Iranian Authorities Release Assyrian Pastor on Bail


Accused of ‘converting Muslims,’ church leader faces trial – and threat of murder.

ISTANBUL, April 5 (CDN) — An Assyrian pastor the Iranian government accused of “converting Muslims” has been released from prison on bail and is awaiting trial.

The Rev. Wilson Issavi, 65, was released from Dastgard prison in Isfahan last week. Conflicting reports indicated Issavi was released sometime between Sunday (March 28) and Tuesday morning (March 30).

On Feb. 2, State Security Investigations (SSI) agents arrested Issavi shortly after he finished a house meeting at a friend’s home in Isfahan. Along with the accusation of “converting Muslims,” the pastor is charged with not co-operating with police, presumably for continuing to hold such house meetings after police sealed the Evangelical Church of Kermanshah and ordered him not to reopen it.

After his arrest, Issavi was held at an unmarked prison facility in Isfahan and apparently tortured, according to a Christian woman who fled Iran and knows Issavi and his family. The Christian woman, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said Issavi’s wife, Medline Nazanin, visited the pastor at the unmarked facility. Nazanin said it was obvious Issavi had been tortured, the Christian told Compass.

Issavi’s confinement cells were so filthy he contracted a life-threatening infection, Nazanin told the Christian woman.

“They took him to the hospital and then returned him back to the prison,” the woman said.

Friends of Issavi added that he is still dealing with the lingering effects of the infection.

During Issavi’s imprisonment, authorities threatened to execute him, sources close to the case said. The joy of Issavi’s family at his release was tinged with fear as they waited in agony for the possibility of him being killed by Islamic extremists, as is common in Iran when Christians are detained for religious reasons and then released.

“Sometimes they release you just to kill you,” the Christian source said.

Issavi has not been informed of his trial date.

Issavi’s friend said that low-key ethnic Christians, such as the Assyrians, are largely unbothered for long periods of time. Active Christians are treated differently.

“When you start evangelizing, then you are in real trouble,” she said.

Iranian authorities have set up a video camera outside Issavi’s church to monitor anyone going in or out of the building, according to the pastor’s friend.

Issavi was one of a few Christians in leadership positions arrested in Isfahan in February during what some Middle Eastern experts described as a crackdown on area church leadership.

Isfahan, a city of more than 1.5 million people located 208 miles (335 kilometers) south of Tehran, has been the site of other anti-Christian persecution. In an incident in July 2008, two Christians died as a result of injuries received from police who were breaking up a house meeting.

On Feb. 28, Isfahan resident Hamid Shafiee and his wife Reyhaneh Aghajary, both converts from Islam and house church leaders, were arrested at their home.

Police handcuffed, beat and pepper-sprayed Aghajary and then took her to prison. Her husband Shafiee, who was away from the house when police arrived, was arrested an hour later when he returned to the house. Approximately 20 police officers raided the home, seizing Bibles, CDs, photographs, computers, telephones, personal items and other literature.

The couple is still being held. Other details about their detainment are unknown.

Three Christians Released

Elsewhere, three Christians arrested on Dec. 24, 2009 have been released, according to Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN).

Maryam Jalili, Mitra Zahmati, and Farzan Matin were initially arrested along with 12 other Christians at a home in Varamin. Eventually they were transferred to Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, though the other 12 prisoners were conditionally released on Jan. 4. 

Jalili, Zahmati and Matin were freed on March 17, though terms of their release were unclear. Jalili is married and has two children.

Iran has a longstanding history of religious repression. Shia Islam is the official state religion and is ensconced as such in Iran’s constitution. Every year since 1999, the U.S. Secretary of State has designated Iran as a “Country of Particular Concern” for its persecution of Christians and other religious minorities.

According to the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report issued by the U.S. Department of State, persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in Iran continued to get significantly worse.

