By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- Iran's largest Persian speaking Pentecostal church was closed Monday, May 27, after one of its leaders was detained during a worship service and moved to an unknown location, Iranian Christians told BosNewsLife.
The closure of the Central Assemblies of God church (AoG) in Tehran and the earlier arrest of its Pastor Robert Asserian on May 21 come while Iran prepares for presidential elections next month.
Eight candidates were approved for the June 14 presidential poll to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who cannot run again because of term limits.
Islamic authorities eager to maintain their influence are wary of groups deemed dangerous to their power base, including growing Christian churches, especially at a time of elections, according to a BosNewsLife analyze based on several reports from Iranian Christians and rights groups
"These incidents appear to be an attempt to stop worship services from being conducted in Farsi, the language of the majority of Iranians," said George O. Wood, general superintendent of the AoG in the United States. "Services are allowed in Armenian, a minority language that most Iranians do not speak or even understand."
Wood expressed concern about the future of the AoG in Iran and the whereabouts of the pastor. "Before going to the church, authorities raided Pastor Asserian’s home where they confiscated a computer and several books. Then, they found Pastor Asserian at the church leading the prayer service, immediately arrested him, and announced the church’s imminent closure."
He confirmed that, "At last report, the pastor’s whereabouts are unknown."
Iranian Christians said the closure of AoG in Tehran will set a precedent for closing all Farsi-language churches in Iran. "Such a move would essentially remove all open witness of the gospel of Christ in the country," Wood warned. No exact figures of members of the AoG were released, but mission groups have suggested there are at least 100,000 evangelical Christians across Iran, with some giving higher estimates.
Wood said he had appealed to AoG member churches to "earnestly pray for Pastor Asserian and all fellow believers in the Iranian Assemblies of God" and "request prayer that the authorities in Iran will uphold the rights of people to worship freely according to their conscience."
Besides Pastor Asserian, other pastors are known to be detained in several prisons across Iran. One of those pastors is Behnam Irani who is held in
Ghezel Hesar Prison in Karaj city, one of the toughest jails in the country, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of the nation's capital Tehran.
"He has been sentenced to five years in prison for his Christian activity," explained Jason DeMars of advocacy group Present Truth Ministries, who is involved in the case.
Irani began a one-year prison term in 2011 but was later told he would also have to serve a five-year, previously suspended, sentence for "crimes against national security".
Iranian Christians also fear a court verdict suggesting prosecutors to pursue the death penalty for "apostasy", or abandoning Islam, said Firouz Khandjani, a council member of the 'Church of Iran' movement to which the pastor belongs.
"He is in a cell with 38 other people, most of whom are in prison for murder and dealing drugs," DeMars told BosNewsLife.
"As a result of prison conditions he is suffering from intestinal inflammation that is causing a bleeding ulcer, diminished eyesight, and an herniated disc in his back."
DeMars said the pastor "walks with a limp because of the pain. Some close to the case believe that Iran’s secret police is seeking to use these circumstances so that Pastor Behnam dies in prison."
WHITE HOUSE PRESSURED
He urged Christians around the world not to forget the pastor and sign a petition asking the White House "to take immediate steps to put pressure on the Iranian government to secure the release of Pastor Behnam Irani.
"Most of the focus of the American church, regarding persecution, has been Saeed Abedini, the Iranian-American pastor who is serving an eight-year prison sentence in Evin Prison in Tehran, Iran," he said.
"I’m very thankful that so much attention has been given to him [but there are also] others in prison serving a sentence for their Christian faith."
Iranian authorities have defended their perceived harsh policies towards especially evangelical Christians, who include many former Muslims, saying they are upholding the laws of the strict Islamic nation and its Islamic values.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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