Iran Releases Two Christian Women from Evin Prison

No bail required; charges of ‘proselytizing’ and ‘apostasy’ remain.

ISTANBUL, November 18 (CDN) — Two Christian Iranian women, Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, were released from prison this afternoon with no bail amid an international campaign calling for their freedom since their arrest on March 5.

The two women, whose health deteriorated while in detention at the notorious Evin prison in Tehran, are at their homes recovering from their nine-month ordeal, an Iranian source told Compass. They still could face charges of proselytizing and “apostasy,” or leaving Islam.

The women were released at 3:30 p.m.

“Words are not enough to express our gratitude to the Lord and to His people who have prayed and worked for our release,” the two women said in a statement from United Kingdom-based Elam Ministries.

The women’s lawyer had been working to secure their release, and although they were expected to be released yesterday, he was not able to do so because of the high bail the court was demanding. The Compass source said that it was too soon to determine how the lawyer was able to secure their release without bail today, a rarity for Christians released from prison in Iran.

The source credited their release to international lobbying and pressure on the Iranian government.

“It was from the international pressure, and also the government couldn’t handle it anymore,” said the source. “Already their detention was illegal. At the same time, the government wasn’t ready to prosecute them for apostasy. They already have many headaches. They cannot handle everything.”

The source said he suspected the two women will be very closely watched and would not have full freedom of movement, limiting their contact with others.

“It is too soon to give all the details,” he said. “It is not just about them. When people get out of jail we need time to get information … it is very difficult.”

Rostampour and Esmaeilabad were arrested in March and detained on charges of “acting against state security,” “taking part in illegal gatherings” and apostasy under Iran’s Revolutionary Court system.

On Aug. 9 the women appeared before a judge who pressured them to recant their faith and return to Islam or spend more time in prison. The two women refused. Last month, on Oct. 7, they were acquitted of the charge of “anti-state activities,” and their case was transferred to the General Court.

The charges of proselytizing and apostasy remain against them but are not handled by the Revolutionary Court. While proselytizing and apostasy are not crimes specified in the current Penal Code, judges are required to use their knowledge of Islamic law in cases where no codified law exists.

With a draft penal code that may include an article mandating death for apostates in accordance to sharia (Islamic law) still under parliamentary review, experts on Iran fear things may get worse for the country’s converts from Islam.

Elam reported that the women were “doing as well as could be expected, and are rejoicing in the Lord’s faithfulness to them.” The women reportedly lost a lot of weight during their imprisonment. Esmaeilabad suffered from back pain, an infected tooth and intense headaches, and Rostampour got severe food poisoning last month.

Elam requested continued prayers as the women may still be called to court hearings. The Iranian source said that all Christians released from prison in the last year have pending court cases against them, but almost none of them have been given court dates.

“Maryam and Marzieh have greatly inspired us all,” Director of Elam Ministries Sam Yeghnazar said today in a press statement. “Their love for the Lord Jesus and their faithfulness to God has been an amazing testimony.”

A member of Open Doors, one of many ministries that mobilized prayer support for the two women internationally, expressed gratitude for the two women’s release but cautioned that continued prayers were necessary until they were completely out of danger.

“Open Doors is so thankful for the release of these two women, and we praise God that they are safely home now,” said an Open Doors field worker who requested anonymity. “But we continue to pray for them, for physical and mental health. Open Doors also thanks the worldwide Christian family for their prayers for them, but we urge our brothers and sisters to not stop praying. They still have a path to go.”

Compass has also learned that on Oct. 13 the leader of a large network of churches in the northern city of Rasht was arrested and is still in prison. Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani has had contact with his family and has been pressured to recant his faith and return to Islam, according to an Iranian Christian who requested anonymity. Nadarkhani is married and has two children under the age of 10.

Another source confirmed that while six of the 24 Christians who were arrested in a police raid on July 31 in the area of Fashan north of Tehran have been released, one identified as Shaheen remains in prison unable to pay bail for his release.

Report from Compass Direct News 

US Evangelical Lutheran Church approves homosexual clergy

On Friday, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted in favor of allowing practicing homosexuals, in committed relationships, to hold positions of authority within the sect, reports Thaddeus M. Baklinski,

By a vote of 559 to 451 at last week’s national convention, representatives of the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States decided “to open the ministry of the church to gay and lesbian pastors and other professional workers living in committed relationships.”

