Concern Mounts for Jailed Iranian Christian

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Government officials admit Christianity ‘out of control.’

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, October 6 (Compass) -- Concern is growing among Iran’s evangelical community for the safety of a pastor arrested four weeks ago by the Iranian security police.

Iranian authorities have refused to give any reason for the arrest and prolonged detention of Hamid Pourmand, 47, a lay pastor in the Assemblies of God Church. No one has been allowed contact with Pourmand since September 9, when he was arrested along with 85 other evangelical church leaders.

However, Compass confirmed today that Pourmand, who is a colonel in the Iranian army, was allowed one very short telephone call to his wife last week. Without saying where he was or giving any other details, he simply told her that he was all right.

Of the other Christians detained with Pourmand, 76 were released by nightfall the day of their arrest. Ten pastors were kept for interrogations for three more days, after which Pourmand’s nine colleagues were released conditionally. The freed pastors were warned that they should expect to be summoned again within a few weeks for more questioning.

But authorities have remained tight-lipped about Pourmand, a former Muslim serving as the volunteer pastor of a congregation in Bandar-i Bushehr. Famous as the site of Iran’s first nuclear reactor, the port city is located 240 miles south of Tehran along the Persian gulf.

At the time of Pourmand’s arrest, his Assyrian Christian wife and two young children were visiting relatives in Tehran. When the family returned to Bushehr, they discovered that their home had been broken into and ransacked, with all of the family’s papers, documents and photographs removed.

“His relatives fear for his life,” one source admitted, particularly if the secret police transfer him to the jurisdiction of a military court.

After converting to Christianity nearly 25 years ago, Pourmand had continued to serve as an officer in the Iranian army, despite laws instituted after the Islamic revolution to prohibit non-Muslims from holding officer rank. “Hamid did not keep his conversion secret,” one of his friends told Compass. “But he is an honest man, and people liked and respected him.”

A few days before Pourmand and his fellow evangelicals were arrested, a top official within the Ministry of Security Intelligence spoke on state television’s Channel 1, warning the populace against the many “foreign religions” active in the country and pledging to protect the nation’s “beloved Shiite Islam” from all outside forces.

Reportedly, this same official participated in the extended interrogation of the 10 evangelical pastors, complaining that Christian activities in Iran had gone “out of control” and insisting that their church do something to stop the flood of Christian literature, television and radio programs targeting Iran.

Over the past year, prominent government leaders have publicly denounced Christianity, Sufism and Zoroastrianism as threats to Iran’s national security.

Under Iran’s Islamist regime, several ex-Muslims who converted to Christianity have been either assassinated or executed by court order, under the guise of accusations of spying for foreign countries.

Apostasy is listed along with murder, armed robbery, rape and serious drug trafficking as a capital offense in Iran.

During a speech to high school students in Tehran six months ago, Shiite cleric Hasan Mohammadi from the Ministry of Education declared, “Unfortunately, on average every day, 50 Iranian girls and boys convert secretly to Christian denominations in our country.”

After the speech, which was reported by the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency’s correspondent Ramin Mostaghim on May 5, the father of one student in the audience told IPS that Mohammadi had “unknowingly admitted the defeat of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a theocratic regime in promoting its Islam.”

According to one Iranian Christian who spoke with Compass last week, “Neither the government nor the established churches can control what is happening spiritually across Iran right now.”

“We are hearing estimates that 60 percent of the Iranian people have now heard the message of Christ, even out in the villages,” the source said. Although many of the new Christians are young people, reports indicate entire families have come to faith in Christ and started worshipping in the privacy of their own homes.

“So really, the government can’t do anything to stop the growth of Christianity in Iran,” he said. “It’s out of control.”