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 


Family fears for his safety; planned Easter celebration near earthquake area quashed.

DUBLIN, April 17 (Compass Direct News) – Family members of detained Uyghur Christian Alimjan Yimit are increasingly concerned for his safety following reports that police and a prison doctor escorted him in handcuffs to a hospital in Kashgar two weeks ago.

Alimjan (Alimujiang Yimiti in Chinese) called out to onlookers, “I’m sick. Tell my lawyer to come quickly to see me,” according to a China Aid Association (CAA) report.

Sources told Compass that Alimjan had been beaten in prison, although it was not clear who beat him or why.

The transfer from the Kashi Municipal Detention Center in Kashgar, Xinjiang province, came just one week after Alimjan’s lawyer met with him to discuss a court trial anticipated in May. According to CAA, this was only the second time authorities have allowed anyone to visit Alimjan since his arrest in January 2008.

Court authorities last May returned Alimjan’s case to state prosecutors, citing lack of evidence for charges of “leaking state secrets” and “inciting secession.” Family, friends and work colleagues have insisted that Alimjan is a loyal citizen with no access to state secrets, and that his arrest was due largely to his Christian faith and association with foreign Christians.

Compass sources confirmed this week that Alimjan’s family members are emotionally distraught over his continued detention and over lack of communication from prison authorities.

If convicted, Alimjan could face execution; Chinese authorities executed two alleged Uyghur separatists as recently as last Thursday (April 9).

Authorities first detained Alimjan on Jan. 12, 2008 on charges of endangering state security before formally re-arresting him on Feb. 20, 2008 for allegedly “inciting secession” and leaking state secrets to foreign organizations.

After court authorities returned Alimjan’s case to state prosecutors and after their further investigation, his case was returned to court officials for consideration in mid-October.

Compass sources claim Kashgar authorities are wary of the case due to its sensitivity. Officials initially interrogated Alimjan during his employment for two foreign-owned companies and forbade him to discuss the questioning with anyone. In September 2007 they closed the business he then worked for and accused him of using it as a cover for “preaching Christianity” among the Uyghurs. Alimjan was arrested several months later on political charges.

A second Uyghur Christian, Osman Imin (Wusiman Yaming in Chinese), sentenced to two years in labor camp for “leaking state secrets” and “illegal proselytizing,” is due for release this October. Authorities had originally called for a 10-15 year prison sentence for Osman but significantly reduced the term following international media attention.

Authorities permit Osman’s wife and children to visit him once a month.


Human Rights Proposal

On Monday (April 13), as family members waited to hear news of Alimjan’s condition, China’s State Council released a new document outlining proposed human rights improvements. The document focused heavily on protecting the rights of prisoners and included a pledge to abolish torture and other forms of abuse within two years.

The “National Human Rights Action Plan” was one of several measures proposed by a Chinese government delegation at a United Nations review of China’s human rights record held on Feb. 9.

The plan includes a ban on confessions extracted through torture and a new requirement for physical examinations before and after interrogations. It also affirms the right of prisoners to hire and meet with lawyers and to report abuses in writing to the appropriate authorities.

China’s state-run English newspaper, the China Daily, reported on March 24 that bullying and torture were a significant problem in the nation’s detention centers, and that at least five inmates had died under suspicious circumstances since Feb. 8, according to CAA.



‘Break-through’ for Christianity in China a Mirage

By Xu Mei

BEIJING, April 17 (Compass Direct News) – Prior to the event it was publicized abroad as the next great break-through for house church Christianity in China.

A giant, open celebration was to be held on Easter Sunday (April 12) in the western city of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. Finally, it seemed, the government would acknowledge the sacrificial work of house church Christians who came to Sichuan from throughout the country to help with rescue and reconstruction for those suffering from last May’s earthquake. It would be an open admission that Christianity – even of the house church variety – was a positive element in Chinese society.

Verbal permission had been obtained for 2,500 house church Christians throughout China to meet for the special celebration entitled, “Build Up the Church and Bless Society.” Some 50 government officials had been invited to the event, to be held at Chengdu’s new exhibition center. Christians from Singapore and the United States flew in for it.

