Iran Arrests Evangelical Leader; Shuts Down Church

Iranian authorities recently arrested a "low-keyed" evangelical pastor and shut down his church, a news agency specializing in Iranian Christians reported.

The Rev. Wilson Issavi of the Assyrian Evangelical Church in Kermanshah, a remote city in western Iran, was arrested by security agents and taken to an unknown location on Feb. 2, the Farsi Christian News Network reported Monday.

The pastor was hauled away while visiting an old friend's house in the central city of Isfahan. The couple who owned the house as well as another guest were also arrested, but the wife of the host has been released.

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Issavi's family and friends have not been able to find information about his whereabouts.

Though Issavi's arrest was sudden and unannounced, there were warning signs since January that Iranian authorities were monitoring the long-time pastor. Last month, security agents in plain clothes raided Issavi's home and then shut down his church. Authorities also had ordered the pastor not to reopen his church.

FCNN said it immediately found out about the house raid and closure of the church, but did not publicize it at the request of Issavi.

The "meek, humble" and "unassuming" Iranian pastor was afraid that authorities would crack down on his church even more if news got out about the raid and the order to shut down. He wanted to quietly negotiate with local authorities to reach a compromise.

A FCNN news correspondent in Iran said Issavi lived respecting the law of the country despite its many restrictions and endured harassment in order "not to give any excuse to the authorities to quench the dwindling lights of this church" and to stop the small Christian community in the area from worshipping.

The Kermanshah church is one of the few places in Iran where Christians worship openly. Most Christians in Iran worship in house churches or in buildings without the government's permission and knowledge.

Several months ago, Iranian authorities also ordered the country's largest church that gives public services to stop its Friday worship gatherings or risk being shut down completely. Leaders of the Assemblies of God Church in Iran had resisted pressure to stop the Friday gatherings, but finally relented in October. The church now only holds Sunday services.

Earlier, in March 2009, the Assyrian Pentecostal Church in Tehran shut down after receiving threats from the government.

Iranian Christians increasingly fear that the government is beginning a new campaign against public Christian worship gatherings.

An Iranian human rights organization strongly protested the arrest of Pastor Issavi. The group demands that the Iranian government immediately release the pastor who remains detained without any legal proceedings.

Iran's constitution states that Islam is the official state religion and provides that Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians are recognized as "protected" religious minorities. Despite the protected status, in practice non-Shi'a Muslims face discrimination and the government severely restricts freedom of religion, according to the U.S. Department of State's 2009 International Religious Freedom Report. Non-Muslims are estimated to account for 2 percent of the population.

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