In Iran, 'crackdown' on Christians worsens


WASHINGTON — Reports are emerging from Iran of heightened persecution of Christians.

Two Christian women are being detained by Iranian security forces as "anti-government activists," according to International Christian Concern, a human rights organization based in Washington. The imprisoned women reportedly are in ill health.

A Pentecostal church in Tehran has been ordered closed and three Iranian Christian men have been declared guilty of cooperating with "anti-government movements," according to Compass Direct News of Santa Ana, Calif., which provides reports on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith.

In an overview of persecution in Iran, International Christian Concern stated: "Iranian officials have dramatically increased their persecution of Christians following the conversion of a large number of Muslims to Christianity. Last year alone, 50 Christians were arrested for practicing their faith, some of whom were tortured. There have also been reports that Christians died due to the torture they were forced to endure."

As phrased by Compass Direct News, there were "more than 50 documented arrests of Christians in 2008 alone." Compass added that "the recent government crackdown includes Christian institutions that minister beyond Iran's tiny indigenous Christian community."

Compass also noted: "A new penal code under consideration by the Iranian Parliament includes a bill that would require the death penalty for apostasy."

International Christian Concern, in its April 2 report on the two detained women, recounted:

"... [O]n March 5, 2009, Iranian security forces detained two Christian women for practicing Christianity. Iranian officials allege that Marzieh Amairizadeh Esmaeilabad and Maryam Rustampoor are 'anti-government activists.'

"According to the Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN), Iranian security officials searched the apartment shared by the two women and confiscated their personal belongings before they handcuffed and took the Christians to Police and Security Station 137 in Gaysha, west of Tehran. After appearing before the Revolutionary Court on March 18, the women were sent to the notorious Evin prison. Iranian officials told the Christian women to post bail at a staggering amount of $400,000 in order to be released from the prison.

"Both women are allowed just a one minute telephone call every day to their immediate families. Both are unwell and in need of urgent medical attention. During their last call on March 28, Marzieh said that she was suffering from an infection and high fever. She said, 'I am dying,' reported FCNN."

The Pentecostal church in Tehran was ordered closed because "it offered a Farsi-language service attended by converts from Islam," Compass reported March 31, attributing the information to the Farsi Christian News Network.

The church, which consists of Assyrian believers, was ordered closed by the Islamic Revolutionary Court, which, as Compass described it, was established as part of the Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic revolution.

An Assyrian member of Parliament, Yonathan Betkolia, announced the order on March 19.

Compass recounted that Betkolia last October had lauded freedoms extended to Iranian minority groups, but "he has publicly protested" the church allowing Farsi-language services for "non-Assyrians" (namely Muslims). An unnamed regional analyst said Betkolia waged the protest, as Compass put it, because "the increase in government pressure on the Christian community has put him in a difficult position."

Compass quoted the analyst as saying, "As a representative of the Assyrian community, a priority for Betkolia is to ensure the preservation of the limited freedoms and relative peace his traditional Christian community enjoys. Disassociation from a church which has welcomed believers from a Muslim background should therefore be seen as a form of self-defense."

Compass reported that the pastor of the church "has indicated that cancelling Farsi-language services may allow it to continue, though it was unclear at press time whether the congregation's leadership was willing to make that compromise."

Meanwhile, the three Iranian Christians declared guilty March 10 of cooperating with "anti-Christian movements" have received eight-month suspended prison sentences with a five-year probation. But, Compass reported, the Islamic Revolutional Court judge said he would enforce the sentences of Seyed Allaedin Hussein, Homayoon Shokouhi and Seyed Amir Hussein Bob-Annari — and try them as "apostates," or those who abandon Islam — if they violate their probation – "including a ban on contacting one another," Compass noted.

Compass reported: "The 'anti-government movements' referred to by the judge are satellite television stations Love Television and Salvation TV. Unlike the Internet, which is heavily censored in Iran, the two 24-hour satellite TV stations can bypass government information barriers.

"Sources said links between the accused and these organizations, however, remain tenuous," Compass continued, quoting an unnamed source as saying, "The TV link came up almost six months after [the original arrests], so it is very new. We believe they just made it up, or it is something they want to make appear more important than is the reality."

Compass further reported: "The three men were arrested by security forces on May 11, 2008, at the Shiraz airport while en route to a Christian marriage seminar in Dubai. According to a report by Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN), at that time the families of the three men avoided formal charges by agreeing to terms of release, including payment of a bond amount. Details of the terms were undisclosed."

According to Compass, "The number of Assyrian Christians in the country is estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000, with estimates of Armenian Christians in Iran ranging from 110,000 to 300,000."


BP

Published, April 2009

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