But the day before Easter, police abruptly informed the center that the event was cancelled. Organizers hastily changed the venue to a smaller, old exhibition center where only about 1,000 people could be accommodated. Plans for a more low-key event were stitched together, to start at 5 p.m. on Easter Sunday.

But even this was too much. An hour before the event, police barred the door. The foreigners left. None of the promised government officials turned up. A few hundred bemused Chinese house church Christians seized the opportunity to hold an impromptu worship service in a nearby parking lot.

Police intervened there, too, and arrested some local house church leaders. They were released later that evening.

The debacle comes after another much-publicized “break-through,” a supposedly government-sponsored seminar in Beijing last Nov. 21-22 in which officials were said to have met with house church leaders (see, “Officials Reach Out to House Churches; Raids, Arrests Continue,” Dec. 9, 2008). The chief organizer later denied there was any government involvement, much less a break-through.

Rather, a minor Non-Governmental Organization had assembled academics, including some Christians, to meet with house church leaders to discuss church-state relations and make proposals they hoped might be passed on to the government at some future stage.

Observers speculate that in both the symposium and the Easter celebration, Christians overseas and perhaps some younger Chinese Christians – who have less experience than their elders with the machinations of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – had overestimated the benevolence of government authorities. Faced with the enormity of an economic crisis, sources said, the government seems to be in no mood to take major steps to liberalize oppressive religious policies, let alone legalize house churches.

That the Beijing seminar was actually held, and that the Chengdu celebration could be organized only to be stopped at the last minute, could be viewed as hopeful signs of how the Chinese government has lumbered forward, at glacial pace, towards a more open policy towards Christians over the last decade or so. But powerful reactionary forces within the CCP view with dismay the extraordinary growth of the church, sources say.

Many officials still view Christianity – and especially house churches – as an ideological and political threat. Limits on the public expression of Christian worship and evangelism are clearly laid down in a welter of national, provincial and local documents issued by CCP and government over the past 25 years. Sources say minor infractions may be winked at, but major changes in a more liberal direction are not to be expected.

Officials are struggling to control a country that threatens to become increasingly uncontrollable. Depending on how long the economic recession grips China, sources say, it seems likely that for the next two years at least, the government will err on the side of caution.  

Report from Compass News Direct


Christians may face increased controls as government reacts to growth, public discontent.

BEIJING, February 4 (Compass Direct News) – Concerned by the growth of unregistered house church groups in an uncertain political and social climate, the Chinese government has ramped up efforts both to identify Christians and to portray Christianity as a subversive foreign force.

Sources told Compass that authorities in recent months have been quietly gathering data on church growth, with surveys at universities and workplaces pointedly asking whether respondents were Christians. The surveys seemed largely unconcerned about other religions.

At the same time, Communist Party officials have called meetings at various institutions in the capital to discuss supposed dangers of foreign religious influence. On Dec. 20 officials called a meeting at one of Beijing’s most prestigious cultural colleges to lecture faculty members about such dangers. A Christian teacher forced to attend told Compass that the lecturers distorted historical facts to impress upon her and her colleagues that Buddhism, Daoism and Islam were “indigenous” and therefore safe. The teacher noted that Islam, having come from the Middle East, could hardly be regarded as indigenous to China, and that Buddhism originally came from India but later took on Chinese characteristics.

By contrast, the officials told the teachers that Protestantism and Roman Catholicism were foreign and hence potentially “subversive.” Party members warned participants to be on guard against these faiths.

China’s leaders have warned that 2009 will be marked by increased unrest and demonstrations as public anger mounts against increasing unemployment and corruption. Also disconcerting to the government is Charter 08, an online pro-democracy initiative launched in mid-December and signed by an increasing number of Chinese Netizens. It calls for an end to the one-party system, an independent court and freedom of speech. Many of the original signatories were well-known pro-democracy lawyers and intellectuals, but the list now includes computer technicians, construction workers and farmers.

In response to these signs and portents of unrest, the government has begun to increase political and social control. Christian leaders told Compass they did not feel a huge crackdown was necessarily imminent, but they said the overall political climate had become more tense and that this would almost certainly affect unregistered house church Christians.

