her religion.

At 11:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm not sure if her religion's being ignored or if the mainstream media is ignorant of the issue. There's not yet any confirmation that she was definitely Christian. We'll see.

I also don't think that a cross would have shown up, but that doesn't mean that the Basij would have been ignorant of her religion. Still, this is merely speculation.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:03 PM, Anonymous Hajir said...

Dear Professor Hodges

First, regarding Islamic Azad University, it is a second version on public universities in Iran, to be more precise; we have two mainstreem types of universities, one is called simply 'Public Universities', and the other one which I also studied in is called 'Islamic Azad University'.
Islamic Azad University was founded after the revolution but since all over the country Shariah rule is enforced, Islamic does not emply anything significant for all the establishments in the country have to follow Islamic laws,. And it could be misunderstood that Islamic Azad university has the same functions as Madrasah in Arab countries but this is not true. In Islamic Azad Universities-which are hundreds in number- they teach simillar subjects as any other schools in the country, and even one could claim that in terms of Islamic regulation they are more flexible than 'Public Universities'.

Once students apply for Islamic Azad Universities they are requested to identify themselves with a specific religion, Bahayis are deprived from higher education but if they conceal their faith the government will not envestigate, but in many cases it has been reported that Bahayis rather to tell the truth and therefore would not able to enrole.

Eventhough it might seem interesting that a girl whos name is Persian was wearing a cross in a picture, to me it is not surprising at all. First of all many of people who I know that live very secular if they find something stylish they might wear it for a period, therefore they are not necessarily Christian.
Or since many Persians these daye are confused with their religious identity might identify themselves with any religion temporarily, but they cannot be considered real converts because mostly do not have deep understanding and they just follow the trend for a short period.

But steel there are many (unknown number) of Christian converts in Iran that she might also be one of them, Her religious belief is really uncertain to me, indeed it seems a cross to me in the photo.

Since her name is Persian I'm pretty sure she is not Armanin but she could be Assyrian Christian. Because all Armanians in Iran pick Armanian names for their children and since her last name is also Persian I would not doubt that she is Persian.

The government is desprately trying to accuse protesters for the murder but as the Doctor on the scene when she got shot has repeatedly reported on BBC, VOA, and other medias, that she wes shot from the front, and also protesters did not have weapons of any kind, even in the videos it has been seen numerous times that they are being beaten up by the riot police but they do not even have a knife or anything to defend!

I personally think her death was just like other deaths that unfortunately took place within the past few weeks and the only distinction is the video that has made the scene more significant than the others.

I believe she was shot down by Basij troops and the death was not plotted in advance. Because police were even unable to locate the protests, how could they possibly know somebody who has no high profile -like her- is somewhere among the protesters to plan to kill her?!

Regarding the other issue that Muslim girls in Iran would not take pictures with male friends, I think many Muslim girls in big cities in Iran are much more liberal than Armanians who are relatively conservative. I can easily tell because of her dress and her living whereabout that she would have no problem taking pictures with any one, so I cannot extract any facts related to her faith from her photos with male friends.


At 7:17 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Hajir. That puts things into perspective, and from a trustworthy source, too. Your point about the difficulty of targeting her for anything other than the opportunity of the moment makes some sense -- especially when combined with a comment on a different blog, in which an Iranian noted that the Basij were shooting a number of individuals in the vicinity of where Neda was shot, so the likelihood is that she was simply an unfortunate young woman who might or might not have been Christian.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:19 AM, Blogger C Lila said...

Thanks for posting. I recently saw the documentary "A Cry From Iran" about the experiences of the Christian minorities of Iran and found it interesting that the Iranian government made similar claims that someone had killed these pastors and priests "to make the Iranian government look bad." If you watch the documentary you will see where the evidence points. How easy it is to blame it elsewhere, the way Muslims quickly label their brethren "non-mainstream fanatics" when their actions, which are in the name and interest of the int'l Muslim community, gain widespread animosity.

At 6:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, CL, for your comment. I'll need to check out the film that you mention.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:26 AM, Blogger C Lila said...

Horace Jeffery Hodges wrote "Iran is relatively tolerant of traditional Christians but rather intolerant of Muslim-background Christians."

Unfortunately, this is another piece of Ahmadinejad-supported propaganda. He goes on and on on his blog and elsewhere about how tolerant Iran is of the non-Muslim minorities. (He should footnote that with "approved" minorities as all Bahais are not recognized and to this day openly persecuted.) Persecution to the other groups is cloaked far beneath the pronounced good intentions, in small ways like giving entrance exams to higher education that test in-depth knowledge of the Islamic religion, and in larger ways like killing Christians (Armenian and Christian born) that do not constantly bow to the bullying of their people and compromise their beliefs.

At 6:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CL, read my remark with the emphasis upon "relatively."

The intolerance toward Muslim-background Christian is worse because Islamic law mandates death for those Muslims who leave Islam, whereas traditional Christian communities are 'tolerated' so long as they submit and pay jizya.

I wouldn't enjoy that traditional sort of toleration at all.