“The actions here change the church’s policy, which previously allowed gays and lesbians into the ordained ministry only if they remained celibate,” ELCA information director John Brook told AFP.

“This is not simply rules and procedures for implementing something new,” said Rev. Stanley Olson, executive director of ELCA Vocation and Education. “We have these policies because we are committed to having the kind of leaders who will serve the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who will respect this church and other churches, and who will have the world in view.”

Members of Lutheran CORE (Coalition for Reform), representing over 400 conservative congregations that fought against the homosexualist resolution, renounced the ELCA vote.

“ELCA has broken faith with its members and Lutherans worldwide,” CORE said in a statement released on Friday.

“Lutheran CORE is continuing in the Christian faith as it has been passed down to us by generations of Christians,” Rev. Paul Spring, chairman of Lutheran CORE, said in the statement. “I am saddened that a Lutheran Church that was founded on a firm commitment to the Bible has come to the point that the ELCA would vote to reject the Bible’s teaching on marriage and homosexual behavior. It breaks my heart.”

Rev. Spring said CORE will encourage ELCA members and congregations to withdraw financial support from the denomination.

“Lutheran CORE leaders are inviting faithful Lutheran congregations and individuals to direct funding away from the national church body because of the decisions made this week by the Churchwide Assembly. Lutheran CORE will participate in and support faithful ELCA ministries, but cannot support ELCA ministries that reject the authority of God’s Word,” the group’s statement stated.

Rev. Richard Mahan, pastor at St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Charleston, W.Va., told AFP that he believed a majority of his congregation would want to now break away from the ELCA.

“This will cause an ever greater loss in members and finances. I can’t believe the church I loved and served for 40 years can condone what God condemns,” Mahan said. “Nowhere in Scripture does it say homosexuality and same-sex marriage is acceptable to God. Instead, it says it is immoral and perverted.”

Lutheran CORE announced it will hold a convention in Indianapolis, September 25-26, to plan its further response to the ELCA announcement.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


After shooting into air, assailants strike mother, sister-in-law with rifle butts.

LAHORE, Pakistan, June 12 (Compass Direct News) – In a growing culture of violence here, a traffic incident in Punjab Province this month led to Muslim assailants later mounting an attack on the home of a Christian pastor they have increasingly resented for his evangelism and justice ministries. The attackers threatened more violence if the pastor does not drop assault charges.

A few of the 17 assailants struck the mother and sister-in-law of pastor Riaz Masih with rifle butts after the pastor’s brother, who lives at the same multi-housing complex as Masih in Kila Sardar Shah, Sheikhupura district, on June 1 complained to a local councilor about the official nearly driving into his sons. Christian leaders said the roadside incident was only the fuse igniting hostilities that have grown due to meetings held by Christ for All Nations Ministries (CANM).

The meetings have attracted many youths, including some Muslims. Pastor Masih is national coordinator of CANM, a self-supported church-planting ministry. Saqib Munawar, chairman of CANM, said the attack on the pastor’s home in the remote village is an indication that as Islamic extremism rises amid a military attempt to flush Islamic militants from the Swat Valley in the country’s northwest, a growing culture of violence means minor incidents more easily erupt into attacks.

“As the Swat operation is going on, hostilities against Christians are on the rise,” Munawar said. “Extremism, which has flourished in the last few decades, is now creating problems for all Pakistanis. This attitude has promoted violence in the country.”

Pakistanis are becoming more violent, he said, and extremism has increased partially in response to evangelism efforts by Christians, he said.

In the triggering incident, pastor Masih’s 17- and 18-year-old nephews were standing on the side of a road with their backs to traffic in Kila Sardar Shah when Malik Younus, a village councilor, passed in a vehicle that nearly struck them. The teenagers immediately complained to Younus that he should have at least honked to warn them to step aside.

Younus got out of his vehicle and beat them, Munawar said. They complained to their father, Mushtaq Masih, who then called Younus. Younus threatened to beat them again, and Mushtaq Masih responded that he would have no choice but to call police. Younus became furious, according to Munawar.

Within an hour Younus, his brother Malik Falak Sher and 15 other men armed with automatic weapons and wooden clubs arrived at the multi-family complex where Pastor Masih and his brothers live with their families. The pastor was some distance from home when his 12-year-old daughter called and told him that the Muslim attackers were outside firing into the air.

