Record Baptisms in Iran Overshadowed by Church Closure as Presidential Election Looms
Update (July 22): Iranian Assemblies of God pastor Robert Asseriyan has refused to speak to media about his experience in an Iranian prison, an apparent condition of his release on July 2, according to Mohabat News. Asseriyan spent 43 days behind bars after being arrested for conducting a church service in Farsi in May.
Meanwhile, eight Iranian Christians convicted of "action against the national security" and "propaganda against the system" have received heavy sentences, but they are expected to appeal the convictions. The eight were arrested for participating in a prayer meeting in October 2012. "'It is now common practice to subject religious minorities to political charges, as any alternative belief system is deemed a threat to the theocratic state,'" Kiri Kankhwende, press officer for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, told Morning Star News.
But "given that the building has no need of any repairs," according to Elam Ministries, "it seems that the church has been closed by the authorities."
And as Iran's presidential elections begin tomorrow, Asserian and his Assemblies of God church aren't the only victims of increasingly restrictive conditions. World Watch Monitor (WWM) reports that Iranian authorities are clamping down on religious minorities and anyone else they perceive as a threat.
The crackdowns come in spite of the fact that Iran's constitution guarantees protection for recognized religious minorities–including Christianity. Still, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) claims that the state 'systematically persecutes and discriminates' against Christians, who make up less than half a percent of the country's population. According to one of ICHRI's latest reports, Iranian Protestants face "severe restrictions on religious practice and association, arbitrary arrests and detentions for practicing their faith, and violations of the right to life through state execution and extrajudicial killings."
Lately, Protestants who speak only Farsi–spoken by the majority of Iranians and about 95 percent of the congregation at Central Assemblies of God Church–appear to be especially targeted. George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God in the United States, told BosNewsLife that Asserian's arrest and other incidents "appear to be an attempt to stop worship services from being conducted in Farsi, the language of the majority of Iranians… Services are allowed in Armenian, a minority language that most Iranians do not speak or even understand."
Yet, there are two bright lights for Christians in the otherwise-dark Iranian context: Elam Ministries reported in its Summer 2013 magazine that 246 Iranian Christians were baptized on April 17–"probably the largest baptism service on record in the Iranian church since the fourth century." In addition, Iran's underground house churches–where freedom to attend Persian-language worship services is more likely to be found–do appear to be growing.
But ICHRI says the growth of underground house churches–similar to the one at which imprisoned pastor Saeed Abedini was arrested last year–is a symptom of "growing repression" of Protestants, who "have faced significantly more aggressive government restrictions and human rights abuses than ethnic Christian groups."
Thanks in part to those human rights abuses, Iran consistently ranks among the world's worst violators of religious freedom according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the World Watch List.