“Christians, particularly evangelicals, continued to be subject to harassment and close surveillance,” the report states. “The government vigilantly enforced its prohibition on proselytizing by closely monitoring the activities of evangelical Christians, discouraging Muslims from entering church premises, closing churches, and arresting Christian converts.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Iranian Pastor Tortured, Threatened for ‘Converting Muslims’


Arrest, imprisonment appear to be part of larger crackdown in Isfahan.

ISTANBUL, March 8 (CDN) — An Assyrian pastor the Iranian government accused of “converting Muslims” is being tortured in prison and threatened with execution, sources close to the case said.

State Security agents on Feb. 2 arrested the Rev. Wilson Issavi, 65, shortly after he finished a house meeting at a friend’s home in Isfahan. A city of more than 1.5 million people, Isfahan is located 208 miles (335 kilometers) south of Tehran.

According to Farsi Christian News Network, Issavi’s wife, Medline Nazanin, recently visited her husband in prison, where she saw that he had obvious signs of torture and was in poor condition. Iranian intelligence officials told Nazanin that her husband might be executed for his alleged activities.

Issavi is the pastor of The Evangelical Church of Kermanshah in Isfahan, a 50-year-old church body affiliated with The Assemblies of God that caters to the local Assyrian population.

During the raid, State Security police detained everyone in the house, later releasing all but Issavi and the owner of the home. Security officials also seized personal property from the home. Typically in Christian arrests in Iran, security officials confiscate all documents, media materials, computers, and personal documentation.

Issavi is being held in an unmarked prison, according to FCNN.

Last month’s arrest seems to be part of an anti-Christian sweep that is taking place across Isfahan. In addition to the politically motivated detentions and executions that have taken place after June’s contested election and subsequent nation-wide political protests, it appears authorities are rounding up Christian leaders.

More Arrests

On Feb. 28, Isfahan residents Hamid Shafiee and his wife Reyhaneh Aghajary, both converts from Islam and house church leaders, were arrested at their home.

Aghajary was at home with a group of other Christians when police came for her and her husband, who was not at home, according to Middle East Concern, a group that assists persecuted Christians. Police handcuffed Aghajary and, upon finding boxes of Bibles, began beating her.

The assault continued until eventually Aghajary was pepper-sprayed and removed from the scene. Her husband Shafiee was arrested an hour later when he returned to the house.

Their fate and whereabouts are still unknown.

Authorities assaulted another Christian visiting the house at the time of the raid when he protested the police action. Other Christians at the house were threatened, but no one else was arrested. Approximately 20 police officers raided the home, seizing Bibles, CDs, photographs, computers, telephones, personal items and other literature.

One regional analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Iranian government is set on crushing religious freedom within the country.

“The recent spate of church leader arrests provides clear evidence of the Iranian authorities’ desperate determination to strangle the growing church movement, along with all other forms of perceived political dissent,” he said.

February’s arrest was not the first time Shafiee has had run-ins with Iranian authorities. He has routinely been ordered to appear before police for questioning and then released. This arrest, however, was different. When family members contacted police on March 1, they were told that the couple’s case was under the jurisdiction of the Revolutionary Court and were turned away with no other information.

While the couple is imprisoned, family members are caring for their two teenage boys.

Frequent Harassment

Like Shafiee, Issavi has been harassed frequently by the Isfahan branch of the State Security police. He has been ordered to appear before the police many times, then arrested and interrogated. In addition, police have threatened members of his family and have broken into his house and taken items such as his computer.

On Jan. 2, 2010, police sealed the Kermanshah church and ordered Issavi not to reopen it. The church continued to have house meetings, and authorities charged Issavi with not cooperating with the government.

The Assyrians were one of the first ethnic groups in the Middle East to adopt Christianity. The existence of the Assyrian Christian community in Iran predates the existence of their Islamic counterparts by several hundred years. There are 10,000 to 20,000 Assyrian Christians living in Iran, according to unofficial estimates cited in the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report issued by the U.S. Department of State. The total Christian population is 300,000 nationwide, according to the United Nations. Most of those Christians are ethnic Armenians.

