‘Continuously high’ wave of arrests increases; whereabouts, charges unknown.

LOS ANGELES, January 23 (Compass Direct News) – Three Christians from two different families were arrested from their homes Wednesday morning (Jan. 21) and are being held without charges, sources told Compass.

Authorities took Jamal Ghalishorani, 49, and his wife Nadereh Jamali from their home in Tehran between 7 and 8 a.m., about a half hour after arresting Hamik Khachikian, an Armenian Christian also living in Tehran. Ghalishorani and his wife are Christian converts from Islam, considered “apostasy” in Iran and potentially punishable by death.

Christian sources told Compass that Ghalishorani converted to Christianity 30 years ago, and his wife received Christ about 15 years ago. They have one child, a 13-year-old daughter, while Khachikian has two children, a 16-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter. Authorities have not told the families of the charges against those arrested or their whereabouts.

The three arrested Christians belong to house churches, source said, and they hold jobs and are not supported as clergy. Police also took books and computers from the families’ homes.

The arrests come as part of a tsunami of arrests in the past several months, the sources said.

“We don’t know why the pressure is continuously high, but we see that it is increasing,” said one source. “The government does it to the Baha’i people as well – there are more arrests in the last several months among them than in maybe the whole 30 years before.”

Arrests and pressure on Christians from authorities have ramped up even further in the past few months, the source said, adding that the reasons were unclear.

Another source, however, said the arrests are part of a concerted, nationwide government plan.

“We are quite sure that these arrests are part of a bigger operation from the government,” the source said. “Maybe up to 50 people were arrested. In Tehran alone already some 10 people were arrested – all on the same day, January 21.”

Sources noted that whereas past waves of intense harassment and arrests of Christians eventually have subsided, recent pressure has been “continuously high,” with reports of arrests in almost every month of 2008.

“In the past there have been waves of incredible pressure, but then it seemed to calm down a bit sometimes,” said one source. “Then we had the feeling pressure came and went, but now it is continuously ongoing.”

The families of those arrested fear for their safety. Khachikian’s wife is “very confused, she has no idea where her husband is,” said the source. “Relatives are taking care of the daughter of Jamal and Nadereh’s, but of course she’s very anxious about what will happen to her parents.”

The arrests are particularly disturbing in light of the Iranian parliament’s approval last September of a new penal code calling for a mandatory death sentence for “apostates,” or those who leave Islam. In the past death sentences for apostasy were issued only under judicial interpretations of sharia (Islamic law).

Under the new penal code, male “apostates” would be executed, while females would receive life sentences. The new code was to be sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which will rule on it. The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament. This body has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government was Hossein Soodmand in 1990. He was accused of working as “an American spy.” Since then at least six Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Uncertainty remains about condition of Christian charged with ‘propaganda.’

LOS ANGELES, November 10 (Compass Direct News) – Concerns about the health and safety of the son of martyred Iranian pastor Hossein Soodmand are swirling around Ramtin Soodmand as he awaits trial for “promoting anti-government propaganda.”

Soodmand was released on bail Oct. 22 after more than two months in a Mashhad prison, having originally been charged with “proselytizing.”

Before turning himself in to police in Mashhad on Aug. 21, Soodmand received a call from Fershteh Dibaj, the daughter of another Christian martyr, Mehdi Dibaj, telling him that intelligence officers wanted to meet with him. Puzzled, Soodmand asked, “Why do they want me to come there? I am living in Tehran,” according to a family member. (Compass earlier reported incorrectly that Soodmand was ordered to go from Mashhad to Tehran.)

Expecting Soodmand to be in Mashhad for no more than two days, family members told Compass that they were shocked when he remained in prison.

A family member also expressed frustration that the court repeatedly changed the bail amount before finally settling on $22,000. Soodmand’s in-laws put the deed to their home up to ensure bail.

Soodmand has been officially charged with “promoting anti-government propaganda.” But with a new penal code under consideration in Iranian Parliament this month that would mandate capital punishment for “apostates,” or those who leave Islam, friends and family worry that he may face the death penalty. A family member told Compass that the court had originally accused Soodmand of religious activity and proselytizing.

His father, the last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government, was accused of working as “an American spy.” Since then at least six Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.

