Confiscated Church-owned retreat centre set to be repurposed

Confiscated Church-owned retreat centre set to be repurposed

Photographs showing some of the Christian events that took place at the retreat centre, and of the confiscation order.

A Protestant Church-owned retreat centre appropriated four years ago by an institution headed by Iran’s Supreme Leader is now in the process of being repurposed, Article18 understands. 

The Garden of Sharon in Karaj, which has belonged to the Iranian Assemblies of God (AoG) denomination since the early 1970s, has been out of use since a July 2015 court order by a Tehran Revolutionary Court, though it took a further three years for the confiscation to be officially enacted.

Now, another four years on, the former retreat centre – beloved by many in the Iranian Church – looks set to become the latest emblem of Protestant Christianity in Iran to be given a facelift.

It follows the bishop’s house in Isfahan, former home to the Anglican bishop of Iran, which earlier this year was turned into a museum, and the many other formerly church-run institutions – such as hospitals, schools and institutions for the blind – to have been radically reshaped in the years since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

According to Article18’s sources, security forces broke into the main building of the retreat centre on 13 May, posted guards outside, and have since begun renovations, with a view to reopening the site for unknown purposes.

The 10,000-square-metre plot, with a value of nearly $3million, was purchased with donations from church members and used for children’s camps and family retreats.

The 2015 ruling of the Revolutionary Court ordering the confiscation of the property claimed the AoG denomination was “funded by the United States and CIA spy agency to infiltrate the countries of the Islamic world, especially Iran, and engage in evangelical activities”.

It further alleged that the AoG was a branch of the “American Philadelphia Church”, an entity that remains a complete mystery.

Edward Hovsepian, the brother of murdered pastor Haik and former superintendent of the AoG in Iran, told Article18 at the time of the confiscation: “The Assemblies of God in Iran has not had any association with American congregations in any period of its history, whether before or after the revolution, and has always been independent of it. Our partnership with other AoG churches around the world was only in shared religious beliefs.”

At the same time, Article18’s advocacy director, Mansour Borji, told the BBC the confiscation was part of the Iranian authorities’ attempts to “eliminate Protestant and Evangelical Christians from the social scene of Iran”.

“The ultimate goal of the campaign is to render Protestant and Evangelical churches, with more than 630 million adherents worldwide, as an outsider cult with no official recognition in Iran,” he said. “Every church leader, every church member will [now] be quite frightened because of the prospects of prison and being labelled as collaborators with the ‘enemy’.”

Meanwhile, the British MP, Tobias Ellwood, criticised the confiscation in an official statement to parliament, saying: “We condemn … reports of Christian property being seized and reports of theological schools being closed. We call on Iran to cease harassment of all religious minorities and to fulfil its international and domestic obligations to allow freedom of religion to all Iranians.”

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