By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- Evangelical Christians in Iran's capital Tehran were without a church building Sunday, June 10, after Iranian security forces closed it down as part of a wider crackdown, Iranian Christians and activists told BosNewsLife.
The 100-strong Jannat Abad Church, which is part of the evangelical Assemblies of God domination, had been operating in the building for some 15 years, Christians said.
It reportedly provided two services per week, prayer sessions and Bible studies.
Iranian Christians said the order came from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s Intelligence branch on Tuesday, June 5.
A spokesperson of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran group told BosNewsLife that the government action is part of a "drive to close churches".
This "is an assault on free religious practice, in violation of Iran’s international commitments, and a sign of growing religious intolerance within the Iranian government," added spokesperson Hadi Ghaemi.
THREE OTHER CHURCHES
Only three other Farsi-speaking churches remain in Tehran including the also pressured Assemblies of God Central Church of Tehran, Emmanuel Protestant Church and St. Peter’s Evangelical Church.
Last month authorities arrested one of the elders of Immanuel Church in Tehran, Mehrdad Sajadi, a and his wife, Forough Dashtiani, according to Mohabat News, a Christian news agency.
Iranian Christians said authorities have shut down several other established churches outside Tehran, including another Assemblies of God church in the southern city of Ahvaz, which was forced to close on December 23, 2011, just before Christmas.
Authorities reportedly detained the church’s reverend, Farhad Sabok Rooh, along with his wife and two other church members, before releasing them on bail.
In February this year authorities also detained at least ten members of St. Peter’s Anglican church in Esfahan, including its pastor Hekmat Salimi, according to Iranian Christians.
One detainee, a 78-year-old woman, was quickly released; the others were held for nearly two months before being freed on bail, BosNewsLife reported earlier.
At least over 20 Christians are known to be behind bars in Iran, because of their Christian faith, according to rights activists.
Five of those are held in Tehran, five in Shiraz, three in Kermanshah and at least two in Isfahan. Five others in Isfahan were confirmed released in early May, including Hekmat Salimi, lay leader of St Luke’s Anglican Church.
Noorallah Qabitizade, in the southwestern city of Ahwaz, and Farshid Fathi, in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, have been detained since December 2010.
Yousef Nadarkhani, of the Church of Iran house church movement, has been in prison since October 2009 and faces the death penalty on charges of "apostasy" or abandoning Islam.
Behnam Irani, also a member of the Church of Iran, has been in prison in Karaj since May 2011 and is in poor health, his family and Christians said.
Iran has denied wrongdoing saying it upholds Islamic values. Christian groups say there may be at least 100,000 evangelical Christians in Iran, despite the reported crackdown.
Iranian church leader Mansour Borji said it will be difficult for Iranian authorities to stamp out Christianity in the Islamic nation.
Speaking to the independent Radio Farda network he quoted the late Assemblies of God Pastor Mehdi Dibaj as saying "Christianity is like a ball, the harder it hits the ground, the higher it goes into the air. Similarly, the more intense the pressures on the church are in these years, the more it grows".
Dibaj could know. He was sentenced to death and executed for concerting from Islam to Christianity in 1994.
At his trial Dibaj reportedly declared: "I am not only satisfied to be in prison for the honor of His Holy Name, but am ready to give my life for the sake of Jesus my Lord."