After the exoneration and release from prison of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani in September, it was extremely disappointing to hear of his being arrested once again on Christmas Day. Although authorities indicate that he is only serving out the remaining 45 days of his original sentence, religious liberty advocates are concerned by this bold betrayal of what the courts themselves had previously ordered.
We will continue to monitor Pastor Nadarkhani’s imprisonment and to urge his immediate release, as well as that of his attorney, Mohammed Ali Dadkhah. At the same time, we must remember other Iranian Christians — lay and clergy — as well as persecuted Baha’i believers. All are victimized by the Iranian Islamist regime’s systemic oppression and persecution. When persecution intensifies, advocacy should intensify, as well.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) calls the Christmas-time imprisonment of Iranian Christians “an annual ritual” practiced by the Iranian regime. Iranian Christians ironically refer to the December crackdown on house churches and church leaders as a “Christmas gift,” says CSW. This year’s “gift” included the arrest of some 50 Christians on December 27 at a Tehran home, and of two in Rasht, on December 31.
According to Mohabat News, the Iranian Christian News Agency, the 50 arrested in Tehran were most new converts celebrating Christmas. In a coordinated and pre-planned raid by security forces, all were arrested and subjected to several hours of interrogration. Mohabat News adds that most of the church members were released after handing over their cell phones, full contact details and passwords to emails and social networking sites.
Not released with the others was the Reverend Vruir Avanessian, 60, an officially ordained pastor of Armenian descent. His whereabouts and condition remain unknown at this time, but church members are very concerned because he suffers from heart disease and diabetes and needs dialysis every other day. A later report from Mohabat News informed that prison authorities took the pastor to the hospital for the needed procedure and then back to prison. Avanessian served for 17 years in the Assemblies of God church, the same denomination as the late Rev. Haik Hovsepian Mehr, martyred in January 1994.After Avanessian was taken to an “unknown location,” authorities ransacked his house and confiscated “books, Bibles, personal computer, CDs, worship tapes and music albums Rev. Avanessian had sung/composed himself.” Mohabat News tells that Avanessian was a well-known pop singer in the Armenian Iranian community in his youth. After his conversion, he became a worship leader in the Assemblies of God, Iran. Until now Avanessian has not been charged with any crime.
CSW further reported that on December 31, two members of the Church of Iran, Behzad Taalipasand and Mohammadreza (Johann) Omidi, were detained by security forces in the northern city of Rasht. Taalipasand had been arrested previously and stood trial for “crimes against the order” on Easter Sunday 2012.
Meanwhile, American Iranian pastor Saeed Abedini, and Benham Irani, a pastor from Karaj, are still languishing in prison. Abedini, a U.S. citizen and convert from Islam, was arrested in September while visiting family in Tehran. The ACLJ, that has been following Abedini’s case very closely, has a petition on his behalf, directed to President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and others. Abedini and his wife, Naghmeh, have two little children.Pastor Benham Irani has been in Ghezal Hesar Prison since May 2011. Advocates are deeply concerned about his health. According to Present Truth Ministries and others who have contact on the ground in Iran, he is very weak. He has been suffering from intestinal bleeding for over a year. Most of his health problems have been caused by the brutal beatings he has received from other prisoners and from prison guards and from being denied medical care.
Present Truth Ministries provides background information on the case of Pastor Irani. They also share a letter from Irani that is reminiscent of the letters written by St. Paul in prison with its pastoral quality, and also commenting on very contemporary concerns, like the global economic crisis:
Despite the pressure and difficulties in prison, I am pleased to share, what is like a fountain, my Christian joy with you in the new Christmas days to come. …Even if I were sentenced to many years behind bars for the salvation of one of you, there would never be any complaint. You are so precious that God himself braved the death on the cross. Do I or other servants not have to bear imprisonment for you?
In these days which are truly evil, I encourage you to be alert. Do not fear for the recent economic crisis covering the larger part of the world and especially Iran. …This can cause worries for believers and servants to fall into a terrible trap. You servants will find new excuses for reducing the quality and hours of your ministry; and drowning more deeply in worldly affairs you will come to a point when it is too late. ….I assure you by the definite testimony of the Bible that God will bless your incomes if you stay faithful and do not reduce the quality of your spiritual life as he blessed the old woman’s oil and flour and saved her from famine.
CSW has an online advocacy campaign for Benham Irani. There is a short video about his imprisonment, along with a form to send a letter to the head of Iran’s judiciary. At the end of November 2012, CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas wrote a note of encouragement to advocates to say that over 3,000 people had sent a letter to the Iranian judiciary demanding justice for Irani. Please add your voice to this cry for freedom, not only for Irani, but for all of the oppressed and persecuted in Iran.