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 

Uzbekistan: Drugs planted and worshippers beaten up?

Uzbekistan continues to punish people for unregistered religious worship, Forum 18 News Service notes. Tohar Haydarov, a Baptist, has been arrested and faces criminal charges of producing or storing drugs, which is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Haydarov’s fellow believers insist to Forum 18 that the case has been fabricated, one stating that "police planted a matchbox with drugs." They also state that Haydarov "was beaten and forced by the police to sign different papers. His face looked exhausted and swollen, and he could hardly walk. He did not even remember what was written in those papers."

The authorities claim these are "lies". In another case police raided a peaceful meeting of local Baptists, who sustained injuries during detention which have been verified by a medical examination. Told that Forum 18 had seen the medical record, a police officer appeared at a loss for words.

"I don’t know what to say, the police were there only to assist other state agencies with the detentions," he said. In both cases the authorities are also thought to be preparing criminal cases against some of the Baptists.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Pakistani lawyer faces court for murder of Christian girl

No other year in the last decade has seen more persecution against Pakistani Christians than 2009. As many as 130 Christians were killed through attacks, arrests and detentions throughout the year, according to International Christian Concern. And so far, this year has not been much better, reports MNN.

Late in January, yet another Christian, Shazia Bashir Masih, lost her life at the hands of a Muslim.

"On January 22, a Muslim lawyer by the name of Mohammed Naeem tortured and killed a 12-year-old Christian girl in Lahore, Pakistan," said Jonathan Racho of ICC. The girl was rushed to the hospital after sustaining injuries "but did not recover and passed away," said lawyers of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

Masih worked for Naeem as a servant for eight months to help her parents financially. Sources say the 1000 rupees (12 USD) she made a month was her family’s only income.

Naeem, a famous lawyer in the area, reportedly bribed local authorities to prevent his arrest. However, when the police failed to move against Naeem, Masih’s family staged protests outside of government offices.

Their protests attracted the attention of local media, and Pakistan’s president soon heard of the case. At this point, Naeem was arrested along with five other individuals related to the crime.

According to Aid to the Church in Need, Naeem appeared in court on Jan. 26, the day following Masih’s funeral. CLAAS, who is representing the Masih family, presented their case on Jan. 29. The hearing will resume on Feb. 3.

In addition to Naeem being a well-known lawyer in the area, he is also the former president of the Lahore Bar Association, which is the organization that issues licenses to the lawyers of the area. Because of this sway and other bribes Naeem has offered to the Masih family, they have had difficulty finding representation, according to ICC.

However, ICC also reported on a news conference of CLAAS and church leaders, "CLAAS is still determined to go the distance necessary to secure justice for Shazia and her family."

Whatever the outcome of the trial, Racho remained hopeful about the strength of Christians in Pakistan.

"Persecution cannot stop the Gospel from being preached and from Christians being faithful to Christ. On the one hand, there is an increase in persecution; on the other hand, Christians remain faithful to the faith, and they even continue to spread the Gospel and bring Muslims to Christ," said Racho.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

China Sentences House Church Pastors to Prison

Christians convicted on fabricated charges arrested en route to file protest of church attack.

LOS ANGELES, December 1 (CDN) — Five pastors arrested without a warrant in China’s Shanxi Province as they were en route to file a complaint over the demolition of their church building have been sentenced to prison terms of three to seven years.

In one of the most oppressive measures against Christians in recent years, house church leader Yang Rongli was sent to prison for seven years for “illegally occupying farming land” and “disturbing transportation order by gathering masses,” according to China Aid Association (CAA). She and four other pastors were sentenced on Wednesday (Nov. 25) at the People’s Court of Raodu district, Linfen City, Shanxi Province.

Yang’s husband, Wang Xiaoguang, was handed a sentence of three years on the charge of “illegally occupying farming land.” Cui Jiaxing was sentenced to four and half years, and Yang Xuan to three and half years, on the same charge; Zhang Huamei received four years of prison for “disturbing transportation order by gathering masses.”

The pastors were among Fushan Church leaders arrested by Shanxi Province officers of the Public Security Bureau (PSB) on Sept. 25 as they made their way to Beijing to protest an attack on a Fushan Church branch congregation in Linfen city. In the wee hours of Sept. 13 some 400 uniformed police and civilians bearing shovels, batons, bricks, iron hooks and other weapons had beaten members of the church who were sleeping at the nearly finished factory building used as a worship site.

