By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN/VIENNA (BosNewsLife)- A jailed Iranian evangelical pastor has been told he will be released two years earlier than expected after international pressure, though fellow Christians expressed doubts whether Iran would keep the promise when wrapping up talks on a nuclear deal with the United States and other powers, BosNewsLife learned.
Farshid Fathi spent most of his time behind bars in Iran since December 2010 when he was detained as part of a reported crackdown on Christians before New Year celebrations.
The 36-year-old pastor, whose wife and two children were offered asylum in Canada last year, has thanked Christians for prayers. “I sense the fragrance of your prayers as a cool breeze on my heart that together with your fatherly love strengthens me from afar,” the pastor said in comments seen by BosNewsLife.
Elam Ministries, a mission group founded by Iranian church leaders, said Fathi was told by prison officials that he would be released on December 10 this year. "He had previously expected to remain in prison until December 2017," the group added.
"This is positive news, which has greatly encouraged Farshid and his family. We join them in praising God for this development, and for those who have made it possible."
Yet some Christians remain skeptical. "Now the concern over this matter is [whether] Iranian officials keep their word even after the potential nuclear deal with the world powers?," commented Mohabat News, a news agency of Iranian Christians and activists.
It remained unclear whether human rights were discussed during ongoing talks in Vienna, Austria, between world powers and Iran. Officials suggested that negotiators may announce Monday, July 13, that they’ve reached a historic deal after nearly a decade of diplomacy that would curb Iran's atomic program in return for sanctions relief.
However even if Fathi is released as promised, scores of other Christians remain detained for activities linked to their faith, according to Christians familiar with the situation. "An estimated 90 Christians are in a prison in Iran because of their witness to Jesus Christ," Elam Ministries said.
They also include Iranian-born American pastor Saeed Abedini who has been is recovering of injuries after he was "viciously beaten" in prison where he is serving an eight year sentenced on charges linked to evangelism and planting churches in Iran, Christians said.
"At least twelve have been sentenced, usually for the crime of ‘working against national security’. The sentences range from one year, to eight. The rest are believed to be in pre-trial detention," Elam Ministries explained, adding that there is "very little information" over the plight of some 30 detained Christians.
The agency has published a of all available names.
Reports of an ongoing crackdown on Christians come amid concerns among Iranian officials over the spread of Christianity in the strict Islamic nation with new figures showing at least hundreds of thousands of new believers.
"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 360,000 believers in the nation," Elam Ministries said.
Church leaders say "millions" can be added, "such is the spiritual hunger that exists and the disillusionment with the Islamic regime," Elam Ministries claimed.
As Iran is a strategic gateway nation, the "growing church in Iran" will impact Muslim nations across the Islamic world, the group said. It urged Christians "to pray" for the 90 known Christians detained behind bars. "If we remain faithful to our calling, our conviction is that it is possible to see the nation transformed within our lifetime."
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