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 


Local Muslim leaders prompt officers to arrest, abuse evangelistic team.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, August 4 (Compass Direct News) – At the urging of local Muslim leaders, police in western Bangladesh have tortured a pastor and two other Christians for legally proclaiming Christ.

Habibur Rahman, 45, pastor of Boalia Spiritual Church (Boalia Ruhani Jamat) in Boalia in Cuadanga district, 220 kilometers (136 miles) west of Dhaka, said he was about to meet with 11 others for a monthly meeting on evangelism at 8 p.m. on June 8 when local police stormed in and seized him and Zahid Hassan, 25, and a 40-year-old Christian identified only as Fazlur.

The first question the police commander asked him, Rahman said, was, “Why did you become Christian?”

“Using a lot of filthy words, he charged me that I was teaching the Bible and converting people to Christianity in this area,” the pastor told Compass.

In May, a police patrol chief had threatened to seize him at a church meeting but was misinformed about the time it would take place, Rahman said.

The commander who seized him and the two others was a sub-inspector with the name Khaleque on his badge, Rahman said. Police dragged them to a nearby parked vehicle and transported them to Shamvunagar police camp.

“Police told us, ‘We will teach you in the camp how to forget your Christ,’ while dragging us to the vehicle,” said Rahman.

Police blindfolded them after reaching the camp and took them to three separate rooms.

“I heard blood-curdling scream from other rooms,” Rahman said. “I was sitting on the floor blindfolded. I could not understand what was happening around me. Later several police came to me and one of them kicked me on the back of my head, and my head ricocheted off the wall. They also kicked my waist.”

Ordering him to say how many people he had converted to Christianity in the Muslim-majority nation, the commander said he would kick him a like number of times. The official told him to call out to Jesus, saying he wanted to see how Jesus would save him, Rahman said.

“While beating us, police told us there will be no Christian in this area,” the pastor said. “Police hurt our hands, lips, thighs and faces with burning cigarettes. They beat me in the joints of my limbs with a wooden club. They beat us for one hour, and I became senseless at some point.”

Police officers told Rahman to admit that whatever he had done in his life was wrong, he said. When they sent them to Boalia police station early the next morning, dozens of Christians arrived to try to obtain their release.

Police, however, were reluctant to release the detained Christians.

“Some Christian villagers then said, ‘We are also criminal because we believe in Christ like Habibur Rahman and the other two Christians,’” Rahman said. “They told police, ‘If you do not release them, then arrest us and put us in jail.’”

Police did not release the three Christians until 9:30 that night.

The next day, June 10, thousands of Muslim villagers demonstrated in front of a local government office called the Zamzami Union Council chanting, “We want a Christian-free society,” and “We will not allow any Christians in Cuadanga.”

The frenzied mob called for Rahman to appear at the local government office, and a sub-district administrative chief called in 10 Christians and 10 Muslims including imams to try to resolve the matter. In that meeting, the administrative official told everyone to practice their religion freely without disturbing others.

“The administrative chief also said nobody should interfere in other religions, but even now we cannot attend our churches for worship,” Rahman said. “Local people said, ‘You will come in the church alive but return home dead.’”

Police Denial

Police denied carrying out any torture, saying they arrested the Christians for interrogation because villagers had informed officers that some underground Maoist terrorists had gathered in the house.

Jotish Biswas, executive director of Way of Life Trust, said the marks of torture were unmistakable.

“There were streaks of blood on their legs, hands and faces,” said Biswas, who interceded with police on behalf of the arrested Christians. “I have seen marks of cigarette burns on their bodies. They were beaten so severely that they could not walk properly.”

Biswas said he had learned that a local official and some Muslim clerics had prompted police to torture the Christians because they objected to their evangelistic activity.

“Police violated the rights of minorities enshrined in the Bangladeshi constitution,” Biswas said. “It was a gross violation of human rights.”

Chanchal Mehmud Kashem, a Christian journalist who visited the area, told Compass that the area is lacking in freedom of religion.