Friends and relatives of Soodmand questioned his treatment while in prison. One source told Compass that he asked about Soodmand’s health on three separate phone conversations. “The government cut off the phone three times,” the source said.

A source closely following the case said that when he asked Soodmand about his treatment in prison, he responded, “No place on [my] body is hurting.” That source believed Soodmand was saying that he had recovered from being tortured.

Another source interested in the case told Compass, “It’s odd that Mitra [Soodmand’s wife] and Ramtin were only allowed to talk by phone. She never saw his face the whole time he was in prison.”

A family friend said he believes that no physical harm was done to Soodmand, telling Compass, “Ramtin was abused emotionally by being interrogated many times but was never beaten. He was taken to a room where he was told his father had spoken his last words before being executed.”

While there are many questions about Soodmand’s treatment, those close to the family agree that Soodmand has suffered during this ordeal.

“He [Soodmand] asks for prayer because he was badly shaken,” a source told Compass.

Soodmand’s father was executed by the state in 1990, and there is speculation that Ramtin Soodmand may have been singled out because of the relationship.

“I am not sure, but … once something like this happens for you in your family, you are ‘marked,’” said a source closely following the case.

Under the past three decades of Iran’s Islamist regime, hundreds of citizens who have left Islam and become Christians have been arrested for weeks or months, held in unknown locations and subjected to mental and physical torture.

The arrests of Iranian Christians in the last few months have deeply affected churches in Iran. “There is less trust among the believers,” a friend of Soodmand’s said to Compass. “They are suspicious of outsiders or newcomers because they could be ‘moles.’”

The friend also reported that the activities of house churches he works with have been sharply curtailed because many members believe they are under surveillance.

A family member is concerned for the Christians living in Mashhad.

“We got news from Iran that the intelligence service in Mashhad arrested 15 Christian people,” he told Compass last week.

Report from Compass Direct News


Tribunal tries to save face by claiming pastors never converted from Islam.

LOS ANGELES, October 30 (Compass Direct News) – An Iranian judge has ordered the release of two pastors charged with “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, but the defendants said the ruling was based on the court’s false claim that they confessed to having never converted to Christianity.

Mahmoud Matin Azad, 52, said he and Arash Basirat, 44, never denied their Christian faith and believe the court statement resulted from the judge seeking a face-saving solution to avoid convicting them of apostasy, which soon could automatically carry the death penalty.

Azad and Basirat were arrested May 15 and acquitted on Sept. 25 by Branch 5 of the Fars Criminal Court in Shiraz, 600 kilometers (373 miles) south of Tehran.

A court document obtained by human rights organization Amnesty International stated, “Both had denied that they had converted to Christianity and said that they remain Muslim, and accordingly the court found no further evidence to the contrary.”

Azad vehemently denied the official court statement, saying the notion of him being a Muslim never even came up during the trial.

“The first question that they asked me was, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I am a pastor pastoring a house church in Iran,” he told Compass. “All my [court] papers are about Christianity – about my activity, about our church and everything.”

Members of Azad’s house church confirmed that the government’s court statement of his rejection of Christianity was false.

“His faith wasn’t a secret – he was a believer for a long, long time,” said a source who preferred to remain anonymous.

During one court hearing, Azad said, a prosecutor asked him, “Did you change your religion?” Azad responded, “I didn’t have religion for 43 years. Now I have religion, I have faith in God and I am following God.”

If the court misstated that the two men said they were Muslims, it likely came from political pressure from above, said Joseph Grieboski, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.

“If the court did in fact lie about what he said, I would think it’s part of the larger political game that [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and his factions are trying to play to garner political support for him,” Grieboski said.

Ahmadinejad, who is facing re-election, has approval ratings hovering above the single digits and has faced international criticism for the apostasy law.

“What he does not need is bad press and bad political positioning,” Grieboski said. “I would be shocked if [the acquittal] were not somehow involved in the presidential campaign.”

International condemnation of the law and of the proposed mandatory death penalty for those who leave Islam come as Iran faces new rounds of U.N. economic sanctions for uranium enrichment.

Upon his release, Azad said that no reason was given for the court freeing him and Basirat. Disputing the court’s allegation that they claimed to be Muslims, Azad said that he told his attorney, “Two things I will never say. First, I will not lie; second, I will not deny Jesus my Lord and my Savior.”

