TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– A pastor of the Central Assemblies of God (AoG) Church in Tehran was detained Tuesday, May 21, as part of Iran’s wider crackdown on evangelical believers, Christian rights activists confirmed. The arrest of Reverend Robert Asserian came as his church prepared for possible closure by the end of June due to pressure from the feared Iranian Intelligence Ministry, said advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
Security forces reportedly raided Asserian’s house and confiscated some of his belongings, including computer and books. “They then proceeded to the church where he was leading a prayer meeting. He was arrested and taken to an unknown location,” CSW told BosNewsLife in a statement.
Earlier this month another AoG pastor, his wife and two church workers were returned to jail after their one year sentences for converting to Christianity and “propagation against the Islamic regime through evangelism” were upheld by a High Court on May 1, BosNewsLife learned Tuesday, May 21.
Pastor Farhad Sabokrooh, his wife Shahnaz Jayzan and church workers Naser Zaman-Dezfuli and Davoud Alijani were initially detained in December 2011 when authorities in the southern town of Ahwaz raided their church’s Christmas celebrations, arresting everyone in the building, including children attending Sunday School, Christians said.
They were temporarily released, but summoned to court on May 1, and re-arrested, trial observers explained. Alijani was reportedly transferred to Ahwaz’s Karoon Prison to complete his sentence while Pastor Sabokrooh, Shahnaz Jayzan and Zaman-Dezfuli were taken to Sepidar Prison.
The detentions come as another setback for the embattled AoG Church in Tehran, the capital, as it was one of few churches that offered services in the Farsi language. In 2009, they were already ordered to end Farsi services on Friday, a day off for Iranians, and were only permitted to hold services in Farsi on Sundays, Christians said.
Iranian authorities reportedly ordered the ending of Farsi services on Sunday, giving church leaders the option of conducting Sunday services in Armenian or facing closure.
Article 18, an Iranian human rights group, said church leaders have informed the congregation that they would make an important decision about the future of the church, later this week. A local Christian was quoted as saying:
“The pressure has become unbearable, they [the authorities] constantly threaten the church leaders and their families with imprisonment, unexplained accidents, kidnapping and even with execution. We cannot go on like this.”
Additionally Mostafa Bordbar, a Christian arrested in Tehran in December 2012 and whose case details remained unclear, was confirmed to be detained in Ward 350 of Tehran’s norotious Evin Prison, along with evangelical Church of Iran member Alireza Seyyedian and AoG Pastors Farshid Fathi and Saeed Abedini, CSW said.
Iranian-American Pastor Saeed Abedini, who Christians said had been placed in solitary confinement for supporting a peaceful protest against prison conditions, was returned to Ward 350 after being taken to hospital following “a further deterioration in his health,” according to Christians familiar with the case.
Another Christian prisoner, in Adel-Abad Prison in Shiraz city, is also in urgent need of medical attention, Iranian Christians said. Vahid Hakkani, who was detained in February 2012 with eight others during a raid on a prayer meeting, is reported to be suffering from internal bleeding and has been informed by prison doctors that he needs surgery urgently.
CSW said it also learned that Iran temporarily released Ebrahim Firoozi, who was detained for a second time in March this year for “launching and administering a Christian missionary website, distributing Bibles, cooperating with student activists and involvement in actions against national security”. He was reportedly freed on bail of some $20,000 after spending 53 days in Evin Prison.
“The continued and sustained pressure by the Iranian regime on churches in Tehran has boxed them into a corner to such an extent that they can no longer function,” noted CSW Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston in a statement to BosNewsLife.
He said CSW had urged Iran’s government to respect international treaties it signed including Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees “freedom of religion or belief, and the right, either alone or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Iran’s government has denied wrongdoing saying it protects Islamic values and the laws of the land. Despite the reported pressure there are at least 100,000 evangelical believers in Iran, including many former Muslims, missionaries say, though some church groups claim the real figure may be several times higher.