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 

Iran Arrests, Coerces Christians over Christmas Season

Authorities threaten to take ailing daughter from parents.

ISTANBUL, January 6 (CDN) — A wave of arrests hit Iranian house churches during the Christmas season, leaving at least five Christian converts in detention across northern Iran, including the mother of an ailing 10-year-old girl.

Security officers with an arrest warrant from the Mashhad Revolutionary Court entered the home of Christian Hamideh Najafi in Mashhad on Dec. 16. After searching her home and confiscating personal belongings, including books and compact discs, police took her to an undisclosed location, according to Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN).

FCNN reported that on Dec. 30 the Mashhad Revolutionary Court sentenced Najafi to three months of house arrest and ordered that her daughter, who suffers from a kidney condition, be placed under foster care. Because of the seriousness of the girl’s illness, however, she was left in the custody of her parents – on the condition that they cease believing in Christ and stop speaking publicly of their faith, FCNN reported.

Najafi was denied access to a lawyer during this court hearing, according to FCNN.

During interrogation, officers told Najafi to return to Islam and to disclose names of Christian evangelists. FCNN reported that on some occasions the security officers summoned her husband, blindfolded him and threatened to beat him in front of his wife if she would not sign a confession that she was “mentally and psychologically unfit and disturbed.”

The Dec. 30 court hearing was quickly arranged after she was coerced into signing this confession, FCNN reported, and on those grounds her child was initially ordered to be taken from her. Najafi’s daughter suffers from a severe kidney and bladder condition.

There were no formal charges against Najafi, but she stands accused of contacting a foreign Christian television network, which court officials labeled as a “political” crime, according to FCNN.

Advocacy group Middle East Concern reported that sources believe authorities forced Najafi’s sister to file a complaint against her on these grounds.

The officers who came to arrest Najafi said that portraits of Jesus hanging on her wall would be enough to convict her in court, reported FCNN. 

Arrests and Harassment

Compass has confirmed that authorities disrupted Christmas celebrations of two house groups in the Tehran area on Dec. 21 and Dec. 29, leaving four in prison. Other members attending the special services were also questioned.

In Shiraz, last week at least eight Christians arrested and released over a year ago were called in for questioning about their activities in the past year. They were all released after a few hours.

In Rasht, Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani is still in prison after being arrested on Oct. 13. Nadarkhani is married and has two children under the age of 10.

A source told Compass that another Christian identified as Shaheen, who had been in prison since July 31 when a special meeting of 24 Christians was raided in Fashan, north of Tehran, was released in November. He was the last of the six believers arrested at that meeting to be released.

Apart from arrests, Iranian Christians continue to endure discrimination. A source told Compass that one Christian was denied renewal of his truck driving license last week. When he asked why, authorities told him he was an enemy of the state.

The Christian had been arrested three years earlier because of his faith.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Kidnapped Christian Doctor in Iraq Freed in Critical Condition

Daughter’s ransom negotiations lead to release of Kirkuk pediatrician after 29 days of torture.

ISTANBUL, September 22 (CDN) — Islamic kidnappers in Kirkuk, Iraq last week dumped a Christian doctor in critical condition in front of a mosque after 29 days of torture and threats to him and his family.

Thanks to his 23-year-old daughter’s negotiations with the terrorists, 55-year-old Sameer Gorgees Youssif was freed but with wounds, hematomas and bruises covering his body; throughout his captivity, he lay bound and gagged.

He was abducted at around 8:15 p.m. on Aug. 18 as he was walking home from his pediatric clinic in a relatively “safe” district of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, sources told Compass.

The kidnappers, presumably insurgents, beat him and stuffed him in the trunk of a car amid an electrical blackout in the neighborhood. As they sped off, the abductors killed one of the doctor’s neighbors, identified only as Askar, with a single gunshot to his heart. He died immediately.

Sources said Askar, a Christian man in his fifties, heard the doctor yelling for help and, thinking it was one of his sons, ran to the car to stop it as it sped away.

Youssif, a father of two, is the fourth Christian doctor confirmed to be kidnapped in Kirkuk in the last two years; kidnapping of Christians in general and holding them for ransom is a regular occurrence in Iraq.

