By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- The pastor of Iran's largest Persian speaking Pentecostal church has been "conditionally released" from prison but his congregation in the capital Tehran remains closed, Iranian Christians told BosNewsLife Thursday, July 4.
Robert Asserian, a key leader at the Central Assemblies of God Church, was taken into custody during a worship service on May 21 as part of a wider crackdown on growing evangelical churches in the country that authorities deem dangerous for the strict Islamic nation, Christians said.
Mohabat News, an agency of Iranian Christians and activists, told BosNewsLife that there is "no clear information on how Pastor Asserian was released." However, "it appears that he was temporarily released on bail on July 2," they said, though the amount was not immediately revealed.
Among other conditions for his release was for him and his family to remain "silent" about their ordeal towards media, said Iranian Christians familiar with the case.
"The condition 'silence for freedom', shows that Iranian authorities want to portray actions such as releasing prisoners as human rights improvement in Iran," Mohabat News commented. "[They] do not want prisoners to speak out in contradicting this" image, the agency explained.
It was not clear whether his personal belongings were returned. "Before going to the church, authorities raided Pastor Asserian’s home where they confiscated a computer and several books," said George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God in the United States.
"Then, they found Pastor Asserian at the church leading the prayer service, immediately arrested him, and announced the church’s imminent closure," ahead of the presidential elections, he said.
It remains to be seen when and if the congregation will be able to open its doors and resume its weekly Tuesday services under president-elect Hassan Rohani, Christians suggested.
"Only presidential candidate Rohani has promised to work for minorities, including Christians," explained Firouz Khandjani, a key official of the Church of Iran, a major evangelical house church movement that has also been prosecuted by authorities.
Yet, Khandjani cautioned that the former lead nuclear negotiator would "not be allowed to do that without the approval" of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "We have to remain realistic, the president is only one element of the system," he told BosNewsLife.
Iranian Christians also want to know whether the new president will count the many Muslims who have converted to Christianity as religious minorities and include them in his promises of protection.
Yet Christians in and outside Iran remain concerned about the future of devoted believers.
"These incidents [of arrests and closures] appear to be an attempt to stop worship services from being conducted in Farsi, the language of the majority of Iranians" and to "put an end to the public proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Iran," Wood said.
Despite the reported crackdown, 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.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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