By BosNewsLife Middle East Service
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- At least a dozen devoted Christians from Iran's third largest city remained in jail Saturday, March 17, as part of an attempt by authorities to discourage Muslims and Christian converts to attend church services, Iranian Christians said.
Mohabat News, a news agency of Iranian Christians and activists, said security forces began a new crackdown last month in Isfahan, 340 kilometers (211 miles) south of the capital Tehran.
The agency said security forces detained both leaders and members of churches meeting in buildings, as well as some from underground house churches.
Among the latest known Christian converts detained in the Isfahan area is Fariborz Parsi-nejad, a Christian convert, who was reportedly taken into custody on March 2 while returning home from his work.
"Security authorities raided his home and seized him without explanation," Iranian Christians said.
The crackdown began February 22 when security forces allegedly took at least eight Christians from their homes and work places.
Most of those jailed are members of the St. Paul Anglican church in Isfahan, Christians said. Mohabat News added that among those imprisoned at local prison facilities is Hekmat Salimi, pastor of St. Paul Anglican Church, who converted 30 years ago and authored theological books and Giti Hakimpour, 78, a female pastor at the same church.
Other church members include Shahram Ghaedi, an actor, Maryam Del-Aram, 54, Shahnaz Zarifi, a mother of two and Enayat Jafari, according to rights investigators.
Another Christian, Majid Enayat, was also detained on February 22 at his workplace. He is a member of a house church, and Mohabat reported that prior to his arrest, authorities detained other members of his group.
In a separate February 22 incident Iranian intelligence officers, initially introducing themselves as representatives of the regional electricity company, raided the Isfhahan home of Christian Enayat Jafari, seizing personal belongings, including a laptop, phone cards, books, compact disks and even children's
cartoons, Mohabat News said.
"Mr. Jafari's wife and three year old child were frightened by this sudden invasion and by the officer's treatment. They also threatened to arrest his wife if she didn't cooperate with them," the agency commented, citing local Christians.
His wife was so far only allowed one brief prison visit, Iranian Christians said, adding that his his "three year old child greatly misses his father."
Several other non-identified believers are also being held in Isfahan, raising the number held in the Isfahan region at least 12, local believers said.
Amid mounting concerns, Mohabat said authorities released Hakimpour on February 25 because of her age and recent knee replacement surgery. However authorities have denied proper medical treatment to fellow Christian Del-Aram, as her daughter not allowed to bring medication she needs to her prison, it added.
Isfahan is no isolated incident, with at least dozens of Christians believed to be detained across Iran.
"Today, the regime of Iran crackdowns on Christians, especially Christian converts, for it is observing the growth of Christianity like never before," said activist and Mohabat News director Saman Kamvar. "This fact has made them concerned," he explained.
He said that while in the past years "underground or house churches were the main targets" gradually authorities also included, more openly operating, evangelical churches. "Evangelical churches don't believe that Christianity only belongs to a certain sect or nationality and so everyone is allowed to attend their
As the language and Bibles used in those churches are mostly in the Farsi language, "all people groups including Assyrians, Armenians, Kurds, Turks, Lors, Balochs, etc. attend their services."
He also cited the Assemblies of God church in the capital Tehran which was recently forced to cancel its Friday church services.
Iranian authorities have consistently denied wrongdoing but have acknowledged they are concerned about the spread of Christianity, with church groups claiming at least 100,000 devoted believers in the Islamic nation.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last year especially condemned the growing house churches.
Some, including house church Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, face execution because of their refusal to abandon their faith in Christ and return to Islam, court documents show.
Additionally, thousands of Bibles designated for local Christians are known to have been confiscated and destroyed by authorities, according to Iranian Christians familiar with the situation.