Isfahan has been the site of some of the worst religious persecution in Iran. On July 30, 2008, Abbas Amiri, a Christian man in his 60s, died in a hospital after being beaten by Isfahan security police. Authorities had arrested Amiri along with seven other men, six women and two minors during a July 17 raid on a house meeting. Four days after her husband died, Sakineh Rahnama succumbed to her injuries and a stress-related heart attack. Later, officials wouldn’t allow local Christians to hold a memorial service.

Iran, where Shia Islam is the official state religion, is known to be one of the worst countries for repression against Christians. The U.S. Secretary of State has designated Iran as a Country of Particular Concern every year since 1999 for its persecution of non-Shia Muslims, among others.

Last year, according to the International Religious Freedom Report, persecution of Christians and other religious minorities continued to get “significantly worse.” The state department placed the blame for this squarely at the feet of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s conservative media, who “intensified a campaign against non-Muslim religious minorities, and political and religious leaders” by issuing a continual stream of inflammatory statements.

“Christians, particularly evangelicals, continued to be subject to harassment and close surveillance,” the report states. “The government vigilantly enforced its prohibition on proselytizing by closely monitoring the activities of evangelical Christians, discouraging Muslims from entering church premises, closing churches, and arresting Christian converts.”

Evangelical Christians were required to carry church membership cards and provide photocopies to authorities, according to the report.

“Worshippers were subject to identity checks by authorities posted outside congregation centers,” it states. “The government restricted meetings for evangelical services to Sundays, and church officials were ordered to inform the Ministry of Information and Islamic Guidance before admitting new members.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Iran Detains Christians without Legal Counsel


Half of those arrested in recent months could face apostasy charges.

ISTANBUL, January 28 (CDN) — At least 14 Christians have been detained in Iranian prisons for weeks without legal counsel in the past few months as last year’s crackdown has continued, sources said.

Three Christians remained in detention at Evin prison after authorities arrested them along with 12 others who had gathered for Christmas celebrations on Dec. 24 in a home 20 kilometers (12 miles) southeast of Iran’s capital, Tehran, according to a source who requested anonymity.

While the others were released on Jan. 4, remaining at Evin prison were Maryam Jalili, Mitra Zahmati and Farzan Matin, according to the source. Jalili is married and has two children.

Matin sounded ill in a short phone conversation this week to his family, the source said.

“Maybe he caught a cold, maybe it’s something else, but for sure they are under heavy pressure,” the source said. “They are not allowed visits from family. It doesn’t seem good.”

Security forces went to the homes of all the detainees and confiscated their books, computers and other literature, according to Farsi Christian News Network. None of the Christians have had access to legal counsel or representation.

“Normally they eventually release them,” said an Iranian source of the Dec. 24 arrests. “They never keep one person forever … but we don’t know when. We are used to living with this kind of government. Therefore we try our best and seek what God will do, and pray that they don’t keep them so long.”

The source said authorities have promised the release of the three Christians arrested Dec. 24 but have yet to let them go.

“They called their families, and they were told they would be released after bail … but then they didn’t [release them],” he said of the three Christians held in Evin.

Within days after the Dec. 24 arrest, Jalili’s sister, Mobina Jalili, and another Christian were arrested in Isfahan. The source said these two have had no contact with their families. The location and conditions of their detainment are unknown. 

Apostasy Charges

In the southwestern city of Shiraz, seven Christians were being detained as of Jan. 11, another source said, and most of them may face charges of apostasy, or leaving Islam.

Family members who have spoken with the arrested Christians said authorities have told the detainees – with the exception of one who was not born a Muslim – that they are guilty of apostasy, the source said.

The names of those detained in Shiraz are Parviz Khaladj, Mehdi Furutan, Roxana Furouyi, Behrouz Sadegh-Khanjani, Abdol Reza Ali Haghnejad, Iman Farzad and one identified only as Mahyar. 

