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 

European Court Rules Against Turkey’s Religion ID


Designation on identification cards used to discriminate on basis of religion.

ISTANBUL, February 5 (CDN) — A European court on Tuesday (Feb. 2) ordered Turkey to remove the religious affiliation section from citizens’ identification cards, calling the practice a violation of human rights.

Religious minorities and in particular Christian converts in Turkey have faced discrimination because of the mandatory religion declaration on their identification cards, which was enforced until 2006. Since then, citizens are allowed to leave the “Religion” section of their IDs blank.

The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) “is a good thing,” said Zekai Tanyar, president of the Turkish Protestant Alliance, citing prejudices against Christian converts.

“[Religion on the ID] can cost people their jobs,” he said. “It has been known to affect whether they get a job or not, how people look at them, whether they are accepted for a post or an application of some sort. Therefore I think [the ruling] is a good and appropriate thing.”

Tanyar said the same principles would apply in the case of Muslims living in a country that had prejudices against Muslims. For converts in Turkey having to state their religion on their ID cards, “in practice, and in people’s experience, it has been negative.” 

The ECHR ruling came after a Turkish Muslim national filed a petition challenging that his identification card stated his religion as “Alevi” and not Muslim. Alevis practice a form of Shia Islam that is different from that of the Sunni Muslim majority.

The court found in a 6-to-1 vote that any mention of religion on an identity card violated human rights. The country was found to be in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights – to which Turkey is a signatory – specifically Article 9, which deals with freedom of religion and belief; Article 6, which is related to due process; and Article 12, which prohibits discrimination.

The presence of the “religion” box on the Turkish national identification card obliges individuals to disclose, against their will, information concerning an aspect of their personal convictions, the court ruled.

Although the government argued that indication of religion on identity cards did not compel Turks to disclose their religious convictions, the ECHR found that the state was making assessments of the applicant’s faith, thus breaching its duty of neutrality and impartiality.

In a statement on the verdict this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the ruling was in line with the government’s intentions.

“I don’t see the ECHR decision as abnormal,” he said, according to Turkish daily Taraf. “It’s not very important if it is removed.” 

The ECHR is independent of the European Union, which Turkey seeks to join. The rulings of the ECHR are binding for members of the Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a member, and must be implemented.

A Step in the Right Direction

Human rights lawyers welcomed the decision of the ECHR, saying it is a small step in the direction of democracy and secularism in Turkey.

“It is related to the general freedom of religion in our country,” said human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “They assume everyone is Muslim and automatically write this on your ID card, so this is a good reminder that, first of all, everyone is not Muslim in this country, and second, that being a Muslim is not an indispensible part of being Turkish.”

The lawyer said the judgment would have positive implications for religious minorities in Turkey who are subject to intolerance from the majority Muslim population. 

In 2000 Turkey’s neighbor Greece, a majority Christian Orthodox country, lifted the religion section from national IDs in order to adhere to European human rights standards and conventions, causing tumult among nationals.

“In Turkey, Greece or whatever European country, racism or intolerance or xenophobia are not rare occurrences if [religion] is written on your card, and if you are a minority group it makes you open to racist, xenophobic or other intolerant behaviors,” said Cengiz. “There might be times that the [religious] declaration might be very dangerous.”

International Implications

It is not yet known what, if any, effect the ECHR decision could have on the rest of the Middle East.

Because of its history, economic power and strategic location, Turkey is seen as a leader in the region. Like Turkey, many Middle Eastern countries have a place for religious affiliation on their identification cards. Unlike Turkey, listing religious affiliation is mandatory in most of these countries and almost impossible to change, even under court order.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), religious identification is used as a tool to deny jobs and even basic rights or services to religious minorities in many Middle Eastern countries.

“It’s a serious problem from a human rights point of view,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa for HRW, an international human rights organization. “It’s especially problematic when that requirement becomes a basis for discrimination.”

Stork said the identification cards shouldn’t have a listing for religion at all. He said the European decision may eventually be used in legal arguments in Middle Eastern courts, but it will be a long time before change is realized.

“It’s not like the Egyptian government is going to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gee, let’s do that,’” Stork said.

