Security forces this week arrested an Iranian pastor in Tehran and announced that his church was closed as a crackdown on Christians intensified ahead of June elections, sources said.
Robert Asserian was arrested Tuesday, May 21, during a prayer meeting at his Central Assemblies of God Church after authorities entered his house and confiscated his computer, books, and other belongings, according to advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN) reported today that agents of the Revolutionary Guard arrived the following day and announced that the church was closed for the foreseeable future, although that was not independently confirmed.
A church leader has notified the congregation that services on Sunday have been cancelled, according to FCNN.
Khataza Gondwe, Africa and Middle East director for CSW, told Morning Star News that the use of the Persian language (Farsi) in sermons at the church, which includes Iranians who have converted from Islam and Judaism, makes it a particular target for the government.
“The government’s main concern or fear is that Muslim Farsi speakers may attend and convert, hence the pressure to close Farsi services,” she said.
There has been a heavy crackdown on Christianity in Iran in the past year. Analysts believe that authorities have been particularly heavy-handed in light of the upcoming presidential election.
“With the June 2013 presidential election approaching, the Iranian government will likely increase its efforts to crush any form of dissent and scapegoat religious minorities, as it has done in the past,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom notes in its annual report, released last month.
Asserian was held at an unknown location on unspecified charges.
The arrest comes after the congregation discussed on Sunday (May 19) whether the church would close. Leaders have complained of constant harassment from the Iranian Intelligence Ministry due to the church’s sermons being held in Farsi instead of the languages of Iran’s ethnic Christian minorities. Authorities have reportedly threatened church leaders with imprisonment, kidnapping and death.
In June 2012, authorities shut down a Farsi-language Assemblies of God (AoG) church in Tehran’s Janat-Abad District after it began gaining converts from Islam. The denomination is recognized by the Iranian government and has functioned openly.
A member of the AoG leadership team in Tehran for over 25 years, Asserian has had other encounters with authorities. In 2003 he was among a group of 12 Iranian AoG pastors who were arrested during a leadership conference and detained. To secure their release, the leaders were forced to make commitments to refrain from evangelizing or allowing new believers into their churches. Since 2003, monitoring and repression of the churches has increased, and most Iranian Christians began meeting in private homes instead.
Asserian’s arrest comes days after church leaders met with Iranian security officials to discuss the release of pastor Farhad Sabokrouh, his wife Shahnaz Jazan and two other AoG members who began serving a one-year prison term earlier this month on charges of “missionary activities and anti-regime propaganda through spreading Christianity.” Their sentences, handed down in October 2012, had been suspended pending appeal. Sabokrouh is a pastor of a church in the southwestern city of Ahvaz.
Authorities told the AoG church leader that Sabokrouh and the three others would be released if Asserian’s church closed its doors, according to FCNN, though this has not been independently confirmed.
Asserian’s church was one of just a few left offering services in Farsi. The government has restricted its activities to prevent the church from ministering to Iranian Muslims, particularly by limiting Farsi services to Sundays; services on Friday, the day-off for most workers, had been canceled, according to CSW.
Authorities had told Asserian to conduct services in Armenian or close. It was clearly an intentional move to cripple the church, according to CSW.
Iran’s constitution gives authorities wide powers to arrest converts under the guise of protecting national security. Public religious expression, persuasion, or conversion among Muslims by non-Muslims is punishable by death in Iran, according to the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2012; execution is also the punishment for leaving Islam (apostasy).
“The government enforced prohibition on proselytizing by closely monitoring the activities of evangelical Christians, discouraging Muslims from entering church premises, closing churches, and arresting Christian converts,” states the State Department report, released last week. “Authorities pressed evangelical church leaders to sign pledges that they would not evangelize Muslims or allow Muslims to attend church services. Meetings for evangelical services are restricted to Sundays. Reports suggested authorities regarded the act of allowing Muslims to visit a Christian church as proselytizing.”
Iran’s constitution vaguely states that all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and official interpretation of sharia (Islamic law), according to the report.
At the same time, Iran is a signatory to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion or belief, and the right, either alone or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Many Iranian Christians are languishing in prison, with some in life-threatening conditions due to lack of medical treatment and beatings from prison staff and other inmates.
Vahid Hakkani is serving a prison sentence in Adel-Abad prison in Shiraz, 700 kilometers south of Tehran. He is in critical condition due to internal bleeding, but officials have refused to transfer him to a hospital.
According to Mohabat News Agency, prison doctors say he is in urgent need of surgery but has little chance of receiving treatment since such prisoners of conscience are denied minimum care.
Hakkani is one of four Iranian Christians arrested at a house church meeting in February 2012. After more than a year of incarceration, they are still awaiting a trial date.
Meanwhile, international outcry continues over the arrest and eight-year sentencing of U.S.-Iranian pastor Saeed Abedini. He was released from solitary confinement earlier this month after authorities put him there in late April for a “peaceful, silent protest” with other prisoners over lack of medical care and threats against visiting family members.
Abedini was arrested September for threatening “national security,” during a humanitarian trip to Iran. He was sentenced Jan. 27 to spend his term in Evin Prison, known for its harsh conditions. More than 575,000 people have signed a petition for his release. International bodies such as the European Union and the United Nations have called on Iran to release him.
“His release from solitary is a direct result of the multitudes praying,” said his wife Naghmeh in a statement from the American Center for Law and Justice, which represents his family. “I am relieved my husband is out of solitary, but still am deeply concerned about Saeed’s health. While this is a small victory, I am still demanding justice be done and that Saeed be released.” –Morning Star News