By Stefan J. Bos, International Chief Correspondent
TEHRAN, IRAN (Worthy News)-- A senior evangelical pastor and his wife are spending Christmas behind bars in southern Iran after security forces raided their Assemblies of God-affiliated church, detaining everyone in the building, including children attending Sunday School, a friend of the couple told Worthy News.
"Pastor Farhad Sabokrouh and his wife Shahnaz were among those detained in the southern town of Ahwaz Friday morning, [December 23] while they were having Christmas celebrations", explained their friend, Firouz Khandjani, early Sunday, December 25.
He said security forces pushed dozens of worshipers, including children, into two buses and brought them to a local police station. Most were eventually released, "but the pastor and his wife remain in jail," Khandjani explained.
Khandjani is a council member of the Church of Iran, a large house church movement, which maintains ties with the Protestant 'Assemblies of God' congregation in Ahwas.
He said he expected the couple to be released after Christmas, but cautioned that they will banned from inviting Muslims to their meetings. It was not immediately clear on what charges the pastor and his wife, who are both in their 40s, were held.
"LOOKING FOR CHARGES"
Iranian officials could not be reached. "They arrest Christians and after that they look for charges," Khandjani stressed. "It seems Friday's raid was a warning to Christians that they are not secure. They [the authorities] want make clear that the time of protestantism is over in Iran," he said.
The church in Ahwaz is not a part of the house church movement, but a long-established church whose membership mainly consists of former followers of the Biblical John the Baptist who converted to Christianity, according to Iranian Christians.
"However as [the authorities] they lack information about underground groups, they want to create am atmosphere of fear by detaining even members of tolerated groups," explained Khandjani to Worthy News. "Ahwas is really known for its persecution of Christians."
Pastor Farhad was detained previously and warned not to allow Muslim converts into his church.
Authorities have expressed concerns about the spread of Christianity among Muslims in this strict Islamic nation. Khandjani and other Iranian Christians have suggested that this is part of a wider crackdown and that other Christmas celebrations in Iranian churches have also been raided for the last three years.
CHURCH OF IRAN
Khandjani said besides Assemblies of God leaders, several pastors of the Church of Iran were spending Christmas in jail, including Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani who received a death sentence on charges of "apostasy" or abandoning Islam.
Two other Church of Iran pastors, Behnam Irani and Petros Furouton, are also held in prison. Behnam is to serve until 2016, Petros until the fall of 2012, and there is still no resolution in Youcef’s apostasy case, Khandjani confirmed.
Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani to remain jailed for at least one year, trial observers say.
Pastor Nadarkhani was detained in the city of Rasht in October 2009, while trying to register his Church of Iran home congregation, with hundreds of members in Gilan province.
The Gilan court sentenced the 34-year-old Nadarkhani to death in November 2010. His appeal against that ruling was rejected on June 27, 2011. The Supreme Court said "he can be executed" but added it would first ask a "re-examination" by the same court that already sentenced him to death.
Amid an international outcry, judges asked Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini for advise. With no opinion forthcoming, the court was told by Iranian authorities to keep the pastor in jail for another year, giving judges time to use all means to make him recant his faith in Christ and convert him back" to Islam, Khandjani said.
Rights activists said in a reaction that the wave of detentions comes as Iranian media published a Christmas message sent to Pope Benedict XVI from Iran's Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani.
He reportedly congratulated Christians on the "auspicious anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ”, wished "blessing, happiness and prosperity" to the pontiff and all Christians in 2012 and said "the world’s ills were caused by ignoring ethics and justice."
However Mervyn Thomas, the chief executive of Britain-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), told Worthy News he wasn't impressed with the Christmas message.
"Mr. Larijani’s Christmas message may have been well intentioned, but it is entirely undermined by these arrests, which violate the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and Iran’s own constitution."
Iranian authorities have reportedly insisted in previous cases that Christians are being arrested for "indulging" in actions that "threaten public security."
However, Thomas said, "it is difficult to conceive how children attending Sunday school or, for that matter, legitimate Christmas celebrations fit into this category."
In as statement, Thomas added that "It increasingly appears as if the Iranian regime has decided to deem every act of Christian worship a threat to national security. If this is indeed the case, then the right to freedom of religion or belief is gravely under threat in Iran.”
Despite the reported crackdown, there are at least 100,000 devoted Christians in Iran, many of them former Muslims, according to conservative estimates, while some church groups estimate that number to be several times higher.
Officially 98 percent of Iran's roughly 78 million people are Muslims, said the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in previous statements.