The continued existence of churches in Iran today is under grave threat; the actions taken by the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran indicate that it has adopted a deliberate policy to gradually eradicate them. The existence of these churches significantly predates the 1979 Revolution and, in theory at least, the rights of Christians are protected under the Constitution of the Islamic Republic.
The current persecution of Christians from the Assemblies of God (AOG) churches in Iran is not a series of isolated events, but rather it is a deliberate state policy that is being implemented at all levels and in different ways. Iranian Christians had feared that the closure of the Central AOG church at the end of May 2013 was deliberately timed to coincide with the Islamic Regime’s presidential election so that it might go unnoticed by the world’s news media. In recent years a number of churches have been closed, or their land has been encroached on. Closing the Central Church’s doors is a test by the regime to gauge the world’s reaction, and a potential precursor that could lead to the closure of the remaining Christian churches and attempt to suffocate the voice of Christ and the Holy Bible in Iran.
Reaction to Church Closure
Pentecostal Church leaders in Finland expressed concern about recent events in Iran, including the arrest of church leaders and the closure of the Central church in Tehran, after a number of other harsh measures were carried out against AOG churches across the country. The leaders presented Finland’s Interior Ministry, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office with a document detailing abuses against freedom of faith and Iranian Christians by the Islamic Regime, and expressing their hope that the Finnish Government would relay these concerns to the Islamic Regime and specifically calling for the urgent re-opening of the Central church in Tehran.
As a result of this document, a meeting was held between the Islamic Republic’s Ambassador in Helsinki and the Head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of Africa and the Middle East, in which the Finnish Government expressed its dissatisfaction with recent events concerning Iranian Christians and the closure of the AOG Central church in Tehran. The Islamic Regime was urged to reopen closed churches and to respect the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which it is a signatory.
It is interesting to note that last year, with no more than a few hundred Shi’as living in the whole of Finland, one of the largest Shi’a mosques in Europe, costing over $7million and paid for by Iran’s Islamic regime, was opened on one of Helsinki’s busiest thoroughfares. The Finnish Republic considers it to be a symbol of multi-culturalism in modern Finland, whereas Iranian-Finns believe it to be an outpost of the Islamic Regime to spy on those coming from an Iranian background.
Iranian Christians fervently hope that this pioneering step by the Finnish Pentecostal churches will start a wider movement of protest by Christian churches in other countries against the restrictions imposed on Christianity and Christians in the Islamic Republic.
Iranian Christians are grateful for the concern that the Finnish Government has expressed and the action it has taken towards the plight of innocent Christians under the yoke of the Islamic Regime in Iran. For the full article about this initiative in Finland click this link at FCNN.
Background to Persecution of Christians in Iran
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Islamic Sharia law has particularly oppressed AOG churches because of their significant success in seeing Muslims convert to Christianity. One significant factor influencing this has been their principle of using the vernacular Persian language as the language of prayer, and not one of the minority languages (i.e. Syriac or Armenian) used by traditional Christian groups.
Apostasy is considered an unpardonable sin in Islam, so those who proselytize or otherwise are seen to encourage Muslims away from Islam may be put to death for blaspheming against Islam and Mohammad and converts from Islam to other religions may also be subject to capital punishment. Despite denials by officials, the Law on Apostasy remains in force and has been used.
As head of the Iranian AOG Churches in the 1990s, Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr, spoke up for the rights of Christians in Iran. He had been ordered by the Islamic Republic regime to comply with the following:
• Church services were not to be conducted in the Persian language;
• All church members were to be issued with membership cards. Individuals would only be admitted to services on production of their cards.
• Photocopies of the membership cards and membership lists, including addresses, were to be handed over to the Government authorities.
• Sunday meetings were to be for members only. No meetings were to be held on any other day, in particular Friday.
• No new members were to be admitted without prior permission from the appropriate department of the Ministry of Information and Islamic Guidance.
The late bishop’s bold reaction was to defy them, saying that neither he, nor his fellow ministers, would comply with such inhumane and unjust demands and that “our churches are open to all who want to come in.” He also refused to sign a statement that said that Christians enjoyed full rights in Iran.
For further details on the persecution of Christians in Iran follow this link.
Since the1990s the persecution of the ‘Jammat Rabani’ (AOG) church has progressively increased. The building in the ‘Janat Abad’ district of Tehran was ordered closed and then there was a raid in Christmas 2011 on the Ahwaz church in which more than 40 members and leaders were arrested. Although everyone was released most had to pay high bail bonds. Recently Rev Farhad Sabokrouh was summoned by the authorities and imprisoned under a court order.