The two men are grateful for their release, he said, but they worry that their acquittal might merely be a tactic by the Iranian government to wait for them to re-engage in Christian activity and arrest them again. Their release could also put anyone with whom they associate in danger, Azad said.

There is another worry that the government could operate outside the law in order to punish them, as some believe has happened in the past. The last case of an apostasy conviction in Iran was that of Christian convert Mehdi Dibaj in 1994. Following his release, however, Dibaj and four other Protestant pastors, including converts and those working with converts, were brutally murdered.

A similar motivation could have prompted the judge to release the two pastors. Leaving their deaths up to outside forces would abrogate him from personally handing down the death penalty, Grieboski said.

“Even in Iran no judge wants to be the one to hand down the death penalty for apostasy,” he said. “The judge’s motivation [in this hearing] could have been for his own face-saving reasons, for the possibility of arresting more people, or even for the possibility that the two defendants will be executed using social means rather than government means. Any of these are perfectly legitimate possibilities when we start talking about the Iranian regime.”

The court case against Azad and Basirat came amid a difficult time for local non-Muslims as the Iranian government attempted to criminalize apostasy from Islam.

On Sept. 9 the Iranian parliament approved a new penal code by a vote of 196-7 calling for a mandatory death sentence for apostates, or those who leave Islam. The individual section of the penal code containing the apostasy bill must be passed for it to go into law.

As recently as late August, the court was reluctant to release the two men on bail. At one point Azad’s attorney anticipated the bail to be between $40,000 and $50,000, but the judge set the bail at $100,000.

The original charge against Azad and Basirat of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran” was dropped, but replaced with the more serious charge of apostasy.

Those close to the two pastors were relieved at the acquittal since they expected their detention to be lengthy.

“We had anticipated [Azad’s incarceration] would be a while, and then we got this notice that they were released,” said a family friend of Azad. “We were shocked by that.”

Azad described his four-month incarceration in positive terms. He said that while in prison he was treated with respect by the authorities because he explained that he was not interested in political matters and was a pastor.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Hosts of house church succumb to injuries following raid; daughter still in custody.

ISTANBUL, August 6 (Compass Direct News) – An Iranian Christian couple in their 60s died last week from injuries sustained when secret police raided a house church service hosted at their house and severely beat them, a source told Compass.

Less than a week after Abbas Amiri’s funeral, his wife died from similar injuries and stress from her husband’s death, according to Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN).

Police beat and arrested Amiri on July 17, along with seven other men, six women and two minors who were attending the service, the source said. Amiri died in a hospital on July 30 from injuries sustained from the beating.

Amiri’s wife, Sakineh Rahnama, died on Sunday (Aug. 3) from stress-related causes, according to FCNN.

Secret police raided the house church meeting hosted by Amiri and his wife in Malek Shahr, just outside the central Iranian city of Isfahan. They beat and arrested all those in attendance, including the two minors and the hosting couple.

Violence against Amiri reportedly intensified when the policemen discovered that he had taken a pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five pillars of Islam required of all devout Muslims, before he had become a Christian. He was also a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, a strong source of Iranian national pride, so his conversion further infuriated police, according to FCNN.

All those arrested at the house meeting are reportedly still in custody, including Amiri’s daughter and the two minors.

Three days before his death, Amiri was moved to the Sharieti Hospital of Isfahan. Family members who saw him said his chest was severely bruised and believe that was the cause of his death, a source told Compass.

Amiri was buried the day after his death in a cemetery in his birthplace of Masjid-Soleiman, located near the Iran-Iraq border, on Thursday (July 31). Many friends and supporters attended the funeral, though security officials reportedly attempted to prevent their attendance.

Following Rahnama’s death on Sunday, secret police in Masjid-Soleiman put the Amiri family’s house under surveillance. They ordered the family not to have a memorial or funeral service for Rahnama and said they had to leave the city immediately.

Amiri’s son then yelled at the security officers, who proceeded to beat him, according to FCNN. Rahnama was buried on Monday (Aug 4).

Arrests and violence against Iranian Christians have intensified in recent weeks. Twelve Christians traveling to Armenia via Tehran were arrested on July 12 at the Kerman airport in south-central Iran. Two Christian converts have been jailed for two months in Shiraz, one of whom is diabetic and in critical condition.

