By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- With several of its members in jail this Easter, Iran's largest evangelical house church movement has denied Iranian media claims that they are "Non-Trinitarian Christians" who follow "an American cult leader".
The Church of Iran reacted to reports by Mohabat News, which describes itself as an "Iranian Christian News Agency", and state-run outlets such as Press TV.
"They follow the teachings of William M. Branham, an American cult leader who claimed to be the last prophet of God on earth," Mohabat News said this week. It also called inmates and other members of the Church of Iran "Non-Trinitarian Christians, also known as 'Branhamists'."
However Firouz Khandjani, a Church of Iran council member,
strongly denied the allegations. "Actually we do not disagree with the Trinity because there are signs of the Trinity everywhere and throughout the Bible," he said.
"We don't disagree with the Oneness of God [and] we have a specific understanding of the Trinity," Khandjani told BosNewsLife. "We are not Non-Trinitarian."
STATEMENT OF FAITH
The Statement of Faith of the Church of Iran, obtained by BosNewsLife and published on the Internet in French and English, seems to confirm that.
Referring to numerous Bible verses, it includes that "With the Holy Spirit, we affirm and confess one God, Creator of heaven and earth" and that "He is revealed in the Scriptures as Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
The Church of Iran also mentions "the Lordship of Jesus Christ, only Son of God, the Word manifested in flesh."
Khandjani said the Church of Iran focuses on Christ. "Every ministry in our church is centered around Christ not around men. We are a Full Gospel movement," Khandjani stressed.
"MEN OF GOD"
"Allegations that we follow a last prophet shows an Islamic mindset...The Bible speaks of two final prophets who will witness [about Christ during a period of 3.5 years] before the Apocalypse" and return of Christ with His Church, he explained.
The official acknowledged that the Church of Iran may use teachings "of several men of God" ranging from Christian leaders Martin Luther, John Calvin, Billy Sunday, Alexandre Westhpal, Billy Graham or even Billy Branham. "However we are not followers of one of them."
"Our critics are not even able to make a difference between 'Christological' and "theological" affirmations about the Son. In other words, there is some theological illiteracy here, Khandjani claimed.
He said it is "highly possible" that Iran's Islamic regime is behind the distribution of what his church regards as "false information" through Mohamat News and other media.
They made similar allegations when Church of Iran Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani faced a death sentence for "apostasy", though he was recently released following three years of imprisonment.
Some churches with ties to the government and other groups have accused the Church of Iran of "making money with persecution", allegations the movement strongly denies, Khandjani explained.
MONTHS OF DETENTION
The controversy comes at a time when the Church of Iran remains concerned about members who remain jailed on charges linked to their Christian activities.
Among those known to be detained only Soroush Saraei, Mohammad Roghangir and Massoud Rezaei were released at midnight March 19 and Eskandar Rezaie was freed this week, after each posted 80,000 dollars in bail, Khandjani confirmed to BosNewsLife.
The four Christians and Shahin Lahooti, who is still behind bars, were jailed five months in Adel-Abad Prison in Shiraz, 920 kilometers (571 miles) south of the capital Tehran, the Church of Iran said. "We have to wait and see" when and if Lahooti will be released, explained Khandjani.
Additionally, concerns remain about other Church of Iran Christians behind bars, including Pastor Pastor Behnam Irani who led an affiliated congregation in Karaj city in Alborz Province.
Iranian Christians have told BosNewsLife that the 43-year-old can "painfully walk again" after he was previously beaten by fellow inmates and guards of the Ghezel Hesar Prison in Karaj, among the toughest jails in the country, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of the nation's capital Tehran.
Two other believers of his church, Farshid Fathi and Saied Abedini, are also held there.
NATIONAL SECURITY CHARGES
In Tehran, Church of Iran members Alireza Seyyedian and Mohammadereza Hosseini were also forced to observe Easter behind the walls of the notorious Evin prison.
All are behind bars on charges that include "actions against national security" of the strict Islamic state.
Other believers held on similar charges include 28-year-old Ebrahim Firouzi, who was taken into custody by plain clothes officers on his way to work on March 7, Christians said. Additionally, Iranian-American Pastor Saeed Abedini has begun serving an eight year jail term in Evin prison, raising concerns from the United States.
"I am deeply concerned about the fate of U.S citizen Saeed Abedini, who has been detained for nearly six months and was sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran on charges related to his religious beliefs," stressed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement last week.
"I am [also] disturbed by reports that Mr. Abedini has suffered physical and psychological abuse in prison, and that his condition has become increasingly dire," he said.
INTERNATIONAL NORMS "VIOLATED"
Kerry said such treatment violates "international norms" and Iran's laws. "The best outcome for Mr. Abedini is that he be immediately released," the top diplomat added.
The reported crackdown has been linked to concerns among Iranian officials about the spread of Christianity in the strict Islamic country, which they view as a threat to their power base.
There are at least 100,000 evangelicals and possibly close to half a million Christians in Iran, according to several data monitored by BosNewsLife.
Most of them are former Muslims meeting in underground house churches who operate outside state-supervised churches, according to missionaries working in the area.
However, "Church leaders believe that millions can be added to the church in the next few years-such such is the spiritual hunger that exists and the disillusionment with the Islamic regime," said Elam, a mission group founded by Iranian church leaders.
More on the Web in French on the Church of Iran's doctrine