At least 80 Christian leaders attending the general conference of the Iranian Assemblies of God, being held near Tehran, were arrested and questioned following a police raid three days ago. Ten pastors taken into custody are still being held, and their families are not being allowed to communicate with them.
According to Compass Direct News Service, authorities surrounded the denomination’s headquarters in Karaj, 20 miles from the capital, on the conference’s first day and burst in suddenly, arresting all those present.
“The police came from everywhere,” one Iranian Christian told Compass Direct, “and there were a lot of them.”
According to the U.S. State Department’s 2003 International Religious Freedom Report, “Christian groups have reported instances of government harassment of churchgoers in Tehran, in particular against worshippers at the Assembly of God congregation in the capitol. Harassment has included conspicuous monitoring outside Christian premises by Revolutionary Guards to discourage Muslims or converts from entering church premises and demands for the presentation of the identity papers of worshippers inside.”
Indeed, according to a Compass Iranian source, “Every single person present was put under arrest, blindfolded and taken in for interrogation.” They were reportedly driven around for several hours with their eyes shielded in order to disorient them before they were questioned. According to reports, the questioning was conducted separately for each of the detainees, and the interrogators revealed extensive personal knowledge of the individuals and their families.
Tehran’s constitution declares the “official religion of Iran is Islam and the doctrine followed is that of Ja’fari Shi’ism.” The government severely restricts freedom of religion, particularly efforts by Christians to evangelize. Since conversion of a Muslim to another faith is considered apostasy under Shari’a law, non-Muslims who proselytize followers of Islam put their own lives at risk.
The State Department warns that Tehran “vigilantly enforces its prohibition on proselytizing activities by evangelical Christians by closing evangelical churches and arresting converts. Members of evangelical congregations have been required to carry membership cards, photocopies of which must be provided to the authorities. Worshippers are subject to identity checks by authorities posted outside congregation centers.”
Iran’s theocratic government has also pressured evangelical Christian groups to compile and submit membership lists for their congregations, but this demand has been resisted in the past.
The 70 or so Christians released after questioning this weekend were told not to attend church services this weekend, a moot point since their pastors were still being held incommunicado. “There will be no one to preach when the congregations gather for services,” Compass Direct’s source noted.
Six of the detained pastors are ordained and serve in six different cities in Iran. The other four are lay ministers and elders.
“This is the biggest crisis for evangelical believers in the country since three Protestant pastors were murdered 10 years ago,” another source told Compass. One of those killed, Rev.Haik Hovsepian Mehr, was general secretary of the Assemblies of God in Iran. An outspoken advocate of religious freedom, he was one of a small number of pastors who refused to sign the government’s declaration that his denomination would not allow Muslims to enter its churches.
Before his disappearance and murder, Rev. Hovsepian-Mehr had written, “If we die or go to jail for our faith, we want the whole Christian world to know what is happening. … We have nothing else to lose. We have tolerated all these years and kept silent. Nothing has changed. … Please don’t worry about me. I am ready for anything.”