Iranian Police Release 10 Evangelical Pastors

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

No reasons given for four-day detention.

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, September 13 (Compass) -- Ten evangelical church leaders arrested four days ago by Iranian police were released last night from their unknown detention site.

All pastors and elders in Iran’s Assemblies of God Church, the 10 men were set free on Sunday night, “quite late in the night,” an Iranian Christian source confirmed.

After their release, the pastors were allowed to return to Tehran to stay with their families or friends in the capital or nearby Karaj. Those living in other cities were returning home today to Rasht, Urumiyeh, Ahwaz and Boshahr, church sources said.

The pastors reportedly were not given any specific reason for their arrest, although they were asked “many questions about themselves and each other,” one source said.

Due to police surveillance monitoring their movements and telephone conversations, the pastors have not made direct contact with other evangelical believers since their release.

Together with 70 other Assemblies of God Church leaders, the pastors had convened at a church center in Karaj for their annual general conference on September 9 when the arrests occurred. Police officials swarmed onto the property that morning, blindfolding all the men and women present and taking them off to be fingerprinted and interrogated.

All the detainees were released by nightfall except for the 10 pastors and elders, who were held incommunicado until their release Sunday night.

Reportedly the church leaders had refused to name any one person among them as their top leader, prompting the police to arrest the entire group en masse. Last week’s police crackdown was the largest known arrest of Iranian evangelical believers in the past decade.

The murderers of three of Iran’s leading Protestant pastors 10 years ago have never been brought to justice. Assemblies of God leader Rev. Haik Hovsepian-Mehr was murdered in January 1994, shortly after launching a successful international campaign to free Mehdi Dibaj, a long-time convert to Christianity jailed for nine years.

Six months later, Dibaj was also killed, followed days later by the disappearance and murder of Rev. Tateos Michaelian, a Presbyterian pastor.

Since its declaration as an Islamic state in 1979, Iran has clamped down harshly on its Protestant citizens and even closed the Iranian Bible Society. A large number of evangelical churches have been closed for worship, their buildings confiscated and known converts to Christianity put under arrest.

Under Islamic law enforced in Iran, a Muslim who converts to Christianity faces the death penalty.