In February the Iranian parliament proposed a draft penal code that demands the death penalty for leaving Islam. Under current Iranian law, “apostasy” is considered a capital offense, but punishment is left to the discretion of the judge.

The draft penal code is scheduled to be reviewed in the next parliamentary session.

Report from Compass Direct News


Authorities Launch New Wave of Arrests, Violence in Past 10 Days

ISTANBUL, July 30 (Compass Direct News) – A diabetic Iranian Christian jailed for two months is in critical condition due to lack of medical treatment, even as new reports of arrests against Christians surfaced this week.

The Iranian government has ratcheted up pressure in the last two weeks on underground churches in what seems to be a concerted effort to hound Christians and discourage their meetings throughout the country, sources told Compass.

At the same time, friends of imprisoned Christians Mahmood Matin, 52, and Arash Bandari, 44, a diabetic, are eagerly waiting for a phone call from authorities this week that would secure their release even if it means paying bail. Both prisoners have become frail from more than two months in prison, but the condition of Bandari is critical.

Converts to Christianity, Matin and Bandari were arrested on May 15 on suspicion of “apostasy,” or leaving Islam.

To complicate matters, a draft bill of an “apostasy law,” which would bind judges to sentence to death Muslim converts to Christianity, makes their immediate release crucial, say experts.

After two months of solitary confinement at a secret police detention center known by its address, Sepah Street 100, located in the center of Shiraz, Matin and Bandari were placed in a cell together around July 15, sources told Compass. The absence of any medical treatment, however, has taken its toll on Bandari.

Matin, who secured a few minutes of time with his wife on July 22 in order to get toiletries, said that Bandari’s health was declining rapidly with the lack of treatment and proper care.

“He is severely ill; he’s not doing well,” confirmed a source.

Matin has lost much weight and is said to look weak, though he was not allowed to talk about his condition and treatment in the prison, where he has been held with Bandari since their arrest.

On July 22 a lawyer agreed to take up Matin’s case and ask for his release. It is not clear yet if Bandari will receive legal counsel from the same lawyer. Matin’s lawyer expressed concern about the length of time the two prisoners have been held without charges and said that the clock is ticking against them.

“They have to get out as soon as possible, or else the case will be heavier, and it will be more difficult to get them out,” a friend of the family told Compass. Experts on Iran explained that it is crucial for the prisoners to be released before they appear in court. Lower level police often arrest Christians to extort money from them and release them with no charges. But if a case goes to court, charges are pressed against the Christians, who are then at the mercy of religious judges.

“Once the case is decided and the court has made a decision, it would be hard for them to get out,” said a source. The apostasy bill under discussion, if passed, would mean certain death if Bandari and Matin were charged with apostasy.

Christians in Iran are fasting and praying in hopes that the two men will be freed soon.

“We don’t know, in the first place, why they have been kept so long, we don’t know what the charges are,” said one friend of the family.

The friend called for the churches to pray that any false accusations be lifted, “and for protection, because we don’t know exactly what’s happening inside. We don’t know how they’re being treated.”

Most other imprisoned Christians in Iran have been released with bail. Bandari and Matin are two of three Christians known to be still held in prison.

The third, Mohsen Radfar, was arrested while traveling to Tehran on July 12. His whereabouts and condition are unknown. Radfar, from the province of Kerman in central Iran, is a well-known film director in the region and has worked as a theater and cinema critic.


News Wave of Arrests

The same day Radfar was arrested, police got word that 12 Christians would be traveling to Armenia via Tehran and arrested them at the Kerman airport in south-central Iran as they were trying to leave.

Although the 12 Christians were freed the same night, sources reported that their houses were searched and that police confiscated all Christian materials.

In the past 10 days, Iran’s Christians have reported a wave of arrests in four cities. Christians attending house churches in Bandar Abbas on the southern coast, in Isfahan 334 kilometers (207 miles) south of Tehran, and in Sanandaj and Kermanshah on the Iraqi border were arrested. Sources told Compass that Christians in these cities were held anywhere from one day to a week by the government.

