By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN/ANKARA (BosNewsLife)-- Behnam Irani, one of Iran's leading evangelical pastors, has been reunited with his family after spending six years in an Iranian prison on charges linked to his Christian activities, a spokesman told BosNewsLife.
The 43-year-old pastor arrived Friday, November 17, shortly afer midnight in Turkey where his family awaited him, confirmed Jason DeMars, director of the Present Truth Ministries (PTM) advocacy group.
"We are rejoicing with brother Behnam Irani and his family as they have been reunited...", DeMars said. "After having served six years in prison he is now free and living with his family in Turkey. We give thanks to God for this," added the official, who was involved in the case.
He said the family had "suffered and went through so many difficulties" in recent years. DeMars told BosNewsLife that the pastor and his wife Kristina, an Armenian Christian, "both want to thank" Christians for their "love and prayers" for them. "God has miraculously preserved them...We couldn't be happier for them," DeMars said.
The couple has a daughter, Rebecca, 11 and a son Adriel, 5.
Pastor Irani met his family more than a month after he was released from prison. His troubles began after he became a pastor in 2002, following his conversion to Christianity in 1992, Christians said.
Irani of Karaj city began a one-year prison term in 2011 but was later told he would also have to serve a five-year, previously suspended, sentence for "crimes against national security".
Iranian authorities were reportedly furious that Irani had continued his activities in this strict Islamic nation as an effective evangelical pastor of a 300-strong house church congregation of the evangelical Church of Iran movement.
In April, 2010, security forces reportedly raided his house church service, assaulted him and took him into custody.
Security officials also interrogated those attending the service and confiscated Bibles, Christian literature and DVD’s, according to Christians familiar with the situation.
"Brother Behnam was in prison for two months then he was released on bail in June 2010. In January 2011 he was tried for and convicted of crimes against national security," PTM
said in a recent statement. "Basically, in this instance, crimes against national security is holding house church services and leading Muslims to Christ," the group added.
Yet during his years in prison, Pastor Behnam Irani made clear he remained faithful to Jesus Christ, despite court pressure to return to Islam.
In a rare interview with BosNewsLife from prison, through a mediator, he said: "I've the joy of the Holy Spirit. I'm very thankful for Christian activists who are fighting alongside with us."
He had been held at the Ghezel Hesar Prison in Karaj city, one of the toughest jails in the country, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of the nation's capital Tehran.
Irani has been among several Christian leaders targeted by Iran's government amid concerns among officials about the spread of Christianity in the country. It was not immediately clear what Irani would do in Turkey, but several members of the Church of Iran have become advocates for the movement and persecuted Christians in Iran, BosNewsLife learned.