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 


Judge puts them on probation, threatening them with ‘apostasy’ trial.

LOS ANGELES, March 31 (Compass Direct News) – Declaring three Iranian Christians guilty of cooperating with “anti-government movements,” a court in Shiraz on March 10 ordered the converts to discontinue Christian activities and stop propagating their faith.

An Islamic Revolutionary Court judge handed an eight-month suspended prison sentence with a five-year probation to Seyed Allaedin Hussein, Homayoon Shokouhi, and Seyed Amir Hussein Bob-Annari. The judge said he would enforce their prison sentence and try them as “apostates,” or those who leave Islam, if they violate terms of their probation – including a ban on contacting one another.

A new penal code under consideration by the Iranian Parliament includes a bill that would require the death penalty for apostasy.

“The warning that they will be ‘arrested and tried as apostates’ if they continue their Christian activities is quite chilling,” said a regional analyst who requested anonymity.

The Islamic Revolutionary Court was created after Iran’s 1979 revolution to prosecute those suspected of seeking to depose the Islamic regime. The “anti-government movements” referred to by the judge are satellite television stations Love Television and Salvation TV. Unlike the Internet, which is heavily censored in Iran, the two 24-hour satellite TV stations can bypass government information barriers.

Sources said links between the accused and these organizations, however, remain tenuous.

“The TV link came up almost six months after [the original arrests], so it is very new,” said an informed source. “We believe they just made it up, or it is something they want to make appear more important than is the reality.”

The three men were arrested by security forces on May 11, 2008 at the Shiraz airport while en route to a Christian marriage seminar in Dubai. According to a report by Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN), at that time the families of the three men avoided formal charges by agreeing to terms of release, including payment of a bond amount. Details of the terms were undisclosed.


Churches Pressured

The sentencing of three converts from Islam follows more than 50 documented arrests of Christians in 2008 alone, and the recent government crackdown includes Christian institutions that minister beyond Iran’s tiny indigenous Christian community.

On March 19, Assyrian Member of Parliament Yonathan Betkolia announced that by order of the Islamic Revolutionary Court, an Assyrian Pentecostal church in Tehran would be closed. According to FCNN, the church in the Shahrara area of Tehran was facing closure because it offered a Farsi-language service attended by converts from Islam.

During a speech following his election to Parliament in October, Betkolia had lauded freedoms accorded to minority groups in Iran, and he has publicly protested the Shahrara church allowing “non-Assyrians” – that is, Muslims – to attend services. The regional analyst said that Betkolia made these pronouncements as the increase in government pressure on the Christian community has put him in a difficult position.

“As a representative of the Assyrian community, a priority for Betkolia is to ensure the preservation of the limited freedoms and relative peace his traditional Christian community enjoys,” said the analyst. “Disassociation from a church which has welcomed believers from a Muslim background should therefore be seen as a form of self-defense.”

The number of Assyrian Christians in the country is estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000, with estimates of Armenian Christians in Iran ranging from 110,000 to 300,000.

Advocacy organization Human Rights Activists in Iran strongly criticized the decision to close the Assyrian church.

“The closing of the church is clearly a violation of human rights,” the organization stated, “because the right to change one’s religion and the right of self-expression are hereby targeted by the Islamic Revolutionary Court.”

The pastor of the Shahrara church has indicated that cancelling Farsi-language services may allow it to continue, though it was unclear at press time whether the congregation’s leadership was willing to make that compromise. FCNN reported in February that church leaders had on some occasions cancelled Farsi-language services at church.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Uganda’s army is accusing rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army of hacking to death 45 civilians in a Catholic church in the Democratic Republic of Congo, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

A story on the BBC website quotes Ugandan Army Capt Chris Magezi who said the scene was “horrendous… dead bodies of mostly women and children cut in pieces.” The attack happened on December 26.

A rebel spokesman has denied responsibility for the killings, which follow a collapse in the peace process, the BBC said.

It also reports the UN saying that at least 189 people were killed in several attacks last week. Some reports say more than 100 people were killed in the church alone.

The BBC said the armies of Uganda, South Sudan and DR Congo carried out a joint offensive against the rebels in mid-December after LRA leader Joseph Kony again refused to sign a peace deal.

The BBC reported the LRA leader, who has lived in a jungle hideout in north-eastern DR Congo for the last few years, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It also says Uganda’s government had been involved in lengthy peace negotiations with the LRA, hosted by the South Sudanese government. But LRA leader Kony has demanded that arrest warrants for him and his associates be dropped before any agreement can be struck.

Meanwhile, the UN peacekeeping mission in DR Congo says one of its troops accidently shot and killed a Ugandan soldier in the nearby town of Dungu.

The BBC said that aid officials requesting anonymity near Doruma, which is about 40km from the border with South Sudan, confirmed to Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper and to the AFP (Agence France Presse) news agency that the massacre had taken place.

“Bodies of the women and children, with deep cuts are littered inside and outside the church,” an aid official told The Monitor.

Witness Abel Longi told The Associated Press (AP) news agency that he recognized the LRA rebels by their dreadlocked hair, their Acholi language and the number of young boys among them.

“I hid in bush near the church and heard people wailing as they were being cut with machetes,” he said.

However, LRA spokesman David Nekorach Matsanga has denied that the rebels are behind the killings, the BBC reported.

“Reports about the LRA killing innocent civilians is another propaganda campaign by the Uganda army,” he said.

“I have it on good authority from the field commanders that the LRA is not in those areas where the killings are reported to have taken place.” He said the massacre may have been carried out by Ugandan soldiers.

“They want to justify their stay in DRC [Congo] and loot minerals from there like they did before,” he told the AP.

The BBC reports that Capt Magezi said that on Saturday the army had killed 13 of the rebels behind the alleged attack and were pursuing the rest of the group.

The UN’s humanitarian agency Ocha says 40 people were killed in attacks in DR Congo’s Faradje district, 89 around Doruma and 60 in the Gurba area, according to the BBC report.

The BBC story also says that many thousands of Congolese villagers fled their homes after LRA attacks near Dungu in October.

It explains that countries from Uganda to the Central African Republic have suffered 20 years of terror inflicted by the LRA. Tens of thousands of children have been abducted to be fighters and sex slaves.

Uganda’s government said the joint offensive had destroyed some 70 percent of the LRA camps in DR Congo.

The BBC’s Africa analyst, Martin Plaut, says that LRA leader Kony’s force is relatively small, about 650 strong. However, the difficulty is that when it is hit, it scatters and then regroups.

Report from the Christian Telegraph