Government agents shut down Iran’s largest Persian-language Pentecostal church Monday, just one week after one of its pastors was arrested and hauled away midway through a worship service.
The closing of Central Assemblies of God church in Tehran is the latest case of the Islamic Republic’s leadership cracking down on Christians ahead of the June 14 presidential election to replace President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Leaders appear especially wary of groups deemed dangerous to their power base, including growing Christian churches, according to Iranian Christians and rights groups who spoke to BosNewsLife, a news agency that specializes in the plight of Christians in Middle Eastern nations.
"These incidents appear to be an attempt to stop worship services from being conducted in Farsi, the language of the majority of Iranians," George Wood, general superintendent of the AoG in the U.S., told the service. "Services are allowed in Armenian, a minority language that most Iranians do not speak or even understand."
On May 21, authorities grabbed Pastor Robert Asserian while services were under way. They have not told parishioners where he is being held.
"Before going to the church, authorities raided Pastor Asserian’s home, where they confiscated a computer and several books,” Wood said. “Then, they found Pastor Asserian at the church leading the prayer service, immediately arrested him and announced the church’s imminent closure."
Christian groups fear a further erosion of what little tolerance of religious diversity has existed in Iran. Some estimates place the number of Iranian Christians, many of them converts from Islam, at about 100,000, in a nation of 75 million.
Concerned Americans have been following the plight of Pastor Saeed Abedini for several months. An evangelical Christian from Idaho, he traveled to his homeland last summer to help build a secular orphanage, but was arrested for allegedly evangelizing. Earlier this year, he was sentenced to eight years in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison.
In January, amid an international outcry, an Iranian court freed another Christian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani. Nadarkhani had served three years in prison and had been sentenced to death for apostasy – conversion away from Islam – and evangelizing. But a court downgraded the sentence and he was released.
Other pastors known to be detained in Iranian prisons include Behnam Irani, who is held in Ghezel Hesar Prison in Karaj City, one of the toughest jails in the country, some 12 miles west of the nation's capital, Tehran.
"He has been sentenced to five years in prison for his Christian activity," Jason DeMars, of advocacy group Present Truth Ministries, told BosNewsLife.
Iranian Christians fear a court verdict directing prosecutors to pursue the death penalty against Irani for apostasy, said Firouz Khandjani, a council member of the Church of Iran movement to which the pastor belongs.
He urged Christians around the world to sign a petition asking the White House "to take immediate steps to put pressure on the Iranian government to secure the release of Irani.
"Most of the focus of the American church, regarding persecution, has been [Abedini],” he said. "I’m very thankful that so much attention has been given to him [but there are also] others in prison serving a sentence for their Christian faith."