Iran’s Oldest Protestant Church Shut Down by Intelligence Ministry, Pastor Transferred to Evin Prison
Mansour Borji, an advocate for Iranian Christians, told the Campaign for Human Rights in Iran that the oldest Persian-language Protestant church of Iran, the Central Assemblies of God in Tehran, was shut down on May 26 due to pressure from intelligence forces, and one of the church’s pastors has been transferred to Evin Prison.
“On Tuesday, May 21, security forces first went to the pastor’s home, but he wasn’t home. They searched the home and took some of his books and his computer. They then went to the Central Assemblies of God church and arrested Pastor Robert Asseriyan at a meeting. Asseriyan was only able to contact his family once after his arrest, informing them that he is at Evin Prison,” Mansour Borji told the Campaign.
A Christian convert himself, Mansour Borji left Iran in 1998 and now serves as a spokesperson for the Article 18 initiative of the United Council of Iranian Churches (Hamgaam), active in advocacy for Iranian Christians’ rights. He is also one of the leaders of the London Iranian churches.
Asked about Pastor Asseriyan’s charges, Borji told the Campaign, “His charges have not been announced. He had not been summoned prior to his arrest, nor was he told his charges at the time of arrest. The worrisome issue is that we believe Pastor Asseriyan is being kept in solitary confinement, because at least four Christian prisoners inside Evin Prison’s General Ward 350 have said that they have not seen him there.”
Borji said the arrest has caused a wave of concern among the Iranian Christian community. “Pastor Asseriyan was born a Christian. He is a pastor who is a Christian Theology teacher, an author and translator of many books, and his books have even won national awards. He is a well-known individual. The authorities promised his family that he would be released a few days after his arrest, but there is no news yet and they are concerned that he may be in solitary,” he told the Campaign.
The Assemblies of God church on Taleghani (Takhth-e-Jamshid) Avenue, one of the main Iranian Protestant churches, was suddenly shut down on Sunday, May 26, for “major repairs.” According to Mansour Borji, church members faced closed doors and a repair sign when they appeared for the Sunday service. He said that after months of pressure, the Intelligence Ministry had finally used this rationale to shut down the church.
Mansour Borji told the Campaign that since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, there has been a lot of pressure on the church for various reasons, “but it has intensified over the past several years. The Intelligence Ministry officials had first asked to close down the church’s Friday visiting hours, and to only leave the Sunday worship services. At the next stage, they asked that members and worship participants present their National ID Cards in order to intimidate them and to limit participation. But lately, there was pressure on Church leaders for shutting down the church. The pastors were threatened that they would face a fate similar to the rest of the imprisoned or executed pastors. On Monday, May 20, they extended their last threat and informed the church leaders that they should decide about their next Persian-language service. The church leaders talked to the media about this, and the Intelligence Ministry may not have liked this. The next day they arrested Pastor Asseriyan.”
Explaining the reasons why the church and its leaders have been targeted for harassment, Borji said, “It’s because this church’s services are held in the Persian language and they don’t want non-Christians to participate in them. They are afraid that the number of Christian converts will grow. Of course, before the  Revolution, this Church held its services in Persian, because many Christians are not well versed in the Armenian language. After the Revolution, there was pressure at different times to shut down the Persian-language churches and the pressure has intensified over the recent years. Most Persian-language churches have been slowly closed down over recent years. Churches in Mashhad, Western and Eastern Azerbaijan, Arak, Shiraz, and Ahvaz were all shut down. This church of the Assemblies of God has the largest congregation of all Persian-language churches and is more than half a century old.”
“So far as we know,” he continued, “there are 27 pastors and high-ranking church officials in prison. After the Revolution, some of them were executed, too, like Pastor Hossein Soodmand, who was executed in Mashhad in . But I’m sure the numbers are a lot higher than this. This number only includes those whose families have talked to the media about them,” said Mansour Borji, regarding the number of Christian pastors currently in Iranian prisons.
“Ever since presenting a National ID Card has become mandatory for entering services, fewer people participate. But the number of converts is high, though I don’t have the exact statistics. Some go to churches out of curiosity and some go because of their interest and enthusiasm,” he added.
“When pressure on churches began mounting, a lot of people preferred to worship inside their homes instead of going to church, and house churches were formed. Currently we can’t provide accurate statistics about the churches. According to the officials themselves, now in every village and remote town they are discovering house churches. Even the Christian community does not have exact statistics about the number of Protestant churches,” the Christian rights advocate told the Campaign.