With several Fushan County officials involved in the attack, dozens of Christians were seriously injured among the more than 100 who were hurt, CAA reported. According to the Epoch Times, a church member’s relative obtained a license to build the shoe factory and was allowing the group to meet there, as the church was growing too large to meet in homes and the building could hold up to 400 people.

“To punish an innocent house church leader with seven years’ imprisonment is the most serious sentence since 2004, when the senior Henan house church leader Pastor Zhang Rongliang received a similar length,” said CAA President Bob Fu in a press statement. “We strongly condemn these unjust sentences, which are based on trumped-up charges.”

Characterizing the trial as a farce, Fu said the case clearly demonstrated a deteriorating state of religious freedom in China and called upon the international community, including the U.S. administration, to express concern.

“The court’s conduct throughout the trial clearly indicated the government had decided upon the verdict and prepared it in advance,” Fu said in the statement. “Government prosecutors showed over 1,000 pages of so-called ‘evidence materials’ related to this case, but the defense lawyers were only allowed to review about 50 pages before the trial.”

Pastors Yang and Wang were able to chat briefly with their son during a recess near the bathroom outside the courtroom, Fu said; they encouraged the boy to stand firm in his faith in Christ.

The two pastors have led the Fushan Church, part of a 50,000-strong house church network in Linfen and the surrounding villages, for more than 30 years.

“The Fushan Church leaders’ unwarranted arrests, detentions and severe sentences after the massive church destruction on Sept. 13 marks one of the worst crackdowns on house church leaders in the past decade,” Fu said.

The Beijing PSB has misrepresented the demolition and attack on the Linfen branch church as a response to a “violent uprising,” Fu said. The branch congregation had gathered at the Good News Cloth Shoe Factory, a building still under construction in Fushan County, when the government-led mob attacked and took money, Bibles, clothes and cell phones, among other items, he said.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Thousands of Eritrean believers are languishing in military prisons, in labor camps, and in shipping containers in the open desert, reports MNN.

Carl Moeller with Open Doors reports a spot of good news: “Two elderly members of the Kale Hiwot church, who were arrested last November and held at a military concentration camp, have been released, apparently on bail. In addition to that, we also learned that another gentleman, Solomon Mengese, was released.”

Their detentions were linked to Christian activities. Though the government denies religious persecution, Open Doors notes a heavy concentration of arrests and detainment of Bible-believing Christians.

The Kale Hiwot members were men in their 80s, arrested in November, and jailed in Mitire-camp. The camp is a military concentration camp in northeastern Eritrea. Moeller says that the area is believed to be where many Christians are being held.

Mengese is a Full Gospel Church member and gas station owner who was imprisoned for six months in Asmara’s Police Station number 2. He was released two weeks ago.

Meanwhile reliable sources in Eritrea confirmed the number of Christian prisoners in Wi’a Military Training Centre. According to Open Doors, among the 2,900 believers imprisoned, there are 270 Evangelical Christians–including 135 women–kept at Wi’a.

Their sources say the prisoners are facing miserable circumstances as they refuse to deny their faith.

According to the sources, Wi’a Military Training Centre also holds 27 Muslim prisoners who were arrested in Assab for opposing the government-appointed Mufti. They have been in the centre for one year and six months and are mostly kept underground, separate from other religious and military prisoners.

Open Doors’ sources were also able to confirm that the number of Evangelical Christians kept at Massawa Police station is 50, including 15 women. According to these sources, the relatives and friends of the prisoners may bring them food once a day, but they are not allowed to see the prisoners.

Eritrea banned all independent Protestant churches in 2002. Only Islam and the Eritrean Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran Christian denominations were given official recognition. Buildings of all other churches were closed, and private gatherings in homes were banned. Worshippers caught disobeying these restrictions have faced arrest and torture in prison camps notorious for their horrific circumstances.

Moeller asks believers to “pray that the church in Eritrea will continue to stand strong in the midst of this. We need to pray for those imprisoned, that they would know that they are not forgotten. And third, we need to pray that the denominations that have been sanctioned by the government would speak out on behalf of those who have been imprisoned.”

Report from the Christian telegraph


Witnesses expected to connect murder of three Christians with political conspiracy.

MALATYA, Turkey, January 20 (Compass Direct News) – Lawyers in the case of three Christians who were murdered for their faith here are lining up witnesses in an effort to expand the accused from five young suspects to subversive forces at the top of state power.

Evidence in recent hearings suggests the April 2007 murders in southeast Turkey were instigated by Ergenekon, a loose collection of ultra-nationalist generals, businessmen, mafia and journalists who planned to engineer a coup d’état in Turkey.

