Two Iranian Christian Women Acquitted of all Charges

Young converts previously held in prison for Christian activities have fled country.

ISTANBUL, May 27 (CDN) — Nearly five months after releasing them from prison, an Iranian court has acquitted two women of all charges related to being Christians and engaging in Christian activities.

Iranians Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad were arrested on March 5, 2009 and detained on charges of “acting against state security,” “taking part in illegal gatherings” and “apostasy” (leaving Islam) under Iran’s Revolutionary Court system.

After nearly eight months, on Nov. 18, 2009 authorities released them conditionally.

Although the court hearing their case originally set April 13 as their trial date, Compass was unable to confirm on what date the two women were acquitted, nor the conditions of their acquittal.

Senior Iranian judges and officials repeatedly intimidated the two women and pressured them to recant their faith, according to a press statement by Elam Ministries last week.

“They were warned that any future Christian activity in Iran will be seriously dealt with,” according to the statement.

Elam Ministries said the two women had fled Iran on Saturday (May 22) to an undisclosed location and were recovering.

Another Iranian convert who was forced to flee his country under similar circumstances years ago told Compass that he believed the intense lobbying efforts to release and acquit the women brought the government to an unspoken “standoff” with Christian rights groups outside the country.

“I think the court just made a political decision, ‘We will let you go, but we will not allow you to stay in the country,’” said the Iranian Christian, who requested anonymity. “That’s a pretty old-fashioned procedure they have – ‘We will let you go if you leave the country. You can have your faith, but not here.’”

In general, when Iranian authorities arrest Christians, they release them on bail within a few weeks and keep their case files open, thus applying soft pressure while allowing them to continue living in Iran. In cases where the government wants to remove Christians from the country because of their Christian activities, authorities have handed the Christians their passports and documents and told them to leave.

Iran’s government views all Christian activities as foreign intervention and thus a threat to national security. The two women’s families had hired a private lawyer.

Since their release, the young converts to Christianity had been waiting for a trial date and decision from an Iranian court to decide their fate as Christians living their faith. During this time, sources said that authorities watched them closely and that the two women were under “pressure” and received threatening phone calls.

“The government would not want them to stay in the country as heroes,” said the Iranian Christian. “It would be better for the government if they left Iran and didn’t become a positive example for the rest of the Christian community in Iran. Otherwise they would create a precedent of [Christians] who have not denied their faith, who have been acquitted and still live as Christians inside the country.”

The two women thanked Christians who have been praying for them, according to Elam.

“We hope to eventually share some of what the Lord allowed us to go through to highlight the need and the opportunity for the church in Iran, but right now we will take time to pray and seek the Lord for His will,” said Rostampour, according to Elam’s press statement.

Iran’s Constitution gives Christians “protected” religious minority status, but in practice they face substantial societal discrimination, according to the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report 2009.

An article mandating death for apostates in accordance with sharia (Islamic law) reportedly has been stricken from a draft penal code, but experts on Iran say The Council of Guardians and Iran’s Supreme Leader still have the final say on who receives capital punishment for leaving Islam.

Report from Compass Direct News

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 

Victims of Bomb Blast in Israel Recovering as Suspect Indicted

Messianic Jews hope for punishment from courts, mercy from God, for confessed killer.

ISTANBUL, November 13 (CDN) — One morning during the week of March 10, 2008 in Ariel, Israel, David Ortiz opened his Bible randomly, read the words on the pages that opened before him and was filled with dread.

“I opened the book to Jeremiah, and a verse jumped out, “Ortiz said, referring to Jeremiah 9:21: “Death has climbed in through our windows and has entered our fortresses; it has cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the public squares.”

“I was afraid,” he said. “It was given to me like a promise, but of a different kind.”

For weeks, Ortiz had felt a premonition that something horrible was going to happen to him or his family. Six months prior, while in Norway, Ortiz watched a violent storm rip over the countryside. The wind tore out trees and threw them across a field. But still, through it all, some trees survived. Ortiz felt God was using the storm to speak to him.

“The ones that are rooted are the ones that remain,” he said.

On March 20, 2008, Ortiz’s fears came to pass. When his 15-year-old son lifted the lid of a Purim basket, left anonymously as a gift at their Ariel apartment, a bomb inside the basket exploded.

The bomb was devastating. It damaged the Ortiz family apartment and destroyed much of what they owned. When young Ami Ortiz was taken to the hospital, he was blind, covered with blood and burns and full of needles and screws contained in the bomb. The doctors told his mother, Leah Ortiz, that Ami was “Anush.”

“Literally, in Hebrew it means the spirit is leaving the body,” she said.

Now, 20 months later, Ami is 16, back in school and playing basketball. And yesterday the man that police say committed the crime was indicted for attempted murder.

Other than what has been released in court proceedings, little is known about Jack Teitel, the man accused of bombing the Ortiz family. One thing is certain – he believes he was acting in accordance with the will of God. Walking into court, the 37-year-old, U.S.-born West Bank settler shouted that God was proud of him.

“It was a pleasure and honor to serve my God,” Teitel reportedly said. “God is proud of what I have done. I have no regrets.”

Police said that Teitel is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish nationalist who picked out his targets based on his nationalist philosophy. Along with the Ortiz case, police said Teitel is responsible for the June 1997 shooting death of Samir Bablisi, a Palestinian taxi driver who was found in his cab with a single bullet wound to his head. Two months later, police said, Teitel shot Isa Jabarin, a Palestinian shepherd who was giving Teitel driving directions to Jerusalem.