Another Christian in the northern city of Rasht, Davoot Nejatsabet, also has been arrested. And Yousef Nadarkhani, who was arrested last year on Oct. 13 in Rasht, remains in prison.

The source said the government was in crisis with so many of its citizens continuing to openly protest against it, and that this was an opportune moment to lash out against Christians.

“They see that the West is keeping quiet about Christians,” said the source. “But the Christians should mobilize about what is happening.”

Arrested Christians are regularly denied legal counsel. Often Christians are charged with other crimes, such as espionage or disrupting public order, because of their faith. The charged political climate in Iran has made it nearly impossible for Christians to find appropriate defense lawyers they can afford, a source said. Many of Iran’s human rights lawyers have either fled the country, the source said, are in prison or are otherwise unable to take up Christian cases.

Under sharia (Islamic law), apostasy is one of several “crimes” punishable by death, although Islamic court judges are not required to hand down such a sentence. No converts to Christianity have been convicted of apostasy since international pressure forced officials to drop the death sentence of Christian convert Mehdi Dibaj in 1994.

In the years following the convert’s release, however, Dibaj and four other Protestant pastors, including converts and those working with them, have been murdered. The murderers of the Christians have never been brought to justice, and government officials are suspected of playing a role in the killings.

Governmental and non-governmental agencies say that Christian converts are regularly placed under surveillance, arrested, imprisoned without due process and tortured. Muslim-born Iranians who have embraced Christianity are legally prohibited from practicing their newfound faith.

Report from Compass Direct News 

IRAN: CASE STILL OPEN AGAINST RELEASED CHRISTIANS


Charges still unknown; another convert faces possible ‘apostasy’ accusation.

LOS ANGELES, February 9 (Compass Direct News) – Arrested on Jan. 21 in Tehran, converts from Islam Jamal Galishorani and his wife Nadereh Jamali have been released on bail with an open case, though charges against them are still unknown, sources told Compass.

Authorities released Galishorani yesterday, and officials at Evin Prison freed his wife last week. Iranian Christians and international human rights agencies have feared that they could be charged with “apostasy,” or leaving Islam – potentially punishable by execution in the Shia Islamic republic.

A third Christian also arrested in Tehran on Jan. 21, Armenian Hamik Khachikian, was released after one week without charges.

The Galishoranis and Khachikian are members of Tehran’s Assemblies of God Church, an officially registered church, and were said to have held Bible studies in their home. The arrests of the Galishoranis and Khachikian, according to a source, are just part of the government’s increased harassment of Iran’s Christians.

“The pressure is continuous,” the source said. “In the past it came and went with waves.”

 

Possible Apostasy Charge

Sources told Compass that Mahmoude Azadeh, a 55-year-old Christian who has been incarcerated in Mashhad since last August, could face charges of apostasy.

He is expected to learn of exact charges, which also could include forming a Christian house group and propagating Christianity, at a Mashhad court hearing on Thursday (Feb. 12).

Azadeh has been in jail since security agents raided his house church in Nishapur; five others arrested with him were released shortly after. Azadeh has spent two months of his time in jail in solitary confinement, the sources said.

He was first arrested in June 2007 in Nishapur for two days, and after he and his family moved to Isfahan, authorities arrested him there in September of the same year, a source said.

In 2008, there were 73 documented arrests of Christians in Iran. A source working closely with churches in Iran expects there to be more arrests this year. A high-profile church leader was also taken into custody this year, the source said, and is still being held.

“With elections coming this year, there will be more arrests,” the source said. “The regime rules through fear, and they want Christians to be afraid.”

In addition to the approaching spring elections, the source said, exaggerated estimates of conversions by well-intentioned ministries outside of Iran may be contributing to reasons for the government’s increased scrutiny of the church.

“One minister in America claimed that in 2008 alone, 800,000 Iranians came to Christ,” the source said, adding that the government viewed such a high number of converts as a genuine threat to its rule and began to clamp down on churches.

