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 

Iran Detains Christians without Legal Counsel

Half of those arrested in recent months could face apostasy charges.

ISTANBUL, January 28 (CDN) — At least 14 Christians have been detained in Iranian prisons for weeks without legal counsel in the past few months as last year’s crackdown has continued, sources said.

Three Christians remained in detention at Evin prison after authorities arrested them along with 12 others who had gathered for Christmas celebrations on Dec. 24 in a home 20 kilometers (12 miles) southeast of Iran’s capital, Tehran, according to a source who requested anonymity.

While the others were released on Jan. 4, remaining at Evin prison were Maryam Jalili, Mitra Zahmati and Farzan Matin, according to the source. Jalili is married and has two children.

Matin sounded ill in a short phone conversation this week to his family, the source said.

“Maybe he caught a cold, maybe it’s something else, but for sure they are under heavy pressure,” the source said. “They are not allowed visits from family. It doesn’t seem good.”

Security forces went to the homes of all the detainees and confiscated their books, computers and other literature, according to Farsi Christian News Network. None of the Christians have had access to legal counsel or representation.

“Normally they eventually release them,” said an Iranian source of the Dec. 24 arrests. “They never keep one person forever … but we don’t know when. We are used to living with this kind of government. Therefore we try our best and seek what God will do, and pray that they don’t keep them so long.”

The source said authorities have promised the release of the three Christians arrested Dec. 24 but have yet to let them go.

“They called their families, and they were told they would be released after bail … but then they didn’t [release them],” he said of the three Christians held in Evin.

Within days after the Dec. 24 arrest, Jalili’s sister, Mobina Jalili, and another Christian were arrested in Isfahan. The source said these two have had no contact with their families. The location and conditions of their detainment are unknown. 

Apostasy Charges

In the southwestern city of Shiraz, seven Christians were being detained as of Jan. 11, another source said, and most of them may face charges of apostasy, or leaving Islam.

Family members who have spoken with the arrested Christians said authorities have told the detainees – with the exception of one who was not born a Muslim – that they are guilty of apostasy, the source said.

The names of those detained in Shiraz are Parviz Khaladj, Mehdi Furutan, Roxana Furouyi, Behrouz Sadegh-Khanjani, Abdol Reza Ali Haghnejad, Iman Farzad and one identified only as Mahyar. 

Another Christian in the northern city of Rasht, Davoot Nejatsabet, also has been arrested. And Yousef Nadarkhani, who was arrested last year on Oct. 13 in Rasht, remains in prison.

The source said the government was in crisis with so many of its citizens continuing to openly protest against it, and that this was an opportune moment to lash out against Christians.

“They see that the West is keeping quiet about Christians,” said the source. “But the Christians should mobilize about what is happening.”

Arrested Christians are regularly denied legal counsel. Often Christians are charged with other crimes, such as espionage or disrupting public order, because of their faith. The charged political climate in Iran has made it nearly impossible for Christians to find appropriate defense lawyers they can afford, a source said. Many of Iran’s human rights lawyers have either fled the country, the source said, are in prison or are otherwise unable to take up Christian cases.

Under sharia (Islamic law), apostasy is one of several “crimes” punishable by death, although Islamic court judges are not required to hand down such a sentence. No converts to Christianity have been convicted of apostasy since international pressure forced officials to drop the death sentence of Christian convert Mehdi Dibaj in 1994.

In the years following the convert’s release, however, Dibaj and four other Protestant pastors, including converts and those working with them, have been murdered. The murderers of the Christians have never been brought to justice, and government officials are suspected of playing a role in the killings.

Governmental and non-governmental agencies say that Christian converts are regularly placed under surveillance, arrested, imprisoned without due process and tortured. Muslim-born Iranians who have embraced Christianity are legally prohibited from practicing their newfound faith.

Report from Compass Direct News