Rushing to the scene, Masih approached the house from the backyard as the assailants were breaking down the main gate. The pastor managed to lock himself with members of his family inside a room, but his sister-in-law – wife of his younger brother Ilias Masih – and his mother were outside at the time.

Having broken down the main gate and wall and had entered the courtyard, the assailants struck the two women with rifle butts and demanded to know where the boys and their father were. Pastor’s Masih’s brother, Mushtaq Masih, had also locked himself and his family in a room. The attackers were trying to break down the doors of rooms in pastor Masih’s home when one of them called off the assault and they left.

The family reported the assault to police, but officers have done nothing as they have close ties with the attackers – and the assailants also have links with various local government leaders, Munawar said. The intruding Muslims warned pastor Masih and his family that if they contacted police and media, they would face “retribution.”

The Station House Officer told Compass that Younus and his cohorts had been released on bail; he would not comment further.

Munawar said the Masih families will likely seek a settlement instead of jail terms.

“The family will probably go for an out-of-court settlement, as they have to live,” he said. “However, fears are that such flare-ups may hit back, which would certainly hamper our evangelical efforts.”

Rumors spread that a former member of the Punjab Assembly, Agha Gull, was involved in the traffic incident, but Gull told Compass that he was in Iraq at the time of the incident and had nothing to do with it. Gull said someone told him that a clash took place on the road, but that “none of the parties came to me.”

Justice Ministry

Certain that the remote village Muslims would not have access to Compass news, pastor Masih told Compass that the antagonists were upset with him also over his efforts to take back lands stolen from Christian families. There are four Christian families in the village of 40 to 50 families.

The Christian villagers had paid for land they have lived on since 1989, but they never received documents for the transfer, leaving the real estate in the hands of Muslim businessman Syed Izhar Shah – whom villagers say is involved in land theft in collaboration with those who instigated the June 1 attack, Younus and his brother Sher.

Last year pastor Masih offered 20,000 rupees (US$250) to the landowner to legally transfer the property with proper documentation, but the owner declined. Pastor Masih’s father has also paid some 10,000 rupees for his share of the land. Additionally, Akram Masih, who heads one of the four Christian families in the area, has paid an additional 27,000 rupees (US$335) in an effort to legally obtain his share of the land, but the landowner forbid him to take possession as well.

Younus and Sher are behind a land-grab designed to drive the few Christian families from the area, pastor Masih said. They have illegally taken over a nearby, eight-acre tract of land zoned for a housing tract called Royal Town. Christian villagers had paid for this land also in 1989 – and also without receiving documentation – and the legal land owner, Syed Izhar Shah, is pressuring them to either pay the current price or leave the village, pastor Masih said.

“The attack has been unleashed on the weakest, because there are only four Christian families living in this village,” said pastor Masih. “They are vexing us so that we leave the area.”

Pastor Munawar said that anti-Christian hostilities resulted in the cancellation of CANM’s youth program, which was scheduled for last Monday (June 8).

“The fate of our next program, scheduled on June 21, is also hanging in balance,” he said.

Munawar added that last year’s annual youth program, held in May, had been secured by armed Christians after an area Muslim tipped them off that their worship could be targeted. The guards were provided licensed .222 Remington rifles.

Report from Compass Direct News

Repressive Religion Law and new punishments enter force

Azerbaijan’s repressive new Religion Law slid in under the radar, reports MNN.

Joel Griffith with Slavic Gospel Association says it’s been modified since the last time they saw it. “It appears that this is a little bit worse than what we thought it was going to be. Just looking at parts of this legislation, now in force as of May 31, it seems like there have been some new offenses that have been added to it as well as some new penalties.”

Some of the changes include severe censorship and harsher punishments. These were introduced for religious activities and agencies the government does not like.

Griffith went on to say that all registered religious organizations must re-register by 1 January 2010, the third time re-registration has been demanded in less than twenty years. Earlier re-registration rounds saw many churches and ministries fail to regain their legal status.

He agrees with the assessment of Forum 18, that the wording implies unregistered organizations are illegal.

As it is, under the existing rules, Griffith says they’ve already felt the heat. “We’ve had several evangelical pastors jailed because of their ministry. So it seems, at least within Azerbaijan, that there is an intent to try to crack down on evangelical churches.”