“Torture by police suggests that those Christians are not citizens of Bangladesh,” Kashem said. “It suggests they are illegal, alien and that evangelism is a crime.”

Kashem added that the notion that “underground terrorists” had gathered in a house was a pretext for harassing the Christians. “Rahman has been working as an evangelist in this area for one and half years,” he said.

There are 176 Christians in the area where Rahman works as an evangelist and pastor, he said.

“The local government council chairman told me two times not to come in this area,” Rahman said. “He said, ‘There is no Christian in this area, so why do you come here to make Christians?’”

Local Muslim villagers have since refused to give work to area Christians, most of whom are day laborers dependent on obtaining daily jobs to survive.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Muslim neighbors, local council threaten to burn home if they file assault case.

MALUMGHAT, Bangladesh, December 8 (Compass Direct News) – The harassment that Bangladeshi converts from Islam face from Muslim neighbors in this southeastern area near Cox’s Bazar can take serious turns – as it did last month, when an attack by about a dozen Muslims left a Christian family with machete wounds.

Confident that no police would side with Christian converts from Islam, the Muslims in Chakaria town, near Cox’s Bazar 380 kilometers (236 miles) southeast of the capital city of Dhaka, later filed false charges of assault against the wounded and limping Christians, family members said.

The smallest of claims can serve to provoke such attacks. Laila Begum, a 45-year-old Christian convert from Islam, said she was helping to make disbursements for a local non-governmental micro-credit agency called Darpan in Chakaria town on Nov. 1 when 10 to 15 Muslim neighbors blocked her way and demanded 200 taka (US$3).

Begum told Compass she had borrowed 2,000 taka (US$30) last year from a neighbor, a Muslim woman who goes by the single name of Kohinoor, and this year paid her back with interest. Telling the group she would give them no more money as she had already repaid the loan, Begum said, she asked why they were demanding more.

They began beating her, snatching a pair of gold ornaments from her ear.

“Suddenly they got equipped with sticks, iron rods, knives and machetes,” she said. “Several places of my head were lacerated by machetes and iron rods. They also cut two of my fingers when I tried to fend off their attacks. They beat me in several places of my body by iron rods and sticks.”

Begum said her husband Abdur Rahman, a 48-year-old gatekeeper at Memorial Baptist Hospital, and her 27-year-old son Selim Rahman, heard her screams and were also beaten when they rushed to help her.

“They thrust at my son with machetes and a sharp knife and stabbed him in his thigh,” she said. “They beat my son with sticks and iron rods, knocking him down. They also beat the kneecap of my husband and other parts of his body.”

When her 18-year-old daughter Rosy Rahman came to their aid, the attackers punched her in the neck and chin, she said.

“They beat her in various parts of the body with sticks,” Begum said. “Shamelessly they removed her wrap over the breasts in front of dozens of onlookers.”

One of the attacking neighbors, she said, told her, “Nobody will come to save you if we beat you, because you are converted to Christianity from Islam.”

Begum, her husband and elder son were admitted to a nearby hospital. Her husband is still hobbled, walking with the aid of a stick.

“Muslim neighbors filed a case against us where they mentioned that we had beaten them – it is a false case,” Begum said. “They beat us and they filed a false case against us.”

Police Sub-inspector Manjurul Alam confirmed that the Muslim neighbors had filed a case against Rahman’s family, and that Rahman had also filed an assault case against the attackers.

“We are investigating it,” he said.

Begum said local Muslims threatened to beat the Christians again if they filed a case against them.

“They threatened that if we file a case, they will carry out an arson attack, and our house will be burnt to the ground,” she said. “They will evict us from the locality. They will beat us again and our life will be in great trouble.”

The family informed local governing council members about the attack, but they demanded 20,000 taka (US$300) to settle the matter and also threatened them, she said.

