Iran (MNN/CDN) — – The underground evangelical church is growing exponetially in Iran, and authorities appear to be taking action against it.
According to the President of Open Doors USA Carl Moeller, "There's a crackdown going on right now against evangelical Muslim-background believers, or converts from Islam to Christianity in the area of Shiraz. We have reports from Southern Iran that 12 Christian converts have been arrested, and four are still imprisoned."
The arrests began at 5 a.m. on May 11 when two couples were taken into custody before boarding their flights at the Shiraz International Airport, reports Compass Direct News. All were subjected to hours of interrogation, questioning them solely "just about their faith and house church activities," an Iranian source told Compass.
The detained Christians were identified as Homayon Shokohie Gholamzadeh, 48, and his wife Fariba Nazemiyan Pur, 40; Amir Hussein Bab Anari, 25, and his wife Fatemeh Shenasa, 25.
Although the two wives were released the same day of their arrest, Anari was detained until May 14, and Gholamzadeh remains jailed.
Two hours after the early morning arrests on May 11, police authorities invaded the home of Hamid Allaedin Hussein, 58, arresting him and his three adult children, Fatemah, 28, Muhammed Ali, 27, and Mojtaba, 21.
All the family's books, CDs, computers and printers were hauled off as well.
Hussein, his daughter and one son were released later the same day, but son Mojtaba remains in prison.
Two days later, local police picked up two more former Muslims involved in a separate house church in Shiraz as the Christian converts were talking together in a city park. Both men, Mahmood Matin and a second man identified only as Arash, are still jailed.
Still another arrest incident was reported last month in the northern city of Amol, in Mazandaran province near the Caspian Sea. Two of the arrested converts to Christianity–one a pregnant woman–are still imprisoned, with no news of their whereabouts.
According to Moeller, there's a reason why this harassment is taking place. "Iranian authorities are recognizing that there's a mushrooming house church movement going on in Iran. (It's) doubling in size of the indigenous house church movement there in Iran every six months. So the rate of growth is actually stunning."
Converts from Islam are routinely subjected to both physical and psychological mistreatment while being held for days or weeks, usually in solitary confinement. Huge bail amounts are demanded for their release, under the threat of further detention or formal criminal prosecution if caught worshipping or spreading their faith.
The large number of Iranians embracing Christianity has been attributed in part to a number of radio stations and satellite television channels launched in the past five years broadcasting Christian programs in Farsi into the country 24 hours a day.
But Moeller thinks disillusionment is causing people to look for answers. "This disillusionment with these conservative clerics and this harsh political hatred creates a tremendous opportunity for the love of Jesus Christ to make inroads into people's lives. People are searching for real spiritual answers, and they are finding it in Jesus Christ."
In January of this year, the Iranian parliament drafted a proposed criminal code that would make the death penalty mandatory for "apostates" who leave Islam for another religion.
Under the existing law, apostasy is one of several "crimes" which can be punished with execution, although Islamic court judges are not required to hand down a death sentence.
The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam formally charged with apostasy was acquitted in May 2005. But Hamid Pourmand served 22 months of a three-year prison sentence on fabricated charges before he was finally released under virtual house arrest in July 2006.