However, there are some unexpected allies. According to Forum 18, Parliamentary Deputy Fazil Gazanfarolgu Mustafaev said, “the new Religion Law will limitpeople’s rights to freedom of conscience – that is clear.”

Gazanfarolgu added that public pressure may force parliamentary deputies to take another look at the Religion Law, given public unhappiness over the way religion is controlled.

Griffith adds that while it looks bad, it’s too early to know how much evangelistic work could be at risk. “How this new law is going to be enforced, only time will tell. As I say, we have seen at least some in Parliament who are wanting to believe that there will be some public pressure brought to bear to have this re-examined, so I think this needs to be our chief hope and prayer.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Christian leaders assert decision breaches religious law.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, May 5 (Compass Direct News) – Church members in Depok city, West Java, are unable to use their church building after the mayor, citing protests from area Muslims, revoked a permit issued in 1998.

Under a Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) issued in 1969 and revised in 2006, all religious groups in Indonesia must apply for permits to establish and operate places of worship.

The Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church in Cinere village, Limo sub-district, in 1997 applied for permission to construct a church building and auditorium on 5,000 square meters of land, said Betty Sitompul, manager of the building project. Permission was granted in June 1998, and construction began but soon stopped due to a lack of funding.

After construction began again in 2007, members of a Muslim group from Cinere and neighboring villages damaged the boundary hedge and posted banners on the walls of the building protesting its existence. Most of the protestors were not local residents, according to Sitompul.

By then, the church building was almost completed and church members were using it for worship services.

Mayor Nur Mahmudi Ismail asked church leaders to cease construction temporarily to appease the protestors. Six months later, in January 2008, the church building committee wrote to the mayor’s office asking for permission to resume work on the project.

“We waited another six months, but had no response,” Sitompul said. “So we wrote again in June 2008 but again heard nothing.”

The building committee wrote again in February, asking for dialogue with the protestors, but members of the Muslim group also wrote to the mayor on Feb. 19, asking him to cancel the church permit.

On March 27 the mayor responded with an official letter revoking the church permit on the grounds of preserving “interfaith harmony.” When challenged, he claimed that city officials had the right to revoke prior decisions, including building permits, at any time.

The Rev. Simon Todingallo, head of the Christian Synod in Depok, said the decision breached SKB regulations and was the result of pressure from a small minority who did not want a church operating in the area. Rev. Todingallo added that the ruling is illegal since the mayor has no right to decide alone, but must also involve Religious Affairs and Internal Affairs ministries.

Saddled with an expensive building complex that was effectively useless, church officials said they would attempt to negotiate with the mayor’s office for the return of the permit and seek legal counsel if negotiations failed.

Report from Compass Direct News


March 26, a severe storm swept through Northeast India, wreaking havoc on a Bible college supported by Gospel for Asia, reports MNN.

The majority of buildings on-campus were destroyed, but all students and staff emerged safely. Students spent the first night in temporary shelters and will finish their semester at the end of this month. The college’s principal requested prayer for wisdom for those involved with the center’s reconstruction plans, and for people in the surrounding community whose homes sustained significant damage.

According to GFA, the storm struck Assam, India last week at around 6:30 p.m. and caused severe damage throughout the area. The college’s dormitories, chapel, kitchen and offices sustained the brunt of damage from the storm. Tin roofs were ripped off of buildings; many portions of the walls and building frames were blown apart. Although students were badly shaken, they were able to gather for a worship service later that night, “thanking God for sparing their lives.”

Students have cleaned up what they could and plan to work with GFA Compassion Services teams to help others living in the surrounding area. In desperate situations, these disaster teams bring food, water, medical care, clothing and occasionally, shelter.

Final exams were administered Monday, and students will finish out their semester this month. Prayer was requested for those involved in planning campus reconstruction, and your prayers will also be needed for the students and GFA Compassion teams serving people affected by this severe storm.

Aside from disaster relief, GFA Compassion Services teams minister on a continual basis in Asia slums, leper communities, and other forsaken people groups. You can find out more about those ministries by clicking here.

Gospel for Asia has established 67 major Bible colleges in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the Bhutan border. Students are equipped to “reach the unreached” through an intensive three-year program, including on-the-job training through outreach ministry and preparation for missionary life.

Report from the Christian Telegraph