By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- Iran's notorious Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) has launched a new crackdown against the country's largest network of house churches in "apparent retaliation" for Western outrage over the death sentence passed on to a pastor, according to well-informed Christians.
Wednesday's reported intelligence pressure came while 34-year-0ld Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, of the Church of Iran network, was still awaiting the legal opinion of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini on whether he can be executed for "apostasy", or abandoning Islam, although a court already sentenced him to death, BosNewsLife learned.
A fellow house church pastor, Benham Irani, had his five year prison sentence for "crimes against national security" confirmed Tuesday, October 18, said Jason DeMars of advocacy group Present Truth Ministries (PTM) which assists the church.
The pastor from Karaj, 20 kilometers west of capital Tehran, "is now to remain in prison until the end of 2016," DeMars told BosNewsLife. He was originally sentenced to one year imprisonment for "security crimes" that fellow believers have linked to his church activities.
FIVE YEARS IMPRISONMENT
However "Now, they have informed him that he is to serve the five years from [a previous] conviction of 2007" on similar charges "that he so far did not serve", he added.
In reality "the 'crime' he has committed is being a pastor of a network of Christian house churches," argued DeMars.
The MIOS, viewed as the Middle East's most extensive intelligence operation, has also been linked to detentions and threats against other pastors and believers.
"In [the city of] Rasht five Christians are in the process of going through pre-trial investigations for 'crimes against the order'. They were told that their investigation was delayed because of the length of the trial for brother Youcef," DeMars explained.
Additionally, two pastors from Tehran who reportedly fled the country have also been threatened. The mother of one of them, Mehdi Karbalaee, allegedly received a call from MOIS agents telling her: "Mehdi is performing activities against the government on Facebook and is evangelizing on Facebook as well. From now on he is a fugitive. Before we were very kind to you, but now it's over, we're going to show you."
VERDICT IN ABSENCE
DeMars said, "They also informed her that his trial was held in his absence and the verdict will be delivered to her soon."
He called the crackdown "the fruits of the sermons preached by the Ayatollah’s demanding that the government do more to stop the growth of Christianity" in the strict Islamic nation.
There may be at least as many as 100,000 devoted Christians in Iran, church groups say, many of them former Muslim.
Iran's government has repeatedly denied wrongdoing saying it defends Islamic values of the nation.