(Photo: Reuters/Keith Bedford)
Farsi-speaking Iranian Christians have suffered a new setback after it was announced that they will no longer be allowed to attend one of the major churches in Tehran, following increased government pressure.
"The squeeze on Christians inside Iran continues. Even while [President Hassan] Rouhani spoke about religious freedom during a Christmas message last week, the clamp down on Christians, especially Muslim Background Believers, has increased," Jerry Dykstra, director of Media Relations at watchdog group Open Doors USA, shared in an email to The Christian Post on Friday.
According to Mohabat News, a source in the Iranian capital revealed that St. Peter Church has been forced to stop allowing the majority Farsi-speaking Christians to attend.
Some of those members are said to have been attending the church regularly for over 20 years. They reportedly include Sunday school teachers, ministers and elders of the church, who were told they cannot attend St. Peter even for service.
Dykstra suggested that one of the reasons for this government pressure is that millions of young Iranians, including students, could be disillusioned with the situation in their country and may be looking for meaning in life.
"That is a threat to the regime," Dykstra told CP.
Open Doors ranks Iran as number eight on its World Watch List of countries where Christians face the most persecution. It notes that the Islamic government is fearful of the increasing numbers of followers of Christ, and it closely monitors their activities, making evangelism, Bible training and publishing Scriptures in Farsi illegal.
The government has been targeting Farsi-speaking Christians for years, and in 2012 forced both St. Peter and Emmanuel Protestant Church to stop offering Friday services in that language, the day when most Iranians are not at work. The move was said to further restrict Christians and Muslims interested in Christianity opportunities to attend church services and find out more about the faith.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard Intelligence is reportedly at the center of government pressure on Christian churches, and has told Pastor Benyamin of St. Peter that services need to be held in a language other than Farsi.
Mohabat News added that these restrictions have increased "dramatically" since 2011, and newly converted Christians have faced pressure, harassment, and even imprisonment for their beliefs. Among the more well-known persecution cases, U.S. pastor Saeed Abedini, is currently being held in Rajai Shahr prison.
A number of Christian churches that have been closed in Iran include Assemblies of God Church in Ahwaz, a Farsi-speaking church in Janat-Abad and Central Assemblies of God Church, the largest Farsi-speaking ones in Tehran.