Egypt in particular is notorious for using religion on IDs to systematically discriminate against Coptic Christians and converts to Christianity. While it takes a day to change one’s religion from Christianity to Islam on their ID, the reverse is virtually impossible. 

Report from Compass Direct News 

JESUS BOAT FOUND IN THE SEA OF GALILEE IN ISRAEL


In 1986, two brothers, Moshe and Yuval Lufan, found something beyond all expectations, reports Brian Nixon, special to ASSIST News Service.

According to Pastor Skip Heitzig, who has recently finished filming a documentary on the find, the brothers felt that they would discover something wonderful on that day.

And wonderful it was.

Tucked away in the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the brothers unearthed a 1st century boat, now named the “Jesus Boat.”

Heitzig explained to me in a recent interview that in 1986 there was a tremendous drought in Israel. This allowed the brothers access to deeper regions of the lake.

One of the brothers stumbled upon some wood, and after a little digging, determined that the wood was actually a boat. According to the brothers, a double rainbow revealed itself in the sky after the find.

The brothers retreated to the Kibbutz Ginasar to get help. The Antiquity Authorities were brought in. After a long, 12-day archeological excavation (the boat was kept in a preserving environment and sailed across the Galilee river), the “Jesus Boat” was put in a 7-year chemical bath (a wax paraffin, Heitzig explained) before it could be displayed in the open air.

Since the time of its unearthing, the boat has been officially dated to the 1st century. Almost 27 feet long, and over 7 feet wide, the boat was dated based upon the nails used and the construction of the hull.

Most scholars agree that the era during which the boat was built falls somewhere between 100 B.C and 100 A.D.

Archeologists state that the “Jesus Boat” is the first near-complete boat ever to be found in the Sea of Galilee, and is therefore a considerable discovery.

Though some have attempted to draw conclusions that Jesus (or His disciples) may have used the boat, the reality is that know one knows. Chances are the boat served its purpose for fishing and trade, and then when it got old; it was allowed to submerge in the lake.

Though scientists can’t determine if this exact boat was one Jesus would have sailed on, it can be said that it is representative of the boats the people of His day would have used.

Since the boat’s discovery, the Pope came to view the vessel- hoping it needed a home in the Vatican. The President came to see it, as did many other men of science and politics. For the past few years, the “Jesus Boat” has generated great interest across the world.

In as much as Heitzig finds the boat a fascinating and important archeological discovery, he also sees the boat as a picture of more than an ancient sailing craft. In the boat, Heitzig finds a parallel to the nation the boat was discovered in.

For Heitzig, the boat is a picture of Israel: a nation that was considered dead and submerged. But through His wonderful providence, God brought Israel forth in 1948. He reemerged it as a bud for a new generation, and established Israel as a nation.

In the soon to be released documentary, The Jesus Boat, Heitzig, as host, takes viewers on a journey through the discovery, preservation, and display of the boat (the boat can be seen in the Yigal Alon Museum in Kibbutz Ginasar), though Heitzig makes it a point to draw a strong parallel to the rebirth of the Nation of Israel.

According to Heitzig, “The Jesus Boat was way more than a documentary about an ancient boat. It’s really a testimony to the faithfulness of God. Through the film, we paralleled the story of a lost boat and a lost nation- Israel- both of which were “resurrected” after 2,000 years. It tells of a boat that wouldn’t stay buried in a land that couldn’t stay buried!”

“Just like the boat was buried under the shores for 2,000 years, the land of Israel was submerged – virtually not a nation – a dispersed people group. Yet against all odds, Israel re-emerged in 1948. As the prophet Ezekiel predicted, there was a re-gathering of Jews from the four corners of the world into that ancient piece of real estate. It would seem as impossible as dried bones, bleached and parched under the Middle Eastern sun, coming to life again.” (See Ezekiel 36-37).

“And yet it happened – 1948, the re-establishment of the nation. And why? Because God made promises to Abraham: ‘I’ll bless you, I’ll make you a great nation, your name will be great, I’ll bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.’”(See Genesis 12:1-3).

Report from the Christian Telegraph