August 5th, Newsflashes from the Persecuted Church
Iran: Christian Prisoners Face Harsh Conditions
According to Open Doors partner organization Middle East Concern (MEC), at least 60 Christians in Iran are currently imprisoned for their faith. Open Doors has started a postcard campaign for six of them. Together with Robert Duncan from MEC, below is a look at the situation of these prisoners, including Farshid Fathi, Alireza Seyyedian, Maryam Naghash Zargaran, Behnam Irani, Amin Khaki and Saeed Abedini. To join the writing campaign for these six Christians, go to https://www.opendoorsusa.org/take-action/write/iran-prisoners.
Why are Christians arrested in Iran? How can you see religion as something criminal?
“Generally the charge reflects the claim that converting to Christianity is a threat to national security. In the case of Maryam Naghash Zargaran, for example, the judge stated in his verdict that her house church activities were supporting the conspiracy of England and Israel to ‘divert Islamic society from the way of the truth.’ It’s important to note that any form of apostasy from Islam is abhorrent. For example, Baha’is and atheists also suffer intense persecution.”
We estimate that Iran today has between 200,000 and 750,000 Christians from both traditional and Muslim backgrounds. What makes the 60 that have been arrested stand out among them?
“The leaders of house churches are generally the ones who are charged and sentenced, although all attendees of the house church might be first arrested during a raid. Christians from a traditional background are at risk when they are involved with Christians from a Muslim background, for example, by using Farsi in their services and reaching out to the Muslim community. When there is a particular complaint against a Christian or church, the authorities seem to respond readily with arrests.”
How does the government gather the information about these people?
“Many methods are being used to gather information about Christians: Electronic surveillance, information from interrogations and informers and hacked Christian websites. Informers can be anywhere, even within the family of a Christian. When writing an email in Iran, one must always avoid certain key words that are related to ‘anti-state’ activities, because all such emails are automatically detected and forwarded to the intelligence.”
How do such arrests take place?
“Typically, a meeting in a house church will be raided by intelligence officials. Books, mobile phones, computers and other sources of data are seized and there is generally a lengthy interrogation – sometimes violent – either at the place of arrest or later in an official building. The interrogators seek to establish the identity of the church leaders and any one else who might be connected to the movement. The leaders are usually detained while the other church members might be released with a warning or made to sign a statement declaring that they will refrain from future church activities. We hear reports of people being blindfolded, taken to unknown destinations, unable to request legal aid or even have a lawyer visit. Frequently the family is not informed of where the arrested ones have been taken. Since the authorities make an issue of the house church movement being a threat to national security, an investigation of such a ‘threat’ involves confiscation of property that could contain relevant information.”
Once the Christians are arrested, it can take months before we hear anything about the final sentence. What happens in the meantime?
“After their preliminary imprisonment they might be released on bail, which can be exorbitant. Often property title deeds are submitted for bail. It is suspected by many that there is official ‘encouragement’ to leave the country and so the money or deeds deposited are forfeited to the state. Also, some people who have been sentenced may appeal and be at large until their appeal has been processed.”
Are the court cases against these Christians fair trials?
“No, court cases against Christians usually aren’t fair trials and Christians have difficulties getting legal defense. The charges are often related to national security issues and the cases for Christians and other “political” defendants are heard in Revolutionary Courts, which do not have a reputation for allowing fair trials. Some lawyers are being sentenced for defending Christians and working on other Human Rights cases. The lawyer for Alireza Seyyedian, Mohammad Dadkhah, is one of them. He is currently locked up in Evin Prison and detained along with some of his clients.”
It is said that converting to Christianity is punishable by death in Iran. Is this true?
“Yes, it is in a way. While it isn’t described in the penal code, provision is made for a judge to legitimately make use of the Islamic law in which Prophet Muhammad prescribes death as the punishment for apostasy. Praise God, this has not yet been applied in recent years in Iran.”
Why are Iranian prisons so notorious?
“They are dirty, overcrowded and unsafe: cases of violence and rape have been commonly reported, perpetrated by guards or other inmates. Evin, where Farshid Fathi, Alireza Seyyedian and Maryam Zargaran are imprisoned, gets its reputation from housing political prisoners, an element of society that the Iranian regime has always considered very dangerous, and therefore the security and treatment inside Evin are reported to be particularly harsh. The recent raid by revolutionary guards in which Farshid Fathi broke his foot emphasizes this point. Ghezal Hesar, where Behnam Irani is imprisoned, is the largest prison in Iran and is seriously overcrowded. This prison is also notorious, but for executions and drug dealers rather than political prisoners. Karoon Prison in Ahwaz, where Amin Khaki is held, used to be so overcrowded that 150 prisoners had to sleep in the courtyard unless they had money to “buy” a bed. Rajai Shahr prison, where Saeed Abidini is held, is notorious for locking up violent murderers and rapists. While in prison Saeed has been robbed and beaten by his fellow inmates and prison guards.”
Somalia: Crisis Deepening as Attacks Increase
The crisis in Somalia is deepening as attacks linked to the extremist group al-Shabaab in the capital of Mogadishu continued over the weekend, highlighting once more the country’s desperate need for prayer.
On Friday al-Shabaab killed a member of parliament, Aden Madeer, in Mogadishu by blocking his car and spraying it with bullets. He was the chairman of the parliamentary finance committee and is the fifth legislator to be killed in less than four months.
Al-Shabaab, which advocates the strict Saudi-inspired Wahhabi version of Islam and is battling the government to create an Islamic state, said they killed Madeer because he brought “Christian enemies” to Somalia, a reference mainly directed at African Union forces. Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, the spokesman for al-Shabaab’s military operations, said the rebels would kill lawmakers “one by one” if they continued to back President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s government.
Local media outlet Horseed reported that AMISOM (African Union) and Somali National Army troops on Sunday captured an assortment of heavy weapons and ammunition belonging to al-Shabaab in Mogadishu after receiving a tip. The Amison force commander, Lt. Gen. Silas Ntigurirwa, noted that some of the weaponry captured was already assembled and loaded for use and could have been used to cause extensive harm to the Somali people. They said the capture is a good sign that “very soon Somalia will get peace and security.”
On the same day, at least three women died and seven others were injured when a bomb placed at a busy market in the capital was detonated remotely. No one has claimed responsibility, but it is assumed that al-Shabaab orchestrated the attack. The victims were working as city cleaners.
The Open Doors regional director for Africa says: “These are worrying reports. Somalia needs stability, but it cannot be at the cost of sound legal process. We continue to pray that the young and fragile government of Somalia succeeds in bringing stability to this nation while upholding human rights.
“Moreover, we pray for the Body of Christ in Somalia on whom the continued instability is taking its toll. We are encouraged to hear testimonies of sustained faith and boldness in sharing the gospel despite the dangers, but realize that they desperately need our prayers.”
Somalia is ranked No. 2 on the Open Doors 2014 World Watch List of the 50 worst persecutors of Christians.