Recent Actions Against Churches in Iran
Several church buildings have recently been forced to close by the Iranian regime, including those used by the Anglican and Presbyterian congregations in Kerman and Ahwaz, and an AOG building in Gorgan. This was the only evangelical church in Mazanderan province and, with its closure, there is nowhere for evangelical Christians to meet for worship. Church house-groups have also been closed in Sari, Mashad and Ahwaz, and Christians forbidden to meet.
On Wednesday, 22 May 2013, a raid was made by agents of the Revolutionary Guards Corps on the AOG Central Church premises in Tehran and its Senior Pastor, Rev. Robert Aserian, was arrested. The following day visitors were met with a sign on the door that said that the church had been closed for the foreseeable future. The caretaker said that government agents had ordered him to put up the sign. Meanwhile, Rev. Soorik Sarkisian informed church members of the cancellation of the next Sunday church services.
According to Christian sources, regime agents had earlier demanded the closure of Persian language services and refusal of entry to the church for all non-Armenian and non-Assyrian attenders; Rev. Aserian had rejected this, maintaining that a living Church could not obey such a demand. He added that the agents could serve the notice themselves, and the following Sunday the church building was open, as usual, and to all.
Regime agents demanded that the Church voluntarily close itself, and even suggested that if the church authorities complied and closed their doors to ethnic Persians, then Pastor Farhad Sabok-rouh and his wife, now serving a one year prison term in Tehran’s central jail, might be freed.
Some Background Facts Relating to Christianity in Iran
Where the Churches Came From. During the late 17th and again in the 19th centuries, Iran (Persia) was open to foreign influence, including from Western Christian missionaries who founded schools and hospitals and proselytized Eastern Christians (Armenians and Assyrians) as well as Muslims. These groups, including French Jesuit Roman Catholics, British Anglicans, American Presbyterians, had some small success and the current presence of these denominations in Iran is due to their influence.
Constitution of the Islamic Republic. Along with the State religion of Islam, Iran officially recognises three minority religions– Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Each religious group has representatives who have reserved seats in the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) and are protected as religious minorities under Article 13 of the Republic’s Constitution, which says that they may worship freely and have autonomy over their own matters of personal status such as marriage, divorce and inheritance. For more information see also here.
Human Rights. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a signatory of the Human Rights Charter, which recognizes the fundamental rights of people to freedom of religion, and is expected to honour its international obligations.
Assemblies of God (AOG) Church in Iran. Jama’at-e Rabbani is the Iranian branch of the AOG, one of the largest evangelical Pentecostal Christian churches; the Central Church is in Tehran. The General Council of the church was officially registered with the Ministry of Interior of the then ‘Imperial Iranian Regime’ on 1st June 1972; by this time the church had already existed for over 22 years. In the time of the Islamic Republic, the church was again officially registered (30th October 1980). About 90% of the church’s members are converts from Islam, the remainder coming from Iranian Christian ethnic minorities. Services are conducted in both the Persian and Armenian languages. The Iranian Government, especially in its post-1979 Revolutionary Islamist form, is highly suspicious of all Christian sects not native to Iran, namely the Assyrian Church of the East and the Armenian Apostolic Church, both of which have been present in the lands of the Persian Empire since the 4th Century, A.D.
222 Ministries exists to advance the Kingdom of God in Iran
We want to see Iran transformed into a nation that bears the image of Christ – renewed in every level of society from spheres of influence in government and business, through to everyday relationships, families and the whole community.
Our heart is that this transformed nation of Iran will be a blessing and influence on its surrounding countries and throughout the Middle East.
Since 1979 Iran has been an Islamic theocratic republic, with elected President and Parliament, subject to the appointed Supreme Leader’s veto.
Iran is a lower-middle income country, which since the 1979 Revolution has consistently experienced double-digit inflation levels. Its economic structure leads to boom and bust cycles.
Religion and Religious Freedom
Iran is predominated by Shi’a Islam but has a long Christian heritage, as well as being the home of other religions (Zoroastrian and Baha’i). Persecution continues to be focused on those becoming Christians from a Muslim background.
Addiction, Depression and Prostitution
With more than a million prostitutes, Iran also has highest opiate addiction rate in the world and significant levels of depression in the population.