House church leaders in Beijing told Compass that conditions now seemed even “tighter” than in the period leading up to the Olympic Games last August. In previous years Christians rented halls and conference rooms for large-scale Christmas events, but last year’s Christmas celebrations were deliberately low-key.

A house church leader in a major northeastern city confirmed this general sense of caution. He added that he had seen an internal document leaked from the local Religious Affairs Bureau, dated in early January, which warned against “subversion” by supposedly hostile Christian forces from overseas.

The leaders were generally optimistic about the continuing work and growth of the church, with one Beijing pastor claiming more than 1,000 new converts were baptized last year in his group alone.


Mixed Signals

Chinese officials last November had initiated talks with Protestant house church Christians, raising hopes for greater freedom.

Meetings organized partly by the China State Council’s Research and Development Center brought together academics and lawyers, many of them house church members, and a delegation of six Protestant house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou. As the Times of London reported in January, however, no Catholic representatives were invited; the Communist Party remains in a political standoff with the Vatican. (See Compass Direct News, “Officials Reach Out to House Churches; Raids, Arrests Continue,” Dec. 9, 2008.)

At the time, church leaders involved in the discussions were cautiously optimistic. Pastor Ezra Jin of Beijing’s Zion Church told the Times, “The government … has understood that the Protestant church is not an opposition force but a force for stability and harmony.” He added that the government wanted to evaluate whether house churches posed a threat to the regime and to ask why they rejected the leadership of the Three Self Patriotic Movement, an official body appointed to oversee Protestant churches.

Despite these talks, house church raids and arrests have continued. On Jan. 16, Public Security Bureau officers forcibly removed pastor Zhang Mingxuan from fellow pastor Hua Huiqi’s house in Beijing and put him on a bus to Henan province, warning him not to return, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported.

Zhang had gone to visit Hua’s ailing father, Hua Zaichen. For years the elderly Hua and his wife, Shuang Shuying, have suffered harassment for their work with the unofficial church. Authorities have now denied Shuang, currently serving a two-year prison sentence, permission to visit her dying husband.

On Jan. 2, police raided a house church meeting in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, detaining 50 people. Later that day, 48 of them were released without charge; another was released after paying a 500 yuan (US$73) fine, and the last was sentenced to 10 days of administrative detention, according to CAA.

On Dec. 3, 2008, members of the Taikang County Domestic Defense Protection Squad burst into a private home in Chuanhui district, Zhoukou municipality, Henan, and arrested 50 Christians gathered there, CAA reported. About 20 of the detainees were sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention while leaders Tang Houyong, Shu Wenxiang and Xie Zhenqi were sentenced to one year of labor and re-education.

Some house church Christians have become more vocal in their calls for justice and religious liberty. For example, following the district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit on behalf of Tang Houyong and his companions, Tang’s wife filed a motion to dismiss the Chief Justice of the court for violating legal procedures.

With the specter of serious political and social unrest looming before officials in the face of China’s economic recession, such Christian protests could add to the government’s unease over the growing number and influence of house church Christians.

Report from Compass Direct News


Last night I happened to be looking at the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) web site for any signs of approaching thunderstorms and found to my great surprise that there had been a tsunami warning for all of Australia, Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island. I couldn’t believe it. This was the early warning that Australians were going to get in the event of a tsunami? Who checks the BOM web site for tsunami warnings? Something better than this needs to be done – what if there was an actual tsunami?

I hadn’t seen anything on the television and I had been watching the news when the major earthquake occurred that had sparked the tsunami concern. The quake occurred at about 6.30pm off the Loyalty Islands near New Caledonia. Not much time to get away from any location on the coast should an actual tsunami have occurred.

But there were no warnings on the television or on the radio from what I understand. The only way you could have known about it was to check the various official web sites by the look of it – which included the BOM site I guess.

The earthquake was originally reported as being an 8.3 quake but has since been reported as a 6.8. Quakes of this size can cause local tsunamis apparently – however they don’t travel too far generally. Perhaps this was the reason for the ‘low key’ warning of a possible tsunami.