By Damaris Kremida
ISTANBUL, Turkey — Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence has ordered the last two officially registered churches holding Friday Farsi-language services in Tehran to discontinue them.
Emmanuel Protestant Church and St. Peter’s Evangelical Church were the last two official churches offering services on Fridays in Tehran in Iran’s primary language, according to Middle East Concern (MEC). Officials issued the order on Feb. 10.
Emmanuel and St. Peter’s, both Presbyterian churches, are among Tehran’s few registered churches that mainly serve the Armenian and Assyrian communities. The churches’ Armenian- and Assyrian- language services are typically held on Sundays.
In 2009, authorities had ordered an Assemblies of God congregation, Central Church of Tehran, to close its multiple Friday Farsi services. Friday services in Tehran attracted converts to Christianity as well as Muslims interested in Christianity, as Friday is most Iranians’ day off during the week. Authorities told the churches they can hold the services on Sunday, a working day when most Iranians are not able to attend.
”This decision means that there are now no Farsi-language services on Fridays in any officially registered church in Tehran,” Middle East Concern (MEC) stated in a mid-February report.
An Iranian Christian who requested anonymity told Compass Direct News that government officials cannot stop the three churches from operating because they belong to minority groups. But, the source said, officials are doing what they can to limit both the churches and the spread of Christianity to Farsi speakers.
”Authorities want church operations to stop, but because these churches are established by Armenians and Assyrians and their leaders are Armenian and Assyrian, they can’t stop them,” the source said, ”but they can stop the Farsi-speaking services.”
The source said the restrictions have cut attendance at Emmauel and St. Peter’s by half.
The MEC report stated that ”the order to stop Farsi services is consistent with the authorities’ policy of restricting Christian activities to these traditional communities,” indicating that Tehran is determined to eradicate access to Christian worship for the country’s growing number of Christian converts.
Authorities have prohibited musical worship and Bible distribution at the Central Church of Tehran, the largest and most visible Assemblies of God congregation in the country. Last December, officials also enforced a policy under which only invited guests could attend Central Church’s Christmas service.
Authorities recently have pressured leaders of Emmanuel and St. Peter’s to turn over the national identity numbers of Christians, the Iranian Christian source said. As a result, many Christians from these churches as well as Central Church have lost their jobs.
”We have some people who were fired from their jobs,” the Christian said. ”The authorities pushed the bosses to fire their Christian employees.”
The source explained that this is a new tactic by the government to discourage Iranians from becoming Christians and to deter Christians from being involved in church.
”‘If I have too many difficulties in my life, I won’t have time to be involved in church, and people will see how difficult it is to be a Christian,'” the source said of the government’s pressure. ”This is not a good face for the Christians. The others see and say, ‘Oh, they became Christians and God stopped His blessing to them.'”
Most Iranian Christian converts attend underground house churches that belong to various networks. For their own protection, these Christians often do not know about other house church networks.
Authorities often detain, question and apply pressure on converts from Islam, viewing them as elements of Western propaganda set against the Iranian regime. As a result, the converts are forced to worship in secret.
Also in mid-February, news surfaced of the arrest in Tehran of an Assemblies of God leader, Masis Moussian of the Narmak AOG church. Mohabat News reported that his arrest was a result of ”waves of anti-Christian pressures and distribution of unsubstantiated reports by regime-supported media regarding the AOG churches of Iran.” According to these reports, members of the AOG church in Tehran are ”extreme Christians” trying to recruit new members, and particularly youth, across the country.
Moussian is being held at the Rajaei-Shahr prison and is not allowed visitors. His family has not been able to obtain information on his condition in prison.
On Feb. 8, authorities also arrested about 10 Christians who had gathered for worship at a house in the southern city of Shiraz. A report by Mohabat News stated that authorities mistreated the Christians in attendance and searched the house, confiscating Bibles. The Christians still remain in an unknown location.
The new report identified two women, three men and a teenager by their first names. Another was identified as Mojtaba Hosseini. Authorities had arrested Hosseini in 2008 along with eight other Christian converts on charges of being Christians, according to Mohabat.
Among those being detained is a 17-year-old boy named Nima, along with his mother, Fariba, and father, Homayoun. Another woman was identified as Sharifeh, and two men were identified as Kourosh and Masoud. Authorities searched the homes of those arrested and seized CDs, Bibles, Christian materials, computers, fax machines and satellite receivers, according to Mohabat.
Iran applies sharia (Islamic law), which dictates that converts from Islam to other religions are ”apostates” who can be punished by death. Although judges rarely sentence Christians to death for leaving Islam, one Christian, Yousef (also spelled Youcef) Nadarkhani, is appealing such a decision in the northeastern city of Rasht.
Nadarkhani has been in prison since October 2009. A Rasht court found him guilty of leaving Islam and handed him the death sentence in September 2010. Remaining in prison also are Farshid Fathi in Tehran; Farhad Sabokroh, Naser Zamen-Defzuli, Davoud Alijani and Noorollah Qabitizade in Ahwaz; and Fariborz Arazm and Behnam Irani in Karaj.
There are an estimated 350,000 Christian converts from Islam in Iran. ”I believe 100 percent the whole movement in Iran is in God’s hand,” the Christian source told Compass. ”This pushing [of the government] can stop the church buildings but they cannot stop the Kingdom of God.