The source noted that many Iranians wear Zoroastrian symbols and crucifixes merely as acts of rebellion against the government. “This doesn’t always mean that they are true believers,” he said.

The recent spate of arrests also included Baha’is.

As many Iranian Christians are either in prison or awaiting trial, the government continues to debate the adoption of a proposed penal code that would mandate the death penalty for apostates. The Iranian Parliament approved the new penal code last September, and the Guardian Council has yet to rule on it.

The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. In the past, death sentences for apostasy were issued only under judicial interpretations of sharia (Islamic law).

The proposed legislation in the Iranian Parliament would make the death penalty mandatory for male apostates, while women convicted of apostasy would receive life in prison at most.

Many Iranian Christians believe the arrests in January mark the beginning of a renewed crackdown.

Report from Compass Direct News  

IRAN: CHRISTIAN COUPLE DIES FROM POLICE ATTACK


Hosts of house church succumb to injuries following raid; daughter still in custody.

ISTANBUL, August 6 (Compass Direct News) – An Iranian Christian couple in their 60s died last week from injuries sustained when secret police raided a house church service hosted at their house and severely beat them, a source told Compass.

Less than a week after Abbas Amiri’s funeral, his wife died from similar injuries and stress from her husband’s death, according to Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN).

Police beat and arrested Amiri on July 17, along with seven other men, six women and two minors who were attending the service, the source said. Amiri died in a hospital on July 30 from injuries sustained from the beating.

Amiri’s wife, Sakineh Rahnama, died on Sunday (Aug. 3) from stress-related causes, according to FCNN.

Secret police raided the house church meeting hosted by Amiri and his wife in Malek Shahr, just outside the central Iranian city of Isfahan. They beat and arrested all those in attendance, including the two minors and the hosting couple.

Violence against Amiri reportedly intensified when the policemen discovered that he had taken a pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five pillars of Islam required of all devout Muslims, before he had become a Christian. He was also a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, a strong source of Iranian national pride, so his conversion further infuriated police, according to FCNN.

All those arrested at the house meeting are reportedly still in custody, including Amiri’s daughter and the two minors.

Three days before his death, Amiri was moved to the Sharieti Hospital of Isfahan. Family members who saw him said his chest was severely bruised and believe that was the cause of his death, a source told Compass.

Amiri was buried the day after his death in a cemetery in his birthplace of Masjid-Soleiman, located near the Iran-Iraq border, on Thursday (July 31). Many friends and supporters attended the funeral, though security officials reportedly attempted to prevent their attendance.

Following Rahnama’s death on Sunday, secret police in Masjid-Soleiman put the Amiri family’s house under surveillance. They ordered the family not to have a memorial or funeral service for Rahnama and said they had to leave the city immediately.

Amiri’s son then yelled at the security officers, who proceeded to beat him, according to FCNN. Rahnama was buried on Monday (Aug 4).

Arrests and violence against Iranian Christians have intensified in recent weeks. Twelve Christians traveling to Armenia via Tehran were arrested on July 12 at the Kerman airport in south-central Iran. Two Christian converts have been jailed for two months in Shiraz, one of whom is diabetic and in critical condition.

In February the Iranian parliament proposed a draft penal code that demands the death penalty for leaving Islam. Under current Iranian law, “apostasy” is considered a capital offense, but punishment is left to the discretion of the judge.

The draft penal code is scheduled to be reviewed in the next parliamentary session.

Report from Compass Direct News

IRAN: JAILED CHRISTIAN IN CRITICAL CONDITION


Authorities Launch New Wave of Arrests, Violence in Past 10 Days

ISTANBUL, July 30 (Compass Direct News) – A diabetic Iranian Christian jailed for two months is in critical condition due to lack of medical treatment, even as new reports of arrests against Christians surfaced this week.

The Iranian government has ratcheted up pressure in the last two weeks on underground churches in what seems to be a concerted effort to hound Christians and discourage their meetings throughout the country, sources told Compass.

