Iran has arrested nine Christians on the charge of evangelism, according to a report picked up by a Persian language Christian news agency Tuesday.
Seven Christian Iranians were accused of cooperating with two foreigners who were supported by "Christian-Zionist organizations," reported the Farsi Christian News Network based on a state news program that aired Sept. 10 on the Fars News Agency. The Fars News Agency is connected to Iran's Revolutionary Guard, a branch of Iran's military.
According to the report, the Christians were accused of proselytizing – which is illegal in Iran – outside of the Northwest city of Hamedan. The term "Christian Zionists" is often used by the Iranian government to refer to evangelical Christians and does not imply any relationship with Israel or Zionists.
While the nationalities of the two foreigners were not identified, the authority in the report said the supporting organizations are based in the United States and Great Britain.
A security official announced the arrest – something not typically done in the Islamic republic. According to FCNN, it is the first time in some 30 years that a state TV station has broadcasted news about the arrest of a group of Christians.
News of the arrests comes as some Christian persecution watchdog groups have expressed concern over an intensifying government crackdown on Christians in Iran.
Over the past year, authorizes have shut down at least three churches, accusing them of converting Muslims. The largest church that gives public services in Iran was forced last November to stop its Friday worship services due to government pressure. In February, an Iranian evangelical pastor was arrested and had visible marks of torture when he was released more than a month later.
There have also been reports of security officials arresting Muslims who converted to Christianity. Last May, officials arrested five newly converted Christians while they were meeting for Bible study. Iran also arrested two young female converts last year, leading to an international outcry from human rights and persecution watchdog groups. Iranian authorities finally released the two young women last November after detaining them for 259 days in the country's notorious Evin Prison, where they reportedly were subjected to psychological abuse and their medical requests were ignored.
In Iran, it is illegal for Muslims to convert to Christianity, although Christians are allowed to convert to Islam.
Open Doors' 2010 World Watch List ranks Iran as the second worst persecutor of Christians in the world.