“This is a daily activity,” said an anonymous Iraqi Christian of the abductions taking place in Iraq. “They do it all the time. I don’t know what kind of government we have. They are not providing protection, and they are even afraid of insurgents.”

Hikmat Saeed, a Christian who was kidnapped in late August, was released on Sept. 11, and Salem Barjo, another Christian taken in August, was found dead on Sept. 3, according to Middle East Concern. Both men were abducted in Mosul.

Ransom Demands

The doctor’s family did not report the incident to the police, fearing negative repercussions in the event that officers were also involved in the crime.

The kidnappers called Youssif’s wife a few days later, demanded half a million dollars in ransom and threatened to kill him if they did not receive the money.

When asked where she would find such a huge amount, insurgents reportedly responded, “You are a woman; you can go and beg at the mosques or churches,” said an anonymous Christian Iraqi source from Erbil.

After twice speaking to the kidnappers, Youssif’s wife was said to begin experiencing numbness on her right side due to the stress. She was unable to resume negotiations, and her 23-year-old daughter started bargaining for her father’s life.

“I was the one talking to them and negotiating with them,” she said. “It’s all in God’s hands. He gave me the power to talk to them. I was begging them, saying, ‘Don’t do anything to him.’”

The doctor’s daughter, who requested her name be withheld, said that for two weeks the kidnappers insisted on $500,000, and then dropped the amount to $300,000.

“I said, ‘We don’t have that, have mercy on us,’” she said.

The terrorists found phone numbers of friends on the doctor’s mobile phone and called them, instructing them to tell his family that if they did not produce the money they would kill the doctor. In the end, the kidnappers lowered the amount to $100,000.

“They were threatening us all the time, and we were living in hell,” his daughter said. “We just stayed and prayed and fasted and closed the doors and locked them. We were afraid that maybe they would come here and kill all of us. God was our only hope.”

The family said they were able to collect the money through the generosity of friends; they are not sure how they will be able to pay it back.

Beyond Recognition

The doctor, who was tortured and starved beyond recognition, was dumped in front of a Kirkuk mosque on Wednesday (Sept. 16) hours after his father-in-law delivered the ransom money in an undisclosed location in Mosul. Family friends told Compass there was a police car stationed near the insurgents at the time of the ransom payment. Insurgents arrived armed in two cars.

“There is corruption,” said an anonymous source located in Erbil. “It’s normal here, in Mosul or Baghdad it is normal. People are kidnapped by [people in] police cars.”

Relatives who went to collect Youssif rushed him to the hospital.

Sources said the doctor had been bound, gagged and blindfolded and lay on his right side for 29 days developing severe pressure ulcers on his right thigh and arm and a deep wound on his right shoulder. He had a deep wound in the back of his neck and a hematoma on his left arm.

There were open wounds around his mouth and wrists where he was tightly bound the entire time he was held hostage, sources said. His left eye was infected. His forehead and nose were bashed repeatedly, and the rest of his body, especially the upper trunk, was covered in bruises.

“When I saw him, I couldn’t stand it – he wasn’t the man I knew,” said his daughter. “He looked like an old man, he had a beard, and he was so thin he looked anorexic.”

Relatives said he was afraid to speak about his experience because the terrorists threatened to kill him and his family. When he could speak, he asked his family how many days he had been gone.

“He said he kept praying, saying, ‘I know God won’t leave me alone,’” said his daughter. “He kept saying Psalm 23. He loves that, it’s his favorite psalm.”

Youssif’s pastor told Compass that there is no protection for the Christian communities in Iraq, and in Kirkuk only Christian rather than Muslim doctors have been kidnapped.

“There is no Muslim doctor who has been kidnapped in Kirkuk,” he said. “This shows that so far only the Christian doctors are kidnapped, I think, because there is no one protecting them and we have no militia. It is very easy for the criminals to kidnap Christian doctors.”

The pastor identified the other Christian doctors kidnapped in the last two years as Sargon Yowash, also from his parish, Reath Ramo and a third he could only identify as Dr. George.

Youssif’s daughter said she is convinced her father was kidnapped because he is a Christian and a doctor.