At the same time, friends of imprisoned Christians Mahmood Matin, 52, and Arash Bandari, 44, a diabetic, are eagerly waiting for a phone call from authorities this week that would secure their release even if it means paying bail. Both prisoners have become frail from more than two months in prison, but the condition of Bandari is critical.

Converts to Christianity, Matin and Bandari were arrested on May 15 on suspicion of “apostasy,” or leaving Islam.

To complicate matters, a draft bill of an “apostasy law,” which would bind judges to sentence to death Muslim converts to Christianity, makes their immediate release crucial, say experts.

After two months of solitary confinement at a secret police detention center known by its address, Sepah Street 100, located in the center of Shiraz, Matin and Bandari were placed in a cell together around July 15, sources told Compass. The absence of any medical treatment, however, has taken its toll on Bandari.

Matin, who secured a few minutes of time with his wife on July 22 in order to get toiletries, said that Bandari’s health was declining rapidly with the lack of treatment and proper care.

“He is severely ill; he’s not doing well,” confirmed a source.

Matin has lost much weight and is said to look weak, though he was not allowed to talk about his condition and treatment in the prison, where he has been held with Bandari since their arrest.

On July 22 a lawyer agreed to take up Matin’s case and ask for his release. It is not clear yet if Bandari will receive legal counsel from the same lawyer. Matin’s lawyer expressed concern about the length of time the two prisoners have been held without charges and said that the clock is ticking against them.

“They have to get out as soon as possible, or else the case will be heavier, and it will be more difficult to get them out,” a friend of the family told Compass. Experts on Iran explained that it is crucial for the prisoners to be released before they appear in court. Lower level police often arrest Christians to extort money from them and release them with no charges. But if a case goes to court, charges are pressed against the Christians, who are then at the mercy of religious judges.

“Once the case is decided and the court has made a decision, it would be hard for them to get out,” said a source. The apostasy bill under discussion, if passed, would mean certain death if Bandari and Matin were charged with apostasy.

Christians in Iran are fasting and praying in hopes that the two men will be freed soon.

“We don’t know, in the first place, why they have been kept so long, we don’t know what the charges are,” said one friend of the family.

The friend called for the churches to pray that any false accusations be lifted, “and for protection, because we don’t know exactly what’s happening inside. We don’t know how they’re being treated.”

Most other imprisoned Christians in Iran have been released with bail. Bandari and Matin are two of three Christians known to be still held in prison.

The third, Mohsen Radfar, was arrested while traveling to Tehran on July 12. His whereabouts and condition are unknown. Radfar, from the province of Kerman in central Iran, is a well-known film director in the region and has worked as a theater and cinema critic.

 

News Wave of Arrests

The same day Radfar was arrested, police got word that 12 Christians would be traveling to Armenia via Tehran and arrested them at the Kerman airport in south-central Iran as they were trying to leave.

Although the 12 Christians were freed the same night, sources reported that their houses were searched and that police confiscated all Christian materials.

In the past 10 days, Iran’s Christians have reported a wave of arrests in four cities. Christians attending house churches in Bandar Abbas on the southern coast, in Isfahan 334 kilometers (207 miles) south of Tehran, and in Sanandaj and Kermanshah on the Iraqi border were arrested. Sources told Compass that Christians in these cities were held anywhere from one day to a week by the government.

“So that means maybe the government has started a mission again against Christian activity,” said a source. “They’ve started a new strategy probably. Because it is not just an accident that all this is happening in different cities at the same time; they had worked on it before, and they planned to move against house churches.”

On Saturday (July 26), secret police raided a service in Isfahan. Among 16 Christians arrested were six women and two children under the age of 18. They are being held in an undisclosed location, reported Farsi Christian News Network.

During the raid, police beat the elderly couple hosting the meeting so severely that they were taken to the Sharieti Hospital with injuries.

Report from Compass Direct News