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: Christians summoned to the office of Ministry of Information


According to subpoenas issued by the intelligence office of the Kurdistan ministry of information, several new Christian believers have been summoned to attend a hearing at the headquarters of the ministry in order to answer questions that the ministry is interested to know about, reports FCNN.

Farsi Christian News Network (fcnn.com) reports that on August 23rd and 24th, intelligence officers contacted several new Christian believers and their families and requested that they attend a hearing at the Ministry of Information. It is important to mention that these individuals had previously been identified by the intelligence officers.

According to this report, these individuals, upon reporting to the offices of the Ministry of Information, were detained and interrogated all day long and subsequently released from custody.

The names of some of these individuals are as follows: Mr. Sadegh, Mr. Farzam, Mr. Nik-khah, Mr. Sarmad, and Mr. Ayyoob. The women were: Ms. Tahereh, Ms. Nahid, and Ms. Roshanak – all from the city of Sanandaj. There were others who were detained from other cities that have requested anonymity. Also 2 new believers from the city of Saghez, one from the town Gharaveh, and one other from the town of Kamyaran that were taken to their local Ministry of Information offices for questioning.

FCNN reports that the intelligence officers were using these interrogations to identify the command chain and responsibilities of each and every one of these believers within the home-church movement in Iran and also to learn more about the tactics used by the believers in evangelism along with more information about a specific home belonging to a Christian man named Mr. Ghanei.

It needs to be reminded that Mr. Ghanei was summoned to the ministry, detained and questioned for his faith and beliefs in Christ for one week in July 2009, while his family and relatives were completely unaware of his whereabouts. Finally, through the follow up and insistence of a lawyer and posting of a bail bond, he was released. Shortly after this incident, Mr. Ghanei was re-arrested on the charge that his bail bond was not invalid and this time he was forced to post a 60 million Tooman bond (Approximately $60,000 USD). Subsequent to this and as of now, there is no information regarding his whereabouts.

According to these new believers who were detained and questioned, the intelligence officers are attempting to identify and locate the whereabouts of Mr. Ghanei in order to summon him to the office of the Ministry of Information. It’s not clear why these officers are so eager to re-question Mr. Ghanei and what seems to be the urgency in this matter.

In connection with this, the intelligence officers and plain clothes interrogators have visited Mr. Ghanei’s house as well as the residence of his father in-law in Sanandaj and have searched the house and questioned the residents. Also and apparently the intelligence officers have targeted several new believers and the church members of the church in Kermanshah who may know of the whereabouts of Mr. Ghanei and placed them under surveillance and undue pressures.

Lastly, it must be remembered that in October 2006, Mr. Ghanei was arrested for the first time and after lengthy interrogation and being charged for converting from Islam to Christianity was released. This cycle of arrest, interrogation, and released from detention was repeated many times over the last few years.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

IRAN: MARTYR’S SON DETAINED IN WAVE OF ARRESTS


Four other Christians arrested as apparent crackdown continues.

LOS ANGELES, September 10 (Compass Direct News) – Five arrests in three cities across Iran in August suggest a continued crackdown on Iranian Christians by authorities, sources told Compass.

The most recent of the arrests took place on Aug. 21, when Ramtin Soodmand, son of martyred Assemblies of God pastor Hossein Soodmand, turned himself in after repeated calls from the Ministry of Information in Tehran. His father was executed by the state in 1990 for leaving Islam.

Sources told Compass that for weeks Soodmand had received repeated calls from authorities telling him to travel from Mashhad, where he lives, to Tehran. Yielding to pressure, Soodmand surrendered himself to the media center of the Ministry of Information at 9 a.m. on Aug. 21 but was not heard of until 3 p.m. of the next day. He has remained in detention since then.

Shortly after his detention, Soodmand’s wife, Mitra, tried to visit her husband and was told to come back later. “Your husband is going to be in jail for a very long time,” sources reported that authorities told her.

Soodmand has been able to make only one phone call – to his mother, who is blind, on Aug. 23. He told her that he was fine, but authorities did not allow him to call his wife, sources said.

Last week Soodmand’s wife and two young children were finally allowed to visit him in Tehran. When they arrived, however, they found that they could only speak with him through a phone receiver and never saw him.

In the two-minute conversation, Soodmand told his wife several times, “I am fine, don’t worry,” sources reported. No other family members or friends have been allowed to see or speak to Soodmand. Neither his condition nor where he is being held were clear.

Sources said that authorities have also not informed his family of the charges against him.

His father, the last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government, was accused of working as “an American spy.” Since then six more Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.

The week before Ramtin Soodmand turned himself in, another Christian in Mashhad, Iman Rashidi, was arrested. Rashidi’s whereabouts and condition are unknown. Rooz, a Farsi news website, reported him as under 18 years old.

 

Kurdish Christian Awaits Trial

A Christian member of Iran’s Kurdish community, Shahin Zanboori, was arrested on Aug. 9 in the southwestern city of Arak, located in the Central Province of Iran, bordering Iraq.

Secret police detained Zanboori while he was evangelizing, sources told Compass. He was tortured during interrogation and suffered a broken arm and leg.

While in jail he told sources that he “felt God’s presence in spite of the horrific treatment he received.” He described being handcuffed and suspended from the ceiling while police severely beat the soles of his feet to get him to confess to crimes and give the names of all the believers he knew, according to sources.

Authorities also confiscated Zanboori’s computer and cell phone.

Zanboori was released on Aug. 31 to his father, who lives in Kermanshah. His trial date had been set for Monday (Sept. 8), but sources have yet to learn the outcome of the hearing. He is expected to be charged with spying for foreign powers – a less serious offense than “apostasy” (leaving Islam).

In the city of Kerman in south central Iran, a couple identified as Darioush and Shirin were reportedly arrested on Aug. 8. At press time nothing more was known about their case.

Under the past three decades of Iran’s Islamist regime, hundreds of citizens who have left Islam and become Christians have been arrested for weeks or months, held in unknown locations and subjected to mental and physical torture.

 

Possible Reasons for Crackdown

One source who works closely with Iranian refugees believes that politics are one reason for Iran’s crackdown on Christians.

“Christians are viewed as potential spies allied with Israel or America,” he said, adding that the overwhelming number of Iranian Christians he counsels have been visited and intimidated by police, leading them to flee from Iran.

He also believes that the apparent explosion in the number of house churches frightens Iran’s government.

“They see it as something they cannot control, so they are afraid of house churches,” he said.

Another expert on Iran believes Christians outside of Iran who exaggerate the number of conversions and house churches are partly responsible for the growth of persecution. When Christians claim there are thousands of house churches throughout the country, he said, Iranian authorities feel threatened .

“They [the police] are obligated to crack down on Christian activities when these activities become too public,” one Iranian Christian said.  

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