At a hearing at Malatya’s Third Criminal Court on Friday (Jan. 16), plaintiff attorneys said they would like to call as a witness Ergun Poyraz, a journalist arrested in 2007 who has been linked to Ergenekon. Prosecuting attorneys said they believe that Poyraz, who has written inflammatory rhetoric against missionaries and accused Turkey’s prime minister of being part of a Zionist conspiracy, was not directly involved in planning the murders but has important knowledge of the players within Ergenekon.

The lawyers said they hope his testimony will help sort out the tangled web of connections and determine the role of Malatya security forces in the attack, particularly that of the chief of police in the district, Ali Osman Kahya.

“In the course of the publishing house murders, Ali Osman Kahya was the head of Malatya security forces, which is no coincidence,” said plaintiff attorney Murat Dincer. He said Kahya had been in similar positions of authority during other political murders.

Other lawyers involved in the case said they are less hopeful, believing Poyraz will only use his testimony as a platform for political grandstanding and propaganda for the political conspiracy.

“I don’t believe he will be helpful,” one legal worker told Compass. “I think he will only put on a show and manipulate the subject.”

Poyraz was arrested in 2007 for having connections to the Association for the Union of Patriotic Forces, a group whose members include military men also indicted in Ergenekon. Turkish media recently revealed that Poyraz had been keeping detailed records on high-level military officials prior to his arrest, according to Today’s Zaman national daily.

The team of plaintiff lawyers has requested Poyraz’s written statements from the Istanbul 13th Criminal Court.

The court in Malatya has sent an informal inquiry to the prosecutor of the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul asking if there is a concrete connection between the Ergenekon case and the Malatya murders. If the prosecutor replies positively, the Malatya court will decide whether to integrate the murder trial with the Ergenekon case.

If the cases are not integrated, then the five young suspects will likely be tried for murder in a matter of months, and all will receive life sentences, said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, who leads the team of plaintiff lawyers who represent the interests of the victims’ families.

Lawyers said they believe establishing the guilt of the suspects should be a straightforward process, but Cengiz said that if the case is integrated into Ergenekon, “then it will continue forever.”

No witnesses testified at the Friday hearing. The plaintiff team eventually hopes to bring 21 witnesses to the stand in subsequent hearings.


Impact on Defense

Two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske, were brutally tortured and killed at a publishing house in Malatya on April 18, 2007.

Emre Gunaydin – the suspected ringleader – along with Salih Gürler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim, who have been in jail for the past 18 months, are accused of the murder. They were all between 19 and 21 years old at the time of the crime.

The Malatya trial judges and defense attorneys are also adjusting their legal proceedings in light of the case’s incipient expansion from a murder case to an investigation into the political conspiracy. Noting that there could have been others involved in the murder, Presiding Judge Eray Gurktekin quoted an article from the Turkish Penal Code that states a punishment can be reduced if the guilty party is found to be solicited for the crime.

“You should think about considering this,” he said to defense lawyers.

The lawyer for Gunaydin said he had reminded his client of this article, and that they wanted to pursue this legal line in the next hearing.

Plaintiff attorneys won a minor legal victory that had eluded them in earlier hearings: The hearings will now be recorded. In previous months Malatya judges refused three plaintiff requests to record the trial hearings.

In February 2008 an Istanbul court allowed the first courtroom taping of a trial hearing at the trial of Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist assassinated in 2007.


Unearthing Plot

Earlier this month, Turkish police uncovered major arms caches by excavating sites connected to Ergenekon members. Security forces believe the weapons indicated the future plans of the group and their violent activates in the past.

Two weeks ago a new wave of detentions revealed evidence that the group was planning to assassinate the prime minister, members of the Supreme Court of Appeals, and Armenian community leaders.

Older Ergenekon documents make mention of church members in Turkey in Izmir, Mersin and Trabzon. Members of those churches were attacked or killed in following years. This month a 19-year-old Muslim in Izmir was sentenced to prison for stabbing a Catholic priest in 2007.

The Ergenekon organization has been blamed for the murder of other high-profile Christians. Ergin Cinmen, the lawyer for the family of Dink, has called for an investigation into the links between Ergenekon, the Malatya massacre and the murders of Dink and Father Andrea Santoro, an Italian priest killed in Trabzon in 2006.

He made these comments in the context of recently discovered plans to attack the Armenian community of Sivas in central Turkey, according to Bianet, an online Turkish news service.

In the last year, police have arrested more than 100 people in the ongoing Ergenekon case, which has been the dominant event in Turkish media for several months.  

Report from Compass Direct News