Iranian authorities raided a church that was celebrating Christmas and detained everyone in the building, including children attending Sunday school, a U.K.-based Christian charity said.
Officials in the southern town of Ahwaz raided an Assemblies of God-affiliated church last week and herded the entire congregation into two buses, according to the Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
While the majority of the members were “interrogated, threatened and eventually released,” the church’s senior pastor, identified only as Farhad, remained in detention, along with his wife and some church leaders, at press time.
CSW noted that the authorities raided a church that is not a part of the house church movement, but is an official and long-established church. Its membership largely consists of former followers of John the Baptist who converted to Christianity. Pastor Farhad had been detained on several occasions earlier and warned not to allow Muslim converts into his church.
Raids and detentions during the Christmas season are not uncommon in Iran, a Shi’a-majority country that is seen as one of the worst persecutors of religious minorities.
CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas pointed out that the arrests follow Speaker of the Iranian Parliament Ali Larijani’s recent message to Pope Benedict congratulating Christians on the “auspicious anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ” and stating that the world’s ills were caused by ignoring ethics and justice.
“Mr. Larijani’s Christmas message may have been well intentioned, but it is entirely undermined by these arrests, which violate the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Iran’s own constitution,” Thomas said.
Iran’s claim that they make arrests only when someone’s actions threaten public security falls flat on its face given that children attending Sunday school were detained, Thomas added. Are legitimate Christmas celebrations and the children a threat to the government or the public, he asked.
“It increasingly appears as if the Iranian regime has decided to deem every act of Christian worship a threat to national security,” he said. “If this is indeed the case, then the right to freedom of religion or belief is gravely under threat in Iran.”
CSW is asking for cards of encouragement to be sent to the children, who may have been traumatized by their ordeal.
There are roughly 70 registered churches in Iran apart from house churches. A leader of house churches, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, is facing death penalty for converting to Christianity. Arrested in October 2009, the young evangelical pastor from the city of Rasht in northern Gilan Province remains in jail. Iran’s judiciary allegedly intends to keep him in custody for another year to allow authorities to coerce him to convert to Islam before his review petition is decided.