“So that means maybe the government has started a mission again against Christian activity,” said a source. “They’ve started a new strategy probably. Because it is not just an accident that all this is happening in different cities at the same time; they had worked on it before, and they planned to move against house churches.”

On Saturday (July 26), secret police raided a service in Isfahan. Among 16 Christians arrested were six women and two children under the age of 18. They are being held in an undisclosed location, reported Farsi Christian News Network.

During the raid, police beat the elderly couple hosting the meeting so severely that they were taken to the Sharieti Hospital with injuries.

Report from Compass Direct News


‘I have no doubt they wanted to kill me,’ says former Muslim.

ANKARA, July 21 (Compass Direct News) – Days after his release from a month of interrogations and severe torture under secret police custody, Iranian Christian Mohsen Namvar has fled across the border into Turkey with his family.

Traveling by train, the badly beaten Christian arrived July 2 in eastern Turkey with his wife and son.

Namvar, 44, had been held incommunicado by a branch of Sepah (the Iranian Revolutionary Guards) from May 31 until June 26, when authorities told his family they were releasing him “temporarily.”

Although the secret police demanded $43,000 in bail, officers refused to issue a court receipt for the family’s cash payment.

At the time of his release, Namvar was experiencing fever, severe back pain, extremely high blood pressure, uncontrollable shaking of his limbs and recurring short-term memory loss.

“I have no doubt they wanted to kill me,” Namvar told Compass.

According to Namvar, who converted from Islam to Christianity as a teenager, his severe physical mistreatment stemmed from his refusal to give the police any names or information about other converts and house church groups in Iran.

In the spring of 2007, he had been arrested and severely tortured with electrical shocks, allegedly for baptizing Muslims who had become Christians. Three months after back surgery for those injuries, he regained the ability to walk, but still suffered pain and discomfort.

Namvar presented himself last week to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ankara to apply for status as an asylum-seeker.

He and his family were assigned by the UNHCR to relocate in one of 30 designated satellite cities in Turkey, where he is required to sign in daily at the local police station. They must wait 11 months, until June 8, 2009, for a UNHCR interview in which they will detail their reasons for requesting asylum.

“We are tired in our minds, and very sad,” Namvar’s wife said after learning they must wait nearly a year in Turkey before even presenting her husband’s case. “We were under so much pressure in Iran, and again we are facing it here.”

While her husband was under arrest, she had been subjected to a second police ransacking of their home, repeated telephone calls filled with slander and death threats and one attempt to kidnap their son from his school.

Namvar said he was surprised that the interviewing officer at the UNHCR spent only six minutes registering information from their passports. Following standard UNHCR protocol, the official did not ask why they had fled from their country, nor did he collect copies of documents they had brought concerning his case.

Nearly 15,000 applications for refugee or asylum status are now in process at the Ankara office, which is the largest UNHCR center in Europe apart from the Geneva headquarters.

“But even if they have strong evidence for their case, at best it takes three to four years for someone to be resettled through our office,” UNHCR external affairs officer Metin Corabatir told Compass.


Police Pressures

Although he earned his living as a miner, Namvar had been active in preaching and teaching the message of Christ across northern Iran since the early 1990s.

His first brush with the authorities came when he was caught in 2001 giving out Christian literature at a gas station. “I spent three days in jail,” he recalled.

After that, local police demanded that he obtain permission each time he wanted to enter the city near his home, in effect banning him from the region.

“The police created a very bad atmosphere there against us,” Namvar said, “so no one would even respond to our greetings on the street.”

Because of this, Namvar moved his family to Tehran. But he was unable to find work, due to his police record and the requirement on all job applications to state his religion.

For the past seven years, he has supported himself by translating books from English into Farsi, while continuing to visit and minister among various house church groups.

“I never knew God until Jesus showed Himself to me in a dream,” Namvar said, recalling his conversion to Christianity 29 years ago. “But ever since then, I have followed Jesus and told others about Him.”

Under Iran’s hardline Shiite government, a Muslim who converts to Christianity has committed apostasy, which is punishable by death.

Iranian Christians Mahmood Matin and Arash Bandari have been jailed since May 15 in Shiraz, where they were arrested on “suspicion” of apostasy.

Under a draft law under discussion this month in the Iranian parliament, the “optional” death penalty now in force for apostasy would become obligatory.

Report from Compass Direct News