By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- A key official of one of Iran's largest house church movements warned Friday, June 14, that the country's presidential elections would not lead to an improvement for minority Christians in the Islamic nation.
"The real power is with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who is the one deciding on major policies," said Firouz Khandjani, a council member of the 'Church of Iran' movement.
"We have to remember that the president in Iran has less power than the French prime minister. Khameini even controls the Interior and Intelligence ministers, who are feared by Christians," Khandjani told BosNewsLife.
He spoke as millions of Iranians began choosing between six presidential candidates to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose second term as president is coming to an end. Under Iran's constitution he can not stand again for re-election.
None of the six candidates were seen as challenging the Islamic Republic's 34-year-old system of clerical rule, which has increased pressure on Christian converts from Islam and the growing house church movement in the country.
It was not clear whether the situation will worsen for Christians in the country. "Except for [presidential candidate] Saied Jalili it does not seem that others would be specifically against Christians," argued Khandjani, adding that this does not mean the situation will improve.
Nuclear negotiator Jalili, who advocates maintaining a robust, ideologically-driven foreign policy, is seen as the main conservative contender.
"Only presidential candidate Hassan Rohani has promised to work for minorities, including Christians. But he will not be allowed to do that without Khamenei's approval," Khandjani told BosNewsLife, speaking from an undisclosed location amid security concerns.
The Guardian Council, a state body that vets all candidates, barred several hopefuls from the ballot, notably former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the Islamic Republic's founding fathers seen as sympathetic to reform. His close ally, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, was also barred from participating.
Yet casting his ballot in the capital Tehran, Khamenei defended the policies. He urged Iranians on Friday, June 14, to vote in large numbers and condemned Western criticism about the credibility of the vote.
"I recently heard that someone at the U.S. National Security Council said 'we do not accept this election in Iran'," he recalled. "We don't give a damn," he added.
Ahead of Friday's vote, Christians have expressed concerns about a fresh crackdown on Christian groups viewed as dangerous by Iran's ruling elite who claim to protect the country's "Islamic values".
In recent weeks authorities closed down the Central Assemblies of God church (AoG) in Tehran, the country's largest Pentecostal church, after detaining its Pastor Robert Asserian on May 21.
Soon after Christian converts, identified as Mohammad-Reza Farid, Saeed Safi, and Hamid-Reza Ghadiri, were reportedly detained May 29 during a worship service of a house church in the city of Isfahan, about 340 kilometers (212 miles) south of Tehran.
They are among several Christians detained across the country. Last week Christians expressed fresh concerns about Iranian Pastor Behnam Irani, who may face the death penalty for "apostasy", or abandoning Islam, and is reportedly facing serious health problems after two years imprisonment.
Khandjani said he wasn't surprised about the crackdown. "In the West people seem often more interested in the elections than in individual cases of persecution," he noticed.
"For Western countries, the big event is the election. Iranian authorities used the election campaign and the attention it received, to meanwhile detain Christians. This way they could avoid the world attention such a crackdown would usually receive, the church official claimed.
"They used the electoral calender in order to suppress Christians."
Yet despite the reported crackdown an increasing number of people, many of them with a Muslim background, become Christians, said Elam Ministries, a mission group founded by Iranian church leaders.
As an example it said that ahead of the presidential elections some 246 Iranian Christians were baptized on April 17—"probably the largest baptism service on record in the Iranian church since the fourth century."
In addition, Iran's underground house churches—where freedom to attend Persian-language worship services is more likely to be found—do appear to be growing, Christians said.
George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God in the United States, claomed recently that Pastor Asserian’s detention and other incidents “appear to be an attempt to stop worship services from being conducted in Farsi, the language of the majority of Iranians… Services are allowed in Armenian, a minority language that most Iranians do not speak or even understand.”
There are believed to be at least 100,000 evangelical Christians in the country, though some church groups claim the actual figure may be several times higher. Whoever comes to power will face this growing phenomena in the heavily Islamic nation.
Of the five conservative presidential candidates pledging unwavering obedience to Khamenei, only three are thought to stand any chance of winning the vote, or making it through to a second round run-off in a week's time, election observers said.
The other two, Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, have said they would never back away from pursuing Iran's nuclear program but have strongly criticized Jalili's inflexible negotiating stance.
They face Hassan Rohani, viewed as the sole moderate candidate, but also the only cleric in the race. Though critics see him as an establishment figure and suspicious of the West, Rohani is more likely to pursue a conciliatory foreign policy and one of moderation in Iran itself, analysts said.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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