Detained A/G Church Leader in Iran May Face Death Penalty

One of the ten evangelical church leaders of the Assemblies of God Church in Iran reportedly released from detention by police authorities on Sept. 12 may possibly be charged with “espionage” and face the death penalty, sources reported today. According to Italy-based AsiaNews, Rev. Hamid Pourmand—a Protestant convert from Islam—was moved by Iranian authorities to a military prison, and may possibly be tried by a military tribunal.

“Chances that Hamid Pourmand will be sentenced to death are growing,” AsiaNews reported. “His conversion alone—which a friend said he never kept secret—is ground for the death penalty for, under Islamic law, apostasy is a capital crime.” Born a Muslim, Pourmand converted to Christianity 25 years ago.

On September 9, Pourmand and 85 other evangelical church leaders were arrested as they gathered for the first day of the annual general conference of Assemblies of God in Iran at the church’s denominational center in Karaj, 18 miles west of the capital Tehran. Sources say shortly before the meeting began, police burst in, arresting everyone in attendance.

After being interrogated, all those detained were released by nightfall except for ten pastors and elders. When the pastors were released separately late on the night of Sept. 12, they were strictly warned not to contact one another or other members of the church. As a result, it was not until the morning Sept. 15 that the Assemblies of God leadership discovered that Pourmand was in fact still missing.

Since then, Pourmand was presumed to still be under police arrest in the Karaj-Tehran area.

Now, as Iranian authorities have still refused to give any reason for Pourmand’s arrest and prolonged detention, concern has been growing among Iran’s evangelical community for the safety of the lay pastor.

According to AsiaNews, government officials have in recent months repeatedly denounced “foreign religions”, which they accuse of threatening national security. Several former Muslims who converted to Christianity have been executed by court order on “espionage” charges.

Since the government-ordered execution of convert pastor Hussein Soodmand in Mashhad in December 1990, the Islamic Republic of Iran has enacted a harsh crackdown against the country’s evangelical churches and various house-church movements accused of evangelizing Muslims, Compass reported.

In July 1994, Assemblies of God pastor Mehdi Dibaj, another long-term convert to Christianity, was murdered six months after completing a nine-year prison sentence for refusing to recant his Christian faith and return to Islam.

In another incident two years later, the body of Pastor Mohammed Bagher Yusefi was found hanging in the forest near his home in Sari, in northern Iran’s Mazandaran province. Survived by his wife and two children, 34-year-old Yusefi had converted to Christianity 10 years earlier.

AsiaNews reports that over the past decade, local Protestant congregations have been harshly suppressed by the Iranian authorities for allowing Muslims to visit their services or for being suspected of baptizing former Muslims converting to Christianity.

There are about 360,000 Christians in Iran out of a population of 65 million. Of these, 335,000 are Protestants.