“The local council officials also told us that if we file any case in the police station, our houses will be burnt to ashes and we will be evicted from the locality,” she said. “The Muslim neighbors are spreading rumors that we beat them, that we borrowed 22,000 taka from them and that we did not pay them back the money. But we do not have anyone to stand beside us and listen to us.”


Belligerent Attitude

Because the family members are converts from Islam, they said, neighbors and distant relatives often pick quarrels with them over any small issue, with villagers later joining in to threaten or attack them.

“If we go to the market or any public places, Muslim people push us roughly from behind and use filthy words against us about Christianity,” said the oldest son, Salim Rahman.

The entire family is living in isolation due to their conversion, which the female members said is especially difficult for them.

“Whenever I go outside, local people look at me with evil leers,” said the oldest daughter, Rosy Rahman. “Everyone bad-mouths me and casts aspersions on our faith.”

She said such harassment forced her to stop going to school in 2004.

“If I had not stopped going to school, my life would have been in trouble,” she said. “I feel insecure and mixed-up, because local people always want to deflower me. If anything bad happens to me, no one in the society will stand beside me. What did we do against the society? We did nothing against them, we simply changed our faith.”

She said the ostracism and societal misconduct sometimes lead her to contemplate suicide.


History of Resentment

When the family and others converted to Christianity in 1991, area resentment festered and finally broke into violence in late 1992, when local Muslims vandalized and burned the local church and several Christian-owned homes.

The government deployed more than 2,000 police and other law enforcement personnel to bring the situation under control, and some local Muslims were arrested for arson.

“The arrests made the local Muslims very angry,” said pastor Benu Barua of Memorial Christian Baptist Church of Malumghat.

Rage dating back to the events of the 1990s may be at the root of the beating of Begum’s family, he said.

“The Muslim neighbors beat them for such a small amount of money – any small issue to the Muslim neighbors is like a red rag to a bull,” Barua said. “This kind of oppression, what happened to Begum’s family, is less common on other traditional Christians or those who converted from the Hindu religion. But Muslim-converted Christians are more oppressed here.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Karnataka, November 18 (Compass Direct News) – Police on Nov. 16 arrested a pastor and charged him with “hurting religious sentiments” in Vangasandra, Hosur Road, Bangalore, after a mob of Hindu extremists stormed into his house church service and struck him. Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), said that at 11 a.m. a mob of nearly 25 Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) barged into the house church service and repeatedly slapped the pastor, identified only as Sujnanamm, and shouted filthy curses at the 15 other Christians present. Laxminarayan Gowda, GCIC regional coordinator, told Compass that the extremists beat one of the Christians who tried to help the pastor. The intolerant Hindus forced Pastor Sujnanamm, with his nose bleeding, to go with them to the Madivala police station and registered a false complaint of forcible conversion against him, Gowda said. “On being questioned about his Christian activities, Sujnanamm told the police that he was a student at BBBC [Bhirian Baptist Bible College],” Gowda said. “This angered the police, who summoned the Rev. Edwin Chilli, president of the BBBC, to the police station and charged him under Section 506 for criminal intimidation.” At press time both Christian leaders were still in jail.

Karnataka – Police arrested three Christians on Nov. 12 on charges of attempted Christian conversion by allurement in Cox Town, Bangalore. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that a Christian man identified only as Chandrasekhar and two Christian women, identified only as Kamlamma and Sandhya, all of Pavithra Agni Church, went to a slum area in Jeevanahalli to pray for a sick couple. On their way back home, nearly 20 Hindu extremists belonging to the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swamyamsevak Sangh attacked them, snatched their bags, verbally abused them and falsely accused them of forcible conversion, then phoned a local police station. The Frazer Town Police took the three Christians to the police station and arrested them for “hurting religious sentiments” and “uttering words with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of any person.” The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that an employer of the slum dwellers identified only as Mr. Gowda also filed a complaint against the Christians for allegedly inducing people to convert to Christianity by fraudulent means. The two women were remanded to custody, and Chandrasekhar was sent to a jail the next day. The three Christians appeared in court on Nov. 13 and were ordered to remain in police custody till Nov. 28, according to the EFI.

KarnatakaHindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists belonging to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) on Nov. 9 falsely accused a pastor of forced conversion, beat him and verbally abused Christian women in Banavara, Arasikere Taluk, Hassan district. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that pastor Ravi Charles of Jesus Prayer Hall was summoned to perform the funeral service of a church member, a convert from Hinduism identified only as Girijama. As the pastor, his wife and other Christians reached the house of the deceased, an argument broke out among family members on whether the funeral was to proceed under Christian or Hindu rites. Hindu relatives informed VHP extremists. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that the VHP extremists arrived, accused the pastor of forced conversion and started beating him, as well as verbally abusing the Christian women. The extremists called police, who detained them for four hours and released them without charges.

Karnataka – Police on Nov. 4 arrested Benjamin Bommai, 52, of the Manonidhi Institute of Nursing (MIN) in Chamarajanagar district, on charges of forced conversion. MIN Manager Shailaja Krupanidhi told Compass that police summoned Bommai for questioning regarding a case filed by Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal in 2006 for distributing gospel tracts at Manonidhi College. The extremists had charged Bommai with trying to forcibly convert students. “On Nov. 4, Bommai was only called for enquiry – he did not distribute tracts or anything, but police arrested him,” said Krupanidhi. Bommai appeared before the district magistrate and was later sent to the Chamrajanagar jail. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that police arrested Bommai for promoting enmity between different groups of religion under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code. “Bommai was released on bail the next evening,” said Krupanidhi.

Uttarakhand – Hindu extremists vandalized a church, severely injured a pastor’s ear drum and stole donation and offering bags on Nov. 3 in Dehradun. According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India, about 30 Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bajrang Dal barged into the worship hall of Bethesda Church and damaged Bibles and gospel literature and furniture. The assailants took the church’s offering and donation boxes along with important papers. The extremists also attacked Asher Wasker, a pastor from God’s Church in neighboring Rajpur, who had come to the aid of the attacked church. Pastor Wasker suffered internal injuries and his right ear drum was severely injured. Bethesda Church’s caretaker and Pastor Wasker filed a complaint with the help of area Christian leaders, and three Hindu extremists were arrested for voluntarily causing hurt and damage, for trespassing and wrongful restraint, for theft and for defiling a place of worship.

Karnataka – Police on Nov. 2 disrupted the Sunday worship service of a house church in Thimannakatte village, Haveri district, based on an accusation of forced conversion. According to the Christian Legal Association, police barged into the house church of the Dheiwah Ministry because villagers had accused pastor Rangaiah Nagaraj of forcible conversion. Police warned the pastor to obtain prior permission in order to conduct future worship meetings. But Inspector Krishan Junoor later said the pastor could continue to conduct worship meetings under police protection, adding that normalcy had returned to the area. No arrests had been made.

Andhra Pradesh – Nizambad district police detained a pastor for one-and-a-half days on a complaint of forced conversion filed against him by Hindu extremists on Oct. 24 in Nandipet Mandal, Nizambad. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that at about 8 a.m., 20 Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh barged into the house of pastor Martin Luther of Believers Church and attacked him, dragging him to the police station and accusing him of forcible conversion. The pastor was released after local Christian leaders met with Sub-Inspector Shiva Shankar.

Madhya Pradesh – Police on Oct. 12 arrested a pastor on charges of “fraudulent conversion” in Dhamnod town, Dhar District. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that a complaint from a local resident led police to raid pastor Ganesh Bharud’s house church, seize Bibles, hymnals and gospel tracts, chase away the 25 Christians assembled for Sunday worship and force Bharud to the Dhamnod police station. A GCIC representative told Compass that the local resident had accused Bharud of inducing people to convert with false promises of an overseas job. Police officials told Compass that Bharud was released on bail on Oct. 13 at 5:30 p.m.  

Report from Compass Direct News