Iran’s Mix of ‘Token Gestures’ and Arrests May Indicate Internal Disputes

Crackdown continues even as other Christian prisoners are released.

The Rev. Vruir Avanessian. (Mohabat News)

The Rev. Vruir Avanessian. (Mohabat News)

CAIRO, Egypt (Morning Star News) – Iran’s goodwill gestures and the release from prison of some Christians even as authorities make new arrests could indicate infighting between the new president and Islamist hard-liners, analysts said.

Hassan Rouhani began duties as president of Iran last August on a platform of pragmatic moderation. At Christmas, frequently a season of fear and persecution, Rouhani sent goodwill messages to Iranian Christians via Twitter and greetings to the Roman Catholic pope. But the overtures came against reports of arrests, raids on Christians’ homes and the jailing of converts from Islam.

While many observers see the contradiction as a lack of commitment to addressing Western criticisms of Iran’s treatment of Christians, some religious freedom advocates say it may also represent a power struggle as Rouhani slowly navigates Iranian political waters.

“I suspect what is going on is essentially that the hardliners who control the security forces and who hassle the church, that whole group is very firmly in control of everything,” said one advocate who requested anonymity for security reasons. “In his first few months in office, what can he really do? And if he starts a massive turf war with the hardliners, he would lose. From recent Iranian history, he watched it happen.”

The advocate said time will tell whether Rouhani is serious about reform or is just good at placating the West. A senior analyst at Middle East Concern (MEC) said that much of the good news coming out of Iran is the result of “token gestures,” and that Christian leaders in Iran “remain skeptical” about the prospect of reform under Rouhani.

“There are lots of conflicting signals,” the analyst said. “There’s been some positive rhetoric from Rouhani, and by and large it hasn’t been matched yet by his actions. Even if he wanted to pursue a more moderate agenda, he doesn’t necessarily have the power to do that … There could well be some power play involved between branches of Iranian government.”

The government of Iran last week released the last of several Christians arrested during a raid two years ago at a Christmas celebration. Shahnaz Jayzan was freed on Tuesday (Jan. 28), according to MEC. Jayzan was one of the group of Christians from the Assemblies of God Church of Ahwaz arrested on Dec. 23, 2011 during a holiday celebration.

Initially, Iranian authorities arrested all those at the 2011 meeting, but then they released everyone except for four church leaders – Jayzan, her husband, pastor Farhad Sabokrouh, Naser Zamen-Dezfuli and Davoud Alijani.

The four were eventually released on bail, but in October 2012, all were found guilty of “converting to Christianity, inviting Muslims to convert and propagating against the Islamic regime through promoting evangelical Christianity,” according to MEC.

After their appeals failed, in May 2013 a court ordered three of the four to appear before authorities to start their one-year prison sentences. Alijani was transferred to prison immediately as he was already in custody.

Sabokrouh and Zamen-Dezfuli were released on Dec. 4, 2013. Alijani was released about six weeks later, on Jan. 13. All the men were released approximately two weeks before the end of their sentences. According to a MEC statement after Jayzan’s release, her release was not without conditions.

“Under the terms of the release she must report to the Revolutionary Court in Ahvaz every four months,” the statement reads. “The Assemblies of God church in Ahvaz remains closed, and Iranian authorities have banned Pastor Farhad from conducting any church-related activities.”

Jayzan and Sabokrouh are also forbidden to have any type of meetings with Christians in Khuzestan Province and were told to leave Ahwaz, according to Mohabat News.

Farsi Churches Shuttered Again

December started with the Iranian government resuming pressure to stop all Christian services in Farsi, the native tongue of Iran.

On Dec. 8, under pressure from the government, the pastor of St. Peter Church in Tehran, Sargis Benyamin, told his congregation that Farsi-speaking attendees would not be allowed in the church anymore, according to Mohabat News. One week later, church members prevented a few of the Farsi-speaking members from entering the church building, including Sunday school teachers, elders and other leaders of the church. They were told they could not enter the church building for any reason.

Even though the church is ostensibly for ethnic Armenian and Assyrians, many of whom speak a dialect of Aramaic, Farsi-speaking Christians form a majority of the congregation.

In the past few years, the government has permanently or temporarily closed the Farsi-speaking church of Janat-Abad and the Central Assemblies of God Church in Tehran, the largest Farsi-speaking Church in Tehran. A Catholic church in Tehran was also closed to Farsi-speakers, according to Mohabat News.

Arrests, Raids

In what London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas called an “annual and insensitive ritual of arresting Christians at this time of year,” security forces ransacked the homes of four Christians in four separate raids on Dec. 15 in Karaj, a city of 1.6 million people, 47 kilometers (29 miles) west of Tehran.

Among the homes raided was that of Kristina Irani, wife of imprisoned Church of Iran pastor Behnam Irani. According to CSW, security forces verbally assaulted Irani in front of her children and then took her laptop and some Christian materials from her home.

Security forces raided and confiscated Bibles from the homes of Silas Rabbani, Amin Khaki and an unnamed Christian. According to CSW, the three men were told they would be required to report to court for a hearing.

Irani, pastor of the Church of Iran congregation in Karaj, was arrested in December 2006 on charges of action against the state and action against the order. In 2011 he was sentenced to six years in prison with a court ruling against him that branded him an apostate and stated that apostates “can be killed.”

Irani is being held in Ghezal Hesar Prison. He has been tortured and has not received adequate medical attention. According to CSW, Irani prison officials told him on Dec. 11 that he was no longer allowed to walk around the prison yard or to communicate with other prisoners.

The arrests in Karaj were followed on Dec. 24 by a raid on a house-church meeting in East Tehran. Five Christians, whose names have been withheld for security reasons, were arrested. Security agents confiscated books, CDs, at least one computer and satellite reception equipment. The location and condition of those arrested has not been released to the public.

On Dec. 31, raids continued in Karaj, with four Christians, whose names have been withheld for security reasons, being arrested at a Christian-owned home. As with the raid in East Tehran, security officials confiscated books, CDs, television reception equipment and, oddly, family photo albums. The location and condition of those arrested is not publically known.

As December gave way to the new year, a Farsi-speaking convert to Christianity, Hossein Saketi, was sentenced to one year in prison in early January, according to Mohabat News. Little is known about his case, but the charges against him appear to be related to evangelism. According to Mohabat, Saketi was arrested on July 23 in Golestan Province.

After spending more than two months in solitary confinement over a three-month period, Saketi’s case was eventually transferred to Branch One of the Revolutionary court in Karaj, where he was found guilty. He is being held in Ward 7 of the Karaj Central Detention House.

In Tehran, the Revolutionary Court of the Islamic Republic of Iran sentenced the Rev. Vruir Avanessian, an Armenian pastor of Armenian and Farsi-speaking congregations of the Assemblies of God churches in Iran for more than 17 years, to three and half years in prison, Mohabat News reported in December. He was found guilty of “anti-government activities and promotion of ideas contrary to the sanctity of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Suffering from heart disease and diabetes, Avanessian was undergoing kidney dialysis three times week at a private clinic in Tehran and was retired from active ministry due his medical condition.


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