Police also said that Teitel attempted to burn down a monastery and unsuccessfully planted several bombs. He is also accused of the September 2008 bombing of Zeev Sternhell of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The bombing left the emeritus history professor slightly wounded.

Teitel has told police he was trying to kill David Ortiz, pastor of a church of Messianic Jews called Congregation of Ariel, not injure his son.

In all, Teitel has been indicted for two cases of pre-meditated murder, three cases of attempted murder, carrying a weapon, manufacturing a weapon, possession of illegal weapons and incitement to commit violence.

Adi Keidar, Teitel’s attorney, reportedly said his client is “mentally unstable.” He cited Teitel’s alleged confession to acts he did not commit. After a psychiatric evaluation by the state, Teitel was deemed fit to stand trial. Keidar is representing Teitel or behalf of the Honenu organization, a nationalistic law firm endorsed by Mordechai Eliyahu, a rabbi known for his far-right Orthodox views.

Honenu is known for defending, among others, Ami Popper. Popper was convicted in 1990 for shooting seven Palestinian workers who were waiting for a ride at a day labor pick-up site. Popper’s attack, like all others cited in Honenu’s website, was said to come “in response” to Palestinian aggression. Despite numerous attempts to contact Keidar, he could not be reached for comment.

David Ortiz said he is not surprised by Teitel’s claim that God is proud of him. Ortiz cited biblical verses where the early Christians were warned that one day people would kill them and think that they were doing the will of God. Teitel, Ortiz said, saw him as an enemy of the nation of Israel.

“He saw me and the professor as false prophets,” Ortiz said.

Police have brought no evidence linking Teitel to any other co-conspirator. But Leah Ortiz said she thinks Teitel worked with others. Teitel’s neighbor, Yosef Espinoza, was brought in for questioning and later released. Teitel does not speak Hebrew, but when he was arrested he was distributing handouts written in Hebrew criticizing homosexuals in Israel.

When his apartment was raided, police found a cache of illegal weapons he has been indicted for owning. Ortiz also said that a recording tape from a closed-circuit television camera taken on the day of the bombing shows Teitel was driven to the Ortiz apartment by another person.

Regardless, Leah Ortiz scoffs at the claim that Teitel was politically motivated. Instead, she said, he used politics and religion as a foil to justify murder.

“He is a serial killer,” she said.

In spite of all the pain that the Ortiz family has gone through, Leah Ortiz said she has seen much good come from the tragedy, including miraculous healings. She said that the bombing has helped soften the opinion of people in Israel toward Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the Jewish prophets.

“It has made them face the facts of how they see Jesus,” she said.

Howard Bass, a leader of a Messianic congregation in Beer Sheva, Israel, said he isn’t so sure.

“It’s not that simple,” he said, adding that such attacks may help tolerant people to eschew violence, but that others will actually be encouraged by the bombings. “It makes people aware of how far they [people set against the Messianic Jews] will be willing to go and abhor them. It’s bringing things to light and forcing people to make a decision: What is good and what is evil?”

Hostile Environment

Bass himself was a victim of at least one attack by anti-missionary, Orthodox extremists. On Dec. 24, 2005, several hundred Orthodox Jews mobbed an outdoor service held by Bass. The mob destroyed church equipment, terrorized congregants and threw Bass into a baptismal pool.

Bass has since sued Yad L’Achim, an Orthodox, anti-missionary organization he said is responsible for inciting the attack. A court decision in the case is due later this month.

On its website, Yad L’Achim asserts that missionaries are “devious” and are trying to “destroy the Jewish people.” The organization makes no distinction in its website between missionaries and Messianic Jews. The site also goes as far as to accuse Messianic Jews of “playing the victim to the hilt” in reference to the Ortiz bombing.

Despite numerous attempts to reach members of Yad L’Achim, no one was made available for comment.

According to the International Religious Freedom Report 2009 issued by the U.S. Department of State, there are 10,000 Messianic Jews in Israel. The report documents several cases of violence against Messianic Jews, including one case on May 15 in which “Ultra-Orthodox residents of the Tel Aviv suburb of Rehovot attacked and beat a group of Messianic Jews who were handing out New Testament pamphlets on the street.”

Additionally, Bass cites a book published this week in Israel entitled, “The King’s Torah.” Bass said the book encourages the killing of gentiles and anyone else deemed to be a threat to Israel.

“We’re seeing a spirit rising,” Bass said, “where they feel they have a legitimate right to kill anyone who threatens the Jewish state.”

Mentioning the book, David Ortiz agreed with Bass, calling the bombing and recent anti-Christian aggression “a shadow of things to come.”

As for what the Ortiz family wishes for Teitel, Leah Ortiz said she hopes he will receive a sentence that is “equal to his crime.” Because Israel has no death penalty, this very likely would mean life in prison.

Regardless of what happens in court, members of the Ortiz family say they have forgiven Teitel.  David Ortiz hopes one day to sit down face-to-face with Teitel and talk. He said he hopes Teitel will become another Apostle Paul.

“There is something inside him that makes him want to kill people. If God has had mercy on me, maybe he’ll have mercy on others,” Ortiz said. “The Lord forgave David and many people in the Bible – my goal and my prayer for him is that he will repent and be saved.”

Report from Compass Direct News