Thanks again for the comment.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:34 AM, Blogger C Lila said...

sorry to keep going on and on here but I noticed some thought it ridiculous that individuals connected to the gov't would know that she was a Christian :

Charles Montgomery said "what.. the sniper knew her personally? Or the rifle had a sight that picked out crosses?"

This is actually not that far fetched. From talking to Iranian Christians that have gained refugee status in the US, upon their random interrogations Christians found that the interrogators had extensive files that went back many years, even with lists and pictures, many of whom had only attended a church gathering ONCE. The fact that they keep a very close eye on their citizenry is corroborated by many news outlets, for example journalists that get arrested and find extensive files on them that go back years. Again, thanks for the post

At 6:38 AM, Blogger C Lila said...

You are right. I seem to have overlooked "relatively" in your statement... sorry! I just hear so many people, even Iranians that have emigrated to the US, that believe the minorities there get equal treatment so must be oversensitive

At 6:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CL, thanks for the follow-ups. I am especially grateful for the information about the Iranian government's extensive files on Iranian Christians. That would make less implausible the suggestion that Neda Agha-Soltan was targeted.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:38 PM, Blogger wylde otse said...

What is at stake also is human dignity and human rights.
I uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In Neda Agha-Soltan's case, human rights were violated.

There is a Memorial to her on FEASTOFDRAGONS.blogspot.com (3posts down)...as well as some related material.

Her fiance need be released from prison; we should work towards this if we can.

At 5:04 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Wylde Otse, you are correct. Regardless of her religious persuasion, she had human rights that ought to have been respected . . . as has her still living fiancee. I was unaware that he had been arrested. I'll take a look at your site.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:21 AM, Blogger wylde otse said...

Furthur note on the aspect of (The United Nations [ha])Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

More and more countries are openly disregarding these provisions, and it is left to the people of the world to uphold them.

The muslim world has at its core the Quran...a memetic blue-print, which, read literally, [and at some point in every country affected; will be] is designed for world domination. Talk about tolerance is moot.

Tolerating intolerance will spell the trojan-horse overthrow of many nation states.

At 4:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks again for your comments. Shariah certainly does seem to pose a problem for human rights in the Muslim world.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am an Iranian girl , the same age as Neda and after reading all your comments just wanted to say that I think that she was a Christian , not sure if she was a convert or born a Christian.

i also believe that she has the highest place of honor in the Lords eyes and there is a high possibility that she was a target bc of her faith.

At 5:14 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, thank you very much for your heartfelt response. Could I ask why you trust that Neda was a Christian? Do you base your belief on the cross that she wore? Or do you have some other reason?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:29 AM, Blogger wylde otse said...

Neda Agha-Soltan's assasination troubles me deeply because it reveals the inhumaness of the human soul.

If she was targetted for religious reasons then the crime is no less brutal. However, it is probably a very small part of her country people's psyche. And, if it were widely known or believed, then it would give other conscienceless beings excuse to indiscriminately attack many innocent beautiful people, in a contrived retaliation.

Persia can be free of Arab dominated religion...perhaps a renewed updated Zoroastrianism.

It may be that once proud Persian men are worshipping a camel long after the original driver is gone.

In any event, it is for the Persians, both women and men, to liberate their country. After centuries of oppression of women, those bad habits may take time to overturn. Outside interference can make matters worst...and legitimate hard-earned gains of women can be wiped out.

At the same time...the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that there is no basis in international law to discriminated against women in any way shape or form, under any religious, cultural or political pretext.

If Islam maintains that women are inferior to men in custom or law, then that branch of Islam is in contravention of every civilized law, and declares itself in the eyes of all good decent human beings, to be a criminal organization - and should be denounced as such.

I believe every person has a right to establish a personal, private relationship with the Divine Spirit, by whatever address.

( I believe such a Spirit has touched my life, and that Spirit can assume any form or sex, as It will...and moved me to write a poem for the women and men of Persia - feastofdragons.blogspot.com -
Furthur, I believe it was made known to me that every girl and woman of Persia is a Persian Princess, and that one day they will choose among themselves a queen - she who loves them all the most)

At 7:37 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Wylde Otse, thanks for the visit and the thoughts.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not a cross. It's a FARVAHAR.

Even her name isn't Christian. Neda is a Persian name, which means "voice" or "call".

At 11:45 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, thanks. That's a very intriguing, plausible suggestion.

I wonder why that didn't occur to Hajir. He might agree with you, however, if he happens to read your comment.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:39 PM, Anonymous Free best Movies said...

Agha-Soltan was the middle child of a middle-class family of three children, She died en route to Tehran's Shariati hospital. Just watch For Neda the ducomentary film and want all of you to watch it too.

At 5:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I guess that I'll let this ad remain, but I'd advise the visitor who clicks on the links to take care. Few things in life are free, and even if these movies are free, I'd suggest that folks keep in mind that downloading films for free is generally illegal.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:46 AM, Blogger 2Di4 said...

Yes she was a Christian, here is another photo from a video tribute; https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7zFioWiHU1jeFpfRERybnpIa3MyLXZKTy02TV9sQjF0SnNN/view?usp=sharing

At 9:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Here's the link.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:14 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The image isn't very clear. Does the video tribute state that she was a Christian?

Jeffery Hodges

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