By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- Christian rights activists say they are alarmed by a reported new government crackdown on devoted Christians in Iran under the recently elected President Hassan Rouhani.
In one of the latest cases three Christians, Ebrahim Firouzi, Sevada Aghasar, and Masoud Mirzaei were detained last week, BosNewsLife learned Saturday, August 31.
Separately on Sunday, August 25, an appeals court in Tehran rejected an appeal by Iranian-American Pastor Saeed Abedini, 33, who has been sentenced to eight years imprisonment on charges linked to his Christian faith. "It will require a miracle now to get Saeed out of Iranian prison. Our family needs your prayers more than ever," a family statement said.
His wife Naghmeh said she was “extremely disappointed” that US President Barack Obama had remained silent on the case, though the State Department earlier condemned the sentencing.
Republican Congressman Trent Franks went even further. "I hope that the American people will hold the Obama administration and State Department accountable for its absolutely criminal silence in the face of such a heartless injustice forced upon this beloved American pastor, his innocent family, and so many others," he said.
Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) which represents Saeed's family, warned that the pastor "potentially faces additional beatings and abuse inside Evin Prison" in Tehran, "treatment that has significantly weakened him during his first year in prison."
A similar fate was expected for fellow believers Ebrahim Firouzi, Sevada Aghasar and Masoud Mirzaei who were detained August 21, when plainclothes police officers raided Masoud's office in Karaj, about 50 Kilometers (31 miles) west of the capital Tehran, Iranian Christians said.
After raiding the office, security forces also went to Masoud's home, searched it, and confiscated personal belongings, including a computer, according to Iranian Christians and activists.
Christians Ebrahim and Sevada had reportedly gone to visit Masoud to say goodbye as he was to begin serving a one-year prison sentence for his Christian activities.
Sevada and Masoud were able to briefly contact their families before being moved to an undisclosed location, Iranian Christians said.
Christians also expressed concerns over Ebrahim who had expected his imminent detention after being sentenced last month to one year imprisonment and two years in exile on charges that included "evangelism activities... in opposition to" Iran's Islamic leadership.
The detentions came shortly after eight members of Iran's largest evangelical house church movement were sentenced to lengthy prison terms in July for "action against the national security" and "propaganda against the order of the system," Christian rights activists told BosNewsLife.
Mohammad Roghangir was sentenced to six years, Massoud Rezaie to five years, Mehdi Ameruni and Bijan Farokhpour Haghighi to three years, Shahin Lahooti and Suroush Saraie to two and half years each, while Eskandar Rezaie and Roxana Forughi were both sentenced to one year in prison, trial observers said.
Rights activists have also expressed concern about the deteriorating health of Christian prisoners, including Pastor Behnam Irani, who served a little over two years of his six-year sentence for activities as a Christian in Iran."He remains in poor health, but his faith is strong and his attitude is positive. Remember him in prayer on a daily basis," said Jason DeMars, director of President Truth Ministries, who assists him with advocacy.
He told BosNewsLife that his group has asked supporters to "keep his family in prayer as well." It was important to ask God to "heal the body of Pastor Behnam" to "protect him in prison" to "strengthen and encourage his faith" and "to protect and provide for [wife] Kristina and family [and] give comfort and peace to [children] Rebeka and Adriel," DeMars said.
The pastor "has a 12-year old daughter and a four-year old son," DeMars added. "They are missing their father very much. [Wife] Kristina is doing all she can to stay strong and be both a father and mother to the children. Just as her husband, her faith is very strong and her attitude is positive."
He also asked prayers for another devoted Christian, Alireza Seyyedian, who remains in Evin prison where he is serving a five-year sentence on charged that his supporters link to his Christian activities.
Additionally, "Pray for those ministers who continue to work in Iran even with the threat of imprisonment and torture. They need wisdom, strength, and courage to continue in the path God has laid out for them," DeMars told BosNewsLife in a statement.
Concerns over Iranian Christians come at a time when local believers say there "has not been any improvement" in the months since the election of President Rouhani.
"The arbitrary and unreasonable arrest of the three young Christians in Karaj and the increasing imprisonment of Christian converts during the past few weeks are all signs of a worsening situation for the Iranian Christian community," commented Mohabat News, an agency of Iranian Christians and activists.
That view is shared by Todd Daniels, regional manager for the Middle East of International Christian Concern (ICC) a major advocacy group. "Iran continues to engage in a pattern of systematic abuse of the basic and fundamental rights of both its own citizens, and in the case of [jailed Pastor] Saeed Abedini, an American citizen" born in Iran, he told BosNewsLife.
"We urge leaders across the globe to speak out on behalf of those who are suffering under this regime. We call for the release of all those who are held in prison solely on the basis of their religious beliefs," he added.
"The Iranian people deserve a government that respects their rights, will uphold their constitution, and honor its international commitments for the good of all Iranians."
Iranian officials have defended their policies, saying those targeted violate Islamic laws and are working for foreign-backed groups undermining the state security. Despite the crackdown there are at least 100,000 evangelical Christians in Iran, many of them former Muslims, who often visit house churches outside government controlled denominations, according to mission groups.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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