By BosNewsLife Middle East Service
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- Iran's Islamic leadership has launched a public campaign to halt the rapid spread of Christianity among Iranians, BosNewsLife learned Monday, September 2.
The government's think-tank and the Iranian intelligence service are organizing meetings aimed at debating the "conversion from Islam" and to analyze why especially Iranian youth convert to Christianity, well-informed Iranian Christians said.
One of the first gatherings was reportedly attended by experts from France and Italy. A follow-up meeting has reportedly been scheduled for September 6 in the influential Sarcheshmeh Cultural Center.
The events come at a time when at least 13 Christians were detained across the Tabriz, Isfahan and Tehran areas in the past six weeks, said Elam Ministries, a mission group founded by senior Iranian church leaders.
Mohabat News, an agency of activists and Christians, isn't surprised about the government campaign involving meetings aimed at "distorting" public opinion. "It seems great crackdowns on churches and extraordinary waves of arrest of Iranian pastors and Christian converts have not been effective," the agency commented in a statement to BosNewsLife.
"Christianity is spreading in Iran rapidly...The increasing growth of house-churches in the country and the tendency of Iranian youth and their families to convert from Islam has turned into a major concern for the security organizations, especially Shi'ite Islamic clerics."
However, "The question is, do these expensive meetings, with especially hand-picked foreign guests, help the Islamic regime to interrupt the work that God has started among Iranians and dissuade Iranians from giving their hearts to Jesus Christ?", wondered Mohabat News.
Elam Ministries doesn't think so. "In 1979, there were less than 500 known Christians from a Muslim background in Iran. Today the most conservative estimate is that there are at least 100,000 believers in the nation," it said in an assessment.
Yet the mission group acknowledged that living as a devoted Christian can be dangerous.
It said a fresh crackdown on Christian converts,began in Tabriz last month when three men, Farshid Modares, Aval Samad Kazemi and Hamid Reza, were detained on July 10 following raids on their homes. "Fellow believer Yashar Farzin No was arrested the following day and Mohammad Reza Piri, on July 17."
Prior to his detention, Yashar Farzin No and his wife were "repeatedly" pressured by authorities "to recant their new Christian faith and return to Islam," Christians said.
Elam Ministries also cited reports of other Christians subsequently arrested in Tabriz whose identities remained unknown Monday, September 2.
"Mohammad Reza Piri sustained serious injuries after being tortured and severely beaten during interrogations and had to spend four days in the hospital of the central prison of Tabriz. Mr. Kazemi was released on bail a few days after his arrest, but the rest of the group remains detained," Elam Ministries added.
Five additional Christian converts were recently detained during a raid on a house church in western Tehran, Iranian Christians said earlier.
The house raid, which occurred on August 9, was reportedly violent and the five individuals, Parham Farazmand, Sara Sardsirian, Sedigheh Kiani, Mona Fazli and one unnamed Christian, were taken to an unknown location. A week before the arrests in the capital Tehran, three Christians, Sedigheh Amirkhani, Mahnaz Rafiee, and Mohammad Reza Peymani, were detained in the city of Isfahan, according to Iranian Christian activists.
Mostafa Bordbar, a Christian convert who was sentenced to ten years imprisonment in July on political charges, remains in Tehran's notorious Evin prison and was believed to be awaiting an appeal hearing. Ebrahim Firouzi, a Christian from Robat-Karim, has reportedly been sentenced to one year imprisonment and two years exile to a remote border town for his Christian activities.
Reverend Sam Yeghnazar, Executive Director of Elam said he was "deeply grieved to see the ongoing brutal persecution" of Christians in Iran.
"My prayers and thoughts are with those currently detained and their families."
He said recently elected President Hassan Rouhani, who has expressed his determination to re-open the lines of dialog with the West, should also include "significant improvement in the treatment of Iran's religious minorities."
Yeghnazar said, "Iranian authorities cannot continue terrorizing and abusing its own citizens in this manner and expect to remain in dialog: we must pray and speak out to ensure that the new president has no doubt of what the international community expects.”
Iranian authorities have in the past defended arrests of Christians, saying those detained violate laws of the strict Islamic nation and threaten security with "foreign-backed" groups.