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By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– Evangelical Christians in Iran fear a massive crackdown by security forces around Christmas and say Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani may be executed earlier than authorities suggest, a senior church official told BosNewsLife Monday, December 19.
Firouz Khandjani, a council member of the pastor’s Church of Iran, said Iran’s judiciary “uses the Christmas time to detain and harass Christians, thinking the world may forget the believers as everyone is busy with Christmas shopping.”
In an extensive interview Monday, December 19, he warned that official suggestions that Pastor Nadarkhani’s execution for “apostasy” or abandoning Islam, would be postponed “may be a trap to confuse the international community.”
Last week a lawyer and other observers close to the case said they learned from the court that judges were ordered to “do nothing” for one year. However, “It has become clear that Iran’s government may want to execute him earlier,” Khandjani stressed. “Saying he will be held one year more does not necessarily mean an earlier execution isn’t possible.”
Pastor Nadarkhani was detained in the city of Rasht in October 2009, while trying to register his Church of Iran home congregation, with hundreds of members in Gilan province. The Church of Iran has also several other congregations, making it one of the largest house church movements in the country.
The Gilan court sentenced the 34-year-old Nadarkhani to death in November 2010. His appeal against that ruling was rejected on June 27, 2011. The Supreme Court said “he can be executed” but added it would first ask a “re-examination” by the same court that already sentenced him to death.
Khandhani, who spoke by telephone from an undisclosed location, said judges are “trying to use all means to make him recant his faith in Christ and convert him back” to Islam. With international pressure mounting, “I think judges would rather release him, but are under pressure by hardliners to execute him,” he explained.
“That’s why the court asked the Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini for an opinion so they can say they are not responsible for his execution.” However, with no opinion forthcoming, they “put him in a jail with criminals such as drugs dealers, hoping that he may use drugs or accept money to become a Muslim again.”
Although returning to Islam could mean avoiding execution and eventual release from prison, the pastor “has made clear he remains faithful to Christ,” Khandjani said. Nadarkhani’s wife, Fatemah, supports him and, when allowed, visits the pastor, who also has two small children, the church official added.
With Christmas approaching, Khandjani said, other Church of Iran leaders are also facing difficulties and several officials were forced to flee the country. “We decided that at least some leaders should leave, otherwise the authorities would execute everyone,” Khandjani added.
He said he knew of as many as 10 Church of Iran Christians who have been detained recently. Some, including his brother Behrouz Sadegh Khanjani, were released after paying bail of as much as $150,000. “Many Christians have lost their jobs. Others lost properties such as homes to provide bail money,” he explained.
Others being sentenced, but released on bail, include Alireza Seyyedian, who was sentenced to six years imprisonment after being baptized in neighboring Turkey. “Many Christians are baptized in secret in Turkey. In the verdict they said that the goal of Protestants is the destruction of Islam. It means if they had enough place
in prisons, they would put 500 million persons in jail.”
Leading Iranian rights activists agree. “Mr. Seyyedian’s arrest is part of a systematic assault on the rights of Protestant in Iran,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “Imprisonment, intimidation and even threats to life have increasingly become the government’s response to Iranians who convert, join house-churches, or proselytize their faith,” Ghaemi told BosNewsLife.
Among several others Church of Iran leaders currently jailed are Pastor Behnam Irani from the city of Karaj and Mehdi Furutan, the acting pastor of a congregation in Shiraz, added Khandjani. Additionally, Pastors Parviz Khalaj, Mohammed “William” Belyad and Behrouz Sadegh Khandjani are due to start serving their sentences in the southwestern city of Shiraz within a few days, he said.
“Parviz has two convictions for crimes against the order and is to serve two years. William Belyad was previously convicted of crimes against the order and sentenced to five years in prison. He will [receive an additional one year] to serve a total of 6 years. Behrouz is expected to serve one year in prison,” on related charges, explained Jason DeMars, director of advocacy group Present Truth Ministries, which has close contacts with Iranian Christians
Other devoted Iranian Christians, many of them former Muslims, are also known to be jailed in the strict Islamic nation, according to rights activists.
“The authorities have a shamefully narrow definition of religious freedom, which harms not only Protestant Christians, but also other religious groups such as Baha’i, Shai Sufis and Sunni Muslim,” stressed human rights official Ghaemi.
Those detained often face abuse, said Khandjani. “My brother was beaten and even held in total isolation for a month.”
Iranian officials have denied wrongdoing, saying they defend “Islamic values”. Christians linked the reported crackdown to concerns among Iran’s government about the spread of Christianity.
“Islam approves Christianity in general, but with regard to the religious teachings of Christianity, unfortunately we witness the spread of Christianity among our youth,” said Ayatollah Hadi Jahangosha, an influential Islamic scholar close to the government.
Earlier, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei condemned the growing house churches.
The Islamic scholar also warned about the widespread publication and distribution of Christian books for children. “One of these children books with [a] Christian subject has been published in 53 million volumes and in 128 different languages…It can even be found in the smallest towns across Iran,” he reportedly said.
Thousands of Bibles designated for local Christians are known to have been confiscated and destroyed by authorities this year alone, according to Iranian Christians familiar with the situation.
Despite the reported crackdown, there are at least 100,000 devoted Christians in Iran, many of them former Muslims, according to conservative estimates, while some church groups estimate that number to be several times higher. Officially 98 percent of Iran’s roughly 78 million people are Muslims, said the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Khandjani told BosNewsLife that his church had appealed to Christians around the world to pray and not to forget the Church of Iran. “There are all kind of efforts to divide the church. We have to pray that the base remains strong,” he said.
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