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 

Violence Escalates in Mosul, Iraq ahead of Elections

Christians targeted as political tension builds in weeks leading to parliamentary polls.

ISTANBUL, March 5 (CDN) — Political tensions ahead of parliamentary elections in Iraq on Sunday (March 7) have left at least eight Chaldean Christians dead in the last three weeks and hundreds of families fleeing Mosul.

“The concern of Christians in Mosul is growing in the face of what is happening in the city,” said Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk Louis Sako. “The tension and struggle between political forces is creating an atmosphere of chaos and congestion. Christians are victims of political tension between political groups, but maybe also by fundamentalist sectarian cleansing.”

On Feb. 23 the killing of Eshoee Marokee, a Christian, and his two sons in their home in front of other family members sent shock waves across the Christian community. The murder took place amid a string of murders that triggered the mass exodus of families to the surrounding towns and provinces.

“It is not the first time Christians are attacked or killed,” said the archbishop of the Syrian Catholic Church in Mosul, Georges Casmoussa. “The new [element] in this question is to be killed in their own homes.”

The capital of Nineveh Province some 400 kilometers (250 miles) northwest of Baghdad, Mosul has been known as the most dangerous city for Christians. At least 275 Assyrian Christians have been murdered by Islamic insurgents since 2003, according to a report prepared by the International Committee for The Rights of Indigenous Mesopotamians.

While in 2009 the organization listed 16 deaths, since January there have been at least 13 murders, eight of which took place the second half of February.

The movement of internally displaced persons to surrounding areas started in mid-February and tripled between Feb. 24 and Feb. 27 to about 683 families, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Although the rate of displacement into areas around Mosul has slowed, the report estimates that 720 families had fled the city as of March 1. This represents about 4,320 people.

Christian Students Affected

The murders have not only driven families away from the cities but have also kept students away from university. Three of the Christians killed in February were university students. As a result, around 2,000 Christian students are staying away from their classes until the tension in Mosul eases.

“We believe that the attack against these students was somehow related to the political situation in Mosul,” said General Secretary of the Chaldo-Assyrian Student and Youth Union Kaldo Oghanna. “This has affected our people in Mosul badly, and they have left the university.”

Oghanna said that the union has proposed that the Ministry of Education open a new university in a safer area of the Nineveh plains for the nearly 3,000 Christian undergraduate students and 250 graduate students studying in Mosul. He also said that they have appealed to the university’s administration to make necessary exceptions for the Christian students who have not attended classes in the last few weeks.

Although some local Christian leaders say they expect the tension to ease after Sunday, security may not improve as the Christian community is caught in political tensions between Arabs and Kurds vying for control of the province. Archbishop Casmoussa said regardless of who is behind the murders, the Christian community demands justice.

“We urge the Central and Regional Government to pursue the murders and their masters and judge them according to Iraqi laws, even if they are supported by religious or political parties,” Casmoussa said. “Enough is enough. Are we to pay the price of political struggles or ambitions?”

Sako said that in other cities security has improved, and that Christians are eager to cast their votes.

The election on March 7 will decide the 325 members of the Council of Representatives of Iraq, who will then elect the prime minister and president of Iraq. Of these seats, five are reserved for the nation’s Christian minority, estimated at around 600,000. Most of them live in the Nineveh plain.

At the beginning of the Iraq war, there were about 1.2 million Christians living in Iraq. Iraq’s population is roughly 30 million.

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


Muslims’ legal action against 1,600-year-old structure called ‘malicious.’

ISTANBUL, January 22 (Compass Direct News) – Syriac Christians in southeastern Turkey say a land dispute over the historic Mor Gabriel Monastery is part of a larger system of discrimination against the religious minority in this overwhelmingly Islamic country.

Muslim residents of southeastern Turkey dispute the boundary lines of an ancient Christian monastery dating to the fourth century as being unnecessarily large for the needs of a religious community. Islamic village leaders from Yayvantepe, Eglence and Candarli are attempting to confiscate one-third of the monastery’s property, claiming it was wrongfully appropriated and that they need it for their livestock.

Area Muslims also say the land in question is forest and thereby registered as land belonging to the State Treasury.

