- (Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl)
One month after security forces raided their Assemblies of God Church (AOG) in Ahwaz in western Iran two days before Christmas – which resulted in the arrest of the entire congregation, including children – there is still no word regarding the whereabouts of the church's pastor and three of its congregants. Everyone, but these four, were released from jail not long after the raid.
The church was raided on Dec. 23, in a "pre-organized manner," according to Mohabat News – a Christian news agency in Iran and one of the very few sources reporting on the persecution that the state exercises on its Christian minority.
All attendees at the weekly service were arrested and transferred by bus to an unknown location, the agency reported at the time. The security officials reportedly had their faces covered during the raid and treated the children "badly" during the arrest. All detainees except for the four were freed a few hours later, once their personal details such as home addresses were recorded. However, Pastor Farhad Sabokroh, his wife Shahnaz and Naser Zamen-Dezfuli and Davoud Alijaniare, were reportedly still being held in custody by the Ministry of Intelligence. No reliable information has been made available regarding their health and the condition of the places where they are being held, Mohabat News reports.
In its last report, the agency said that Sabokroh and his wife suffer from varicose veins and their general health condition is not good. The four were held in joint custody until Dec. 28 and were then reportedly separated and transferred to unknown locations.
The pastor's case has raised concerns as to whether he could face a fate similar to that of Youcef Nadarkhani, who is being held in an Iranian prison on charges of apostasy, an offense punishable by death.
Nadarkhani's case has evoked a storm of protests across the world since the pastor's Oct. 2009 arrest was publicized. The United States as well as the European Union have condemned his imprisonment and called upon Iran to release the minister.
Iran is one of the few countries where the government openly persecutes the Christian community. Christians are mostly not allowed to raise churches in Iran, and house churches are subject often to raids by authorities, sources have told The Christian Post. Iran is a theocratic republic with a 98 percent Muslim (Shia and Sunni) population and only 2 percent representing other faiths, including Christianity.
There are roughly 70 registered churches in Iran apart from house churches, according to reports. In 2011, more than 130 Iranian Christians were arrested and interrogated, according to International Christian Concern (ICC), a Christian advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. In some cases, Christians are even tortured by authorities.
In Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, Iranians – like many Egyptians, Libyans, and Syrians today – believed that an Islamic-based government would offer the reforms and freedoms they had long sought under the Shah, Aidan Clay, ICC's regional manager for the Middle East told The Christian Post. Thirty-two years later, however, Iranians have grown disillusioned as their government has plunged them into economic stagnation and isolated them from the international community. Although full-scale protests have thus far failed to grant them the freedom they desire, utter desperation has led Iranians to seek answers outside of Islam, Clay said. Thousands are now finding the hope and joy they had long been searching for in Christ.
"Presently, Christianity in Iran is spreading like never before," Clay told CP via an email statement. "Suppressed and disheartened by a tyrannical, incompetent and corrupt Islamic regime, many Muslims are encountering Jesus Christ."
Many Christian conversions are a result of satellite television and radio Christian broadcasts, the expert added, which reportedly resulted in the Iranian government attempting to obstruct television signals by erecting jamming towers in major cities, controlling phone lines to Christian television programs, and arresting house church leaders. The increasing growth of Christianity in Iran is viewed as a threat to Iran's regime, whose strategy is to eliminate any potential challenge to its sovereignty, Clay said.
According to a recent report by Mohabat News, the Iranian judicial system sentenced 597 Iranian citizens to a total of 302 years of deprivation of their social rights. In addition, Iranian religious minorities were sentenced to a total of 3776 months in prison.
According to the summary report, a total of 2,751 case reports were gathered in 2011 and reflected 1,120,077 violations of the articles of Human Rights Conventions which Iran has previously vowed to honor. The report also determined that 498 execution verdicts were issued and 529 people were officially executed in 2011 in various provinces across the nation. The Iranian judiciary also sentenced 597 accused people to more than 302 total years of deprivation of their social rights.