Pastor Robert Asseriyan was arrested on May 21, just two days after his church refused to voluntarily terminate its Farsi services. He is being held captive in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. Mohabat News, a website for news about Christians in Iran, reported on May 28 that Asseriyan told his family by phone that he is in good health.
The congregational meeting to inform members of the church’s decision on how to proceed following their pastor’s arrest was scheduled for May 26, but a sign on the door of the church informed parishioners that, “This church is closed due to major repairs. Please do not return!”
Mansour Borji, an Iranian-born Kurdish Christian and advocacy officer for the human-rights group Article 18, says the situation is symptomatic of a growing trend in Iran that threatens the existence of all churches in which Farsi is spoken. “I am certain that the AOG [Assembly of God] church in Tehran will not be the last,” he said in an email to supporters. “If the Iranian government manages to close this church, the few remaining churches that have Farsi-speaking services will follow.”
In 2010 the number of Christians in Iran was recorded as 300,000 in the World Christian Database, although World Watch Monitor reports that the figure is probably significantly higher due to the “systematic persecution and prosecution” facing Christians in the country. Historically, the Iranian government has tolerated Christians of predominantly Armenian or Assyrian descent and allowed their churches to continue. Churches that choose to continue offering Farsi services, however, face opposition. The central AOG church in Tehran is the largest official church in Iran still offering Farsi services. In 2009, the church was ordered to terminate its Friday services; in 2012 government officials asked leaders to hand over the national identity numbers of all members.
It is unclear whether the church will decide to continue services, but Borji reported that the government is using the imprisonment of Asseriyan and several other pastors as a bargaining tool. “Authorities have explicitly made their intentions clear: ‘Farsi services have to stop! We cannot allow this to go on. It is best if you close them yourselves so you can keep the building and continue to serve the Armenian congregation. It is only then that we can consider release of your pastors,'” he said.
Four leaders from AOG’s church in the southern city of Ahwaz are also in prison, having had one-year sentences upheld by an appeal court earlier this month.
To Borji, the future for the church in Iran does not look promising. “It was clear to most of us that an end to all manifestations of Christian worship in Farsi was the outcome Iranian authorities were pursuing all along,” he said. “I know some of my fellow pastors will try to offer spiritual insights and comforting words about the nourishing effect of persecution. I, however, will do my part [to protect Christians’] right to worship freely.”
Iran is No. 8 on the World Watch List of 50 countries where oppression of Christians is most severe. The list, published annually by Open Doors International, says the Iranian authorities keep a close watch on Christian activities; those who reach out to Muslims, who face the death penalty for leaving Islam, come under especially intense surveillance.
Father, we know You take what is meant for ill and use it for good to strengthen Your people, and so we pray for Pastor Asseriyan and ask that You would protect him, use the testimony of his faith to those in prison, and bring about his freedom. We pray for the Armenian churches in Iran as they reach out to the Farsi-speaking community, that they would be able to worship freely. We also pray for the thousands of Muslim Background Believers in Iran, that their faith would be strong, their underground worship passionate, and their testimony compelling as they live among their Muslim family and neighbors. In the name of Jesus who protects and strengthens His church, Amen.