“Christians have no protection, that’s why we’re persecuted here,” she said. “We are weak here, that’s why they take advantage of us.”

The doctor was still in the hospital at press time, but his condition was improving, according to his family.

Report from Compass Direct News 


At least two gunmen repeatedly shoot teacher for Christian activities.

LOS ANGELES, June 29 (Compass Direct News) – Funeral services will be held tomorrow for a U.S. teacher in Mauritania who was shot dead last week by Islamic extremists for spreading Christianity.

Christopher Leggett, 39, was killed Tuesday morning (June 23) in front of the language and computer school he operated in Nouakchott, the capital city.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, North African unit of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, claimed responsibility for the murder on an Internet site, accusing Leggett of “missionary activities.” A North African al-Qaeda spokesman aired a statement on an Arab TV station saying the group killed Leggett because he was allegedly trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

Advocacy organization Middle East Concern reported that Leggett “resisted what appeared to be an attempt to kidnap him and was then shot in the head several times by his two assailants.”

His family issued a statement today saying they forgave the murderers but asked that they be caught and prosecuted.

“In a spirit of love, we express our forgiveness for those who took away the life of our remarkable son,” the family said in the statement, distributed in English, French and Arabic. “Chris had a deep love for Mauritania and its people, a love that we share. Despite this terrible event, we harbor no ill will for the Mauritanian people. On a spiritual level, we forgive those responsible, asking only that justice be applied against those who killed our son.”

Mauritania’s minister of justice reportedly said that Leggett’s death “was a great loss to Mauritania.” Leggett, his wife and four children lived for seven years in Mauritania, where he directed an aid agency that provided training in computer skills, sewing and literacy, and he also ran a micro-finance program, according to the Cleveland Daily Banner.

Mauritania’s National Foundation for the Defence of Democracy (FNDD) called for the killers to be brought to justice.

“This hateful crime, which was committed in broad daylight close to the market in El Ksar, one of the busiest in Nouakchott, once again raises the issue of instability and terrorism, which is often used by the military authorities to justify all sorts of unnatural situations,” the FNDD the statement read.

The Associated Press reported that Mauritania’s Interior Ministry said it was investigating the murder and that security forces were searching for the killers.

The AP reported that Leggett, who grew up in Cleveland, Tenn., taught at a center specializing in computer science and languages in El Kasr, a lower-class neighborhood in Nouakchott. The Rev. Jim Gibson, co-pastor of First Baptist Church of Cleveland, told the news service that Leggett visited the congregation when he traveled back to the United States but worked independently in Mauritania.

The Cleveland Daily Banner reported that Leggett was a 1987 graduate of Cleveland High School, attended Cleveland State Community College and graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1990 with a degree in Business Administration. He was a member of First Baptist Church of Cleveland for many years and most recently was a member of Michigan Avenue Baptist Church of Cleveland.

His funeral is scheduled for Tuesday 2009 at the First Baptist Church of Cleveland at 2 p.m.

Memorials to the family can be made at, or sent to Jackie B. Leggett at 1112 Glenmore Drive, Cleveland, TN 37312 or through First Baptist Church of Cleveland, 340 Church Street, Cleveland, TN 37311 and designated to the J. Mack Hall Fund. Messages of condolence may be given at

The last known activity of al-Qaeda in Mauritania occurred in December 2007, when gunmen believed to be linked to al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch killed four French tourists picnicking near Aleg, east of Nouakchott.

Report from Compass Direct News


Kingdom silences convert, prohibits him from leaving country.

LOS ANGELES, April 16 (Compass Direct News) – In a surprise move, a Saudi Christian arrested in January for describing his conversion from Islam and criticizing the kingdom’s judiciary on his blog site was released on March 28 with the stipulation that he not travel outside of Saudi Arabia or appear on media.

Hamoud Saleh Al-Amri (previously reported as Hamoud Bin Saleh), 28, reportedly attributed his release to advocacy efforts by the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). The Cairo-based organization had campaigned for his release along with other rights groups, reported Christian advocacy organization Middle East Concern (MEC).

Gamal Eid, director of ANHRI, told Compass by telephone that he believed his organization had nothing to do with Al-Amri’s release. Rather, he said he believed officials were loath to keep a person of questionable mental stability in prison.

