Church in Shiraz, Iran
Iranian authorities arrested Christian converts from Islam last week while they were meeting for worship at a home in the southern city of Shiraz, according to Compass Direct News sources. In past years authorities have arrested Christians around Christmas time, and the Compass source said that the international community and media monitoring religious rights in Iran were expecting another crack-down last December. Instead, the government was more cautious and arrested small groups over a wider period of time.
The February 8 arrests involved somewhere between six and 10 Christian converts from Islam who belong to one of Iran’s many underground house churches. Authorities often detain, question, and apply pressure on converts from Islam, viewing them as elements of Western propaganda against the Iranian regime. Consequently, the converts are forced to worship in secret.
Of those arrested, the identity of only one is known: Mojtaba Hosseini. Authorities arrested Hosseini in 2008, along with eight other Christian converts. “I guess they have been watching Hosseini since then,” an Iranian Christian who requested anonymity told Compass. The families of the victims have requested information about their whereabouts, but authorities have refused to provide it, according to Mohabat News. Shiraz is not a particularly “religious” part of predominantly Shiite Islamic Iran, the Christian explained, but persecution against Christians in Iran stems from the national government more than from local religious sentiment.
In December authorities arrested a group of Christian converts in the city of Ahwaz, about 874 kilometers (542 miles) southwest of Tehran in Khuzestan Province. Of those arrested, three remain in prison: Pastor Farhad Sabokroh, Naser Zamen-Defzuli and Davoud Alijani. Authorities had also arrested Sabokroh’s wife at the Christmas service and released her on January 1 after she submitted the deed of a house as bail, according to Mohabat News. Christians are forced to put their homes up as bail in Iran, a practice that sources say is an extortion tactic to deplete their finances and to better control them. Authorities still have not formally charged Sabokroh, Zamen-Defzuli and Alijani.
Though Iranian authorities continue to arrest and subject Christians to harsh treatment, many of these cases remain unknown to the outside world. At the end of January, Mohabat News released information on the case of Leila Mohammadi, whom authorities had arrested in July of last year. She spent 74 days in solitary confinement at Tehran’s Evin prison. On January 18, a judge sentenced her to two years of prison for “collaborating with foreign-dependent groups, broad anti-Islamic propaganda, deceiving citizens by forming house churches, insulting sacred figures and acting against national security,” according to Mohabat News. Her attorney has sent her case to Tehran Province’s high court.
Iran applies sharia (Islamic law), which dictates that converts from Islam to other religions are “apostates” and thus punishable by death. Although judges rarely sentence Christians to death for leaving Islam, one Christian, Yousef Nadarkhani, who has been in prison since October 2009, is appealing his death sentence in the northeastern city of Rasht.
Asked if there was a change in persecution trends from previous years, the Compass source said, “Nothing has changed, the issue is the same,” explaining that the attitude of the government toward Christians remains hostile.
Authorities have prohibited musical worship and Bible distribution at the Central Church of Tehran, the largest and most visible Assemblies of God church in the country. Last December officials enforced a policy under which only invited guests could attend a Christmas service at the church, and in December 2009 the church succumbed to intense pressure by authorities to discontinue its Friday services, which had attracted the most converts to Christianity.
Father, we see the spiritual battle that is raging now in Iran. Thank You for the assurance that the battle has been won; the victory belongs to Christ. But we stand in prayer beside our brothers and sisters in Iran as they suffer persecution for Your sake as the archenemy, Satan, continues to attack Christ’s church. Strengthen them to remain faithful in the face of persecution. We pray that this present persecution will spark a revival of faith in Iran that all will see and all will know that Christ alone has done it. In the name of Jesus who is able to save, Amen.