(ADDS NEWS ABOUT PASTOR IRANI REPORTED TRANSFER TO UNKOWN LOCATION)
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– Iran’s feared Ministry of Intelligence and National Security (VEVAK) has summoned the pastor of an evangelical congregation amid a wider crackdown on devoted Christians in the strict Islamic nation, a well-informed source told BosNewsLife Monday, June 9.
“Pastor Keyvan Rajabi, from the northern city of Rasht, was contacted today that he must report to VEVAK offices in Rasht for an interview,” a close friend said. He spoke to BosNewsLife on condition of anonymity citing security concerns.
The 38-year-old Rajabi, who is married and father of one daughter, had been leading an “evangelical Bible-based congregation” in Rasht, the friend said, at a time of growing interest in the Christian faith in the region.
VEVAK agents want to hear the pastor as part of “a wider crackdown” on Christians, added the friend, who has been closely involved in supporting the congregation. Elsewhere, “Christians in [central] Isfahan [province] have had their homes raided,” he said.
“Several have fled and [Christian] Allen Dirigorosiyan has been arrested,” the friend explained.
CHURCH LEADERS DETAINED
And a church in Karaj city northwest of Tehran, the capital, “has had two of its ministers arrested in recent months,” he said. “During incarceration they have been beaten and tortured.”
Fellow Pastor Behnam Irani, who leads the 300-member Church of Iran congregation in Karaj city, was among the first Christian prisoners this year to suffer from severe bleeding due to stomach ulcers and colon complications linked to prison mistreatment, which even caused him to lose consciousness, Christians said.
On Monday, June 9, Christians said he was beaten again in prison and transferred to an unknown location in the early hours of Saturday, June 7.
Last month, Pastor Irani’s bible and other Christian literature was confiscated by authorities, according to Christians familiar with the case. “Recent events have given rise to concerns that the authorities may be planning to add charges to his existing sentence,” said Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) a major advocacy group.
Irani, who is in his 40s, 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”.
“During the first few months of his imprisonment in Ghezal Hesar, Pastor Irani was held incommunicado in a small cell, where guards repeatedly woke him from sleep as a form of psychological torture. He was moved to a cramped room where inmates could not lie down to sleep, before being transferred to a crowded, filthy cell, which he shares with 40 criminals, many of whom are violent,” according to CSW investigators.
PHYSICAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL PRESSURE
“He has been subjected to physical and psychological pressure, and has suffered regular beatings from cell mates and prison authorities, as well as death threats,” the group added.
Other believers claim similar experiences. Iranian Christian Silas Rabbani said he was tortured while in Gohardasht Prison near Karaj; Amin Khaki, also a Christian, explained that he was beaten in the country’s southwest Ahwaz Prison.
Rabbani, a deacon of the evangelical Church of Iran movement in Karaj, was detained May 5 by VEVAK agents who reportedly told him they planned to also detain other Christians. He was transferred to Section 8 of Gohardasht Prison, which is under control of Revolutionary Guards, a branch of Iran’s military, Christians said.
Amin Khaki was among eight believers captured and interrogated following a Christian group picnic on March 5. Although most of them were later released, Amin Khaki, Hossein Baraunzadeh (Daniel) and Rahman Bahman (Zia) were detained, rights activists added.
Khaki was transferred to the Interim Ward of Ahwaz Prison on May 7, while Hossein Baraunzadeh and Rahman Bahma were transported to from Ahwaz Prison to a jail in Dezful city, according to Christians familiar with the case.
CHARGES REMAIN UNCLEAR
It was not immediately clear why they were detained, but Iranian authorities usually sentence Christians on charges ranging from “threatening national security” and other “anti-state activities” to having contacts with foreign organizations.
News of their plight followed reports that Iranian-born American pastor Saeed Abedini was brutally by officials and forcibly returned to prison on May 20.
The pastor was at a hospital during the time of the assault, where he had been receiving care since mid-March, his family and Iranian Christians said.
A group of intelligence officials reportedly arrived at the hospital unannounced and mistreated Abedini before returning him to prison.
WIFE DEEPLY SADDENED
“This is an extremely disappointing development — one that breaks my heart,” Pastor Saeed’s wife, Naghmeh, said in published remarks. “Our family is deeply saddened and we continue to pray for Saeed — for his safety and his release,” she said. “We are very grateful that so many people around the world continue to pray for Saeed.”
Pastor Saeed has been in detention since September of 2012. He was later convicted on charges relating to anti-state activities and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Christians have linked the accusations to his involvement in house churches, which have been raided by security forces. In one of the latest known incidents “six Christians were arrested on Easter Sunday during a house church service in Tehran,” said Elam Ministries.
“Many incidents of abuse during 2014 have reminded the world of Iran’s disdain for the rights of prisoners.
[Evangelical Pastor] Farshid Fathi was injured along with many others during an attack in [Tehran’s] Evin prison on April 17. Farshid was denied an operation to his injured foot for so long that the window of opportunity closed and he now must wait for his foot to heal naturally,” the group added.
Separately in April, Christian musician Shahin Lahooti began serving a court-issued sentence, Christians said.”Six others from his church have been sentenced and could be summoned to prison at any time. Pastor Vruir Avanessian has also been sentenced to three years and could be called to serve his sentence at any time,” Elam Ministries explained.
SITUATION GETTING “WORSE”
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has come under pressure to fulfill campaign pledges to respect rights of religious minorities, including Christians.
At least 60 Christians are detained in Iran because of their faith and some of them were gal pre-trial detention, Elam Ministries said. “This year, Christians in Iran have continued to face harsh, brutal and persistent persecution. Many prisoners have faced unbelievably brutal abuse; numerous Christians have been newly arrested; various Christians have been sentenced and are waiting to begin serving time.”
Critics say that the situation has, if anything, gotten worse for Christians. “Conditions are at levels not seen since the early years of the  revolution,” U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom chair Katrina Lantos Swett wrote recently.
Human rights group CSW agrees. “We are extremely concerned by recent reports of Iranian prison authorities using excessive violence against prisoners,” said Mervyn Thomas, CSW’s chief executive.
He said Iran violates its obligations under article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), “which prohibits torture, and cruel inhuman and degrading treatment, and article 10, which states that prisoners should be treated with humanity and with respect for their inherent human dignity.”
Iran claims to uphold religious freedom in line with a constitutional recognition of five faiths – Shia Islam, Sunni Islam, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity – whose adherents, “within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.”
Yet evangelical Christians have told BosNewsLife that the growth in the number of non ethnic-minority Christians, converts from Islam, is viewed by authorities as a dangerous development.
CHURCHES IN TROUBLE
Several churches have been prevented from using Farsi, the main language used in Iran, in an apparent attempt to prevent the spread of Christianity.
Experts say that the Christian community in Iran has traditionally comprised mostly ethnic minorities using their own language, Armenians and Assyrians, who attend various Catholic and Protestant denominations.
However that is changing as an increasing number of Muslims are turning to faith in Jesus Christ “as Lord and Saviour”, say mission groups.
Missionaries and church groups have suggested that as many as hundreds of thousands Iranians have embraced Christianity in recent years.