“Our land is being occupied by the monastery,” said Ismail Erlal, village leader of Yayvantepe, according to Cihan News Agency. “We make use of the forest there and pasture our animals; we won’t give up our rights.”

Among the most contentious issues are the monastery walls built around its perimeter, rebuilt 15 years ago. Village leaders complain in a lawsuit to obtain the land that the monastery has gone beyond its rightful bounds. In August the land survey office of Midyat said it had determined that 270 hectares of the monastery’s 760 hectares were government property, including land inside and outside the monastery’s walls.

A court in Mardin originally scheduled a hearing for Friday (Jan. 16) to determine the legal status of the monastery walls, but it was rescheduled to Feb. 11 to allow the court more time to examine the case. At the February hearing the court will determine if the 270 hectares of land belong to the government or the monastery.

Metropolitan Timotheos Samuel Aktas, leader of the monastery, answered in a report that the monastery has the right to leave its land uncultivated and has paid taxes on the property since 1937.

The state originally charged the monastery with being founded illegally, but it dropped those charges by canceling a hearing originally schedule for Dec. 24. Rudi Sumer, the attorney representing the monastery, said that the claim was groundless since the monastery has foundation status dating back to modern Turkey’s origins, not to mention centuries of existence beforehand.

The mayors of Yayvantepe, Eglence and Candarli also charged the monastery with attempting to proselytize young children (illegal in Turkey) and carrying out “anti-Turkish” activity.

Metropolitan Aktas said in a report that these claims were groundless and of the same provocative nature that has historically sparked violence against Turkey’s Christians.

“All the allegations are frivolous and vexatious, devoid of any logic or evidence, solely aimed with the malicious intent of rousing anti-Christian sentiments by the surrounding Muslim villages,” he said.


Europe Watching

Mor Gabriel Monastery, founded in 397, is the most revered monastery for Syrian Orthodox Christians. It is inhabited by 15 nuns and two monks and is the seat of Metropolitan Bishop of Tur Abdin Diocese.

In recent decades the monastery has turned into a religious and social center for the country’s remaining Syriacs by offering schooling to children and teaching their ancient language of Syriac, a variant of the language spoken by Jesus.

“The monastery is everything for us,” said a Syrian Orthodox Christian who grew up in Turkey’s southeast. He added that many families in the area had named their children after Mor Gabriel. “Syriacs would give up everything for the monastery.”

An international outcry from the European Parliament and numerous Assyrian organizations throughout Europe arose in response to the charges, according to the Assyrian International News Agency. A member of the German consulate said his country would monitor the case closely, as Turkey is attempting to join the European Union and its human rights record has come under close scrutiny.

Many Syrian Orthodox Christians have left southeast Turkey in the last 30 years as violence escalated between the military and Kurdish terrorists. In the last five years, however, some Syriacs have begun returning home – only to find their property occupied by others.

Residents who fled Mardin province in the mid-1980s returned to find two of their village’s Syriac churches converted into mosques. And the demographic shift from Syriacs to Kurds has increased pressure on the monastery.

“Turkey must protect its Assyrian community,” said Swedish parliamentarian Yilmaz Kerim to the Hurriyet Daily News. He visited the monastery as part of a delegation in December. “There are only 3,000 left in Midyat.”

The lawsuit has the support of a local parliamentarian who claims Christians relished their opportunity to leave Turkey. Süleyman Çelebi, member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said Syrian Orthodox Christians had never come under pressure, despite their claim that they were exploited, and even emigrated away from Turkey “with joy” in previous decades.

The three villages that brought the lawsuit against the monastery overwhelmingly supported the Islamic-rooted AKP in last year’s national elections. Çelebi claims that the official boundaries of the monastery were established in Ottoman times but not properly observed by the Syriac Christians.

According to the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, Turkey grants full protection to churches, synagogues and other religious establishments to freely practice their own religions. But this treaty only designated Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians and Jews, creating complications for groups such as the Syrian Orthodox and Protestants to open schools and churches.

Syriac Christians claim to be one of the first people to accept Christianity in the Middle East. Their historic homeland stretches through southeastern Turkey, but their numbers have dwindled to 15,000 following decades of government pressure and fallout from war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.  

Report from Compass Direct News