“He is mentally not stable, because he had the courage to say in his blog that he is a Christian,” Eid said. “Anyone in his right mind in Saudi Arabia wouldn’t do that.”

The country’s penalty for “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, is death, although in recent years there have been no known cases of kingdom citizens formally convicted and sentenced with capital punishment for the offense.

This was not the first imprisonment for Al-Amri. He was detained in 2004 for nine months and in 2008 for one month before he was re-arrested on Jan. 13 of this year, and Eid said the young blogger was tortured during the first two incarcerations.

Al-Amri’s treatment during this latest imprisonment is unknown. After his previous releases he had contacted Eid’s office, but the ANHRI director said he has not done so since being released from Riyadh’s Eleisha prison, known for its human rights abuses.

“He was mistreated the first two times he was imprisoned, but this time I don’t know, because he hasn’t contacted me,” said Eid. “In the past he was mistreated with sleep deprivation, prolonged solitary confinement and a continuous barrage of physical torture and insults.”

The advocate added that it is likely Al-Amri was mistreated during his recent imprisonment.

“I consider anyone who declares his religion to be anything than Islam to be extremely brave and courageous, but this extreme courage bordering on carelessness is madness, because he knows what could happen in Saudi,” Eid said. “I’m not a doctor, but I find this extreme.”

Al-Amri has become isolated from his family and lives alone, Eid said, but he said he was unable to comment on the convert’s current situation.


Blog Blocked

Following Al-Amri’s latest arrest, MEC reported, Saudi authorities blocked access to his blog inside Saudi Arabia. Google then locked it, claiming there was a technical violation of terms of service. On Feb. 5 it was reportedly restored due to public pressure – after his March 28 release, Al-Amri had credited his release to ANHRI’s efforts on his blog, – but yesterday Compass found the site did not work.

Eid said he was not surprised the blog was blocked.

“That’s what I expected,” he said. “But he will probably start another blog – it’s not difficult.”

Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy restricts media and other forms of public expression, though authorities have shown some tolerance for criticism and debate since King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud officially ascended to the throne in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of State.

“Arabic countries are the worst on the list of censoring the Internet and are at the top of the list of antagonizing the freedom of the Internet,” said Eid. “But the Internet is still a good venue, because people are still able to express their views despite the government’s effort to curtail their efforts.”

In his blog prior to his arrest, Al-Amri had criticized the government for quashing individual rights.

“A nation which lives in this system cannot guarantee the safety of its individuals,” he wrote. “Preserving their rights from violation will always be a matter of concern, as the rights of a citizen, his dignity and humanity will always be subject to abuse and violation by those few who have absolute immunity provided to them by the regime.”

Eid of ANHRI described lack of civil law in Saudi Arabia as “extreme.” Citizens can be tortured endlessly, he said, adding that Saudis who openly state Christian faith face severe danger.

Although there have been recent moves towards reform, Saudi Arabia restricts political expression and allows only a strict version of Sunni Islam to be publicly practiced, according to MEC.

Political critic Fouad Ahmad al-Farhan became the first Saudi to be arrested for Web site postings on Dec. 10, 2007; he was released in April 2008.

Eid said he believes the lenient action of the Saudi authorities is a welcome move in a country where “there is no such thing as religious freedom.” In fact the move could encourage people of other faiths to speak up.

“This will open the door to whoever wants to express his belief, whether Christian, Hindu or other,” he said.

Saudis who choose a faith other than Islam and express it may face extra-judicial killings. In August 2008, a 26-year-old woman was killed for disclosing her faith on a Web site. Fatima Al-Mutairi reportedly had revealed on Web postings that she had left Islam to become a Christian. reported on Aug. 12, 2008 that her father, a member of the religious police or Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, cut out her tongue and burned her to death “following a heated debate on religion.” Al-Mutairi had written about hostilities from family members after they discovered she was a Christian, including insults from her brother after he saw her Web postings about her faith. Some reports indicated that her brother was the one who killed her.

She had reportedly written an article about her faith on a blog of which she was a member under the nickname “Rania” a few days before her murder.

Report from Compass News Direct