10 years since forced closure of Iran’s largest Persian-speaking church

10 years since forced closure of Iran’s largest Persian-speaking church

This Sunday will be the 10th anniversary of the forced closure of the largest Persian-speaking church in Iran, the Central Assemblies of God Church in Tehran.

The once-thriving church, built in the 1970s and re-registered in 1980 after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, was one of dozens of Persian-language churches forced to close over the past three decades, as the Iranian authorities have sought to clamp down on a sharp rise in converts to Christianity.

There were once 43 Protestant churches in Iran – many of which offered services in the national language, Persian, and attracted Iranians of all ethnicities. 

Today, just 16 remain, only four of which are permitted to preach in Persian – Anglican churches in the major cities of Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz – and only to those who can prove they were Christians before the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979. 

Even these four churches have not been permitted to reopen since the Covid-19 pandemic, so in reality there are now only 12 Protestant churches operating in Iran – 10 in the capital, Tehran, and one each in the north-western cities of Tabriz and Orumiyeh – and these churches can only offer services in the ethnic-minority languages of Armenian or Assyrian.

Half of the 12 functioning churches are Presbyterian, while there are three Assemblies of God churches, and one each from the Assyrian Pentecostal, Brethren, and Adventist denominations.

But out of all of the denominations, it is the Assemblies of God Church that has been hit the hardest, losing 13 of its 16 churches in cities across Iran – Arak, Ahvaz, Rasht, Gorgan, Mashhad, Tehran, Isfahan, Shahin Shahr, Kermanshah, Shiraz, Bushehr, and Nowshahr – while the popular AoG retreat centre in Karaj has also been confiscated.

Several other Protestant-owned properties have been confiscated since 1979, including schools, hospitals, cemeteries, and even churches like the Assyrian Presbyterian Church of Tabriz and St Peter’s and Emmanuel Evangelical churches in Tehran.

The first Assemblies of God Church forced to close was that of Pastor Hossein Soodmand, hosted in his home in the conservative city of Mashhad, for which the pastor was sentenced to death and in 1990 hanged for his “apostasy”.

But the real tipping point, according to Article18’s director, Mansour Borji, came in 2009 with the forced closure of the Assyrian Pentecostal church in Shahrara, Tehran, pastored by Victor Bet-Tamraz.

“This was when the authorities renewed their long-standing demand to all the Persian-speaking churches that they must ‘cooperate’: meaning to cease all their services in Persian and disallow non-Christians from attending their services,” Mr Borji explained, “and then the first action that showed the teeth of the intelligence service during that new phase was the closure of Pastor Victor’s church.”

The Central Assemblies of God Church once attracted around 500 people to its services: predominantly converts from Muslim backgrounds.

Other significant closures were the 2011 closure of the Ahvaz church, and arrest of the pastor, Farhad Sabokrooh, his wife, and two other church leaders, and the 2012 closure of the Jannat-Abad church in western Tehran.

A year later, the Central AoG Church met the same fate. Once a thriving congregation of around 500 predominantly Muslim-background converts, the Central AoG Church was forced to close as a result of that very fact, and its senior pastor, Robert Asseriyan, became the latest church leader to be arrested.

By then, all Persian-speaking churches had been ordered that they must cease all Persian-language services, provide the ID numbers of all members to the Ministry of Intelligence, cancel their Friday services, and hold meetings only on Sundays. (In Iran, Friday is a day off, and Sunday a working day.)

The following year, St Peter’s Evangelical Church in Tehran, which had offered Persian-language services since 1876, was forced to stop this provision.

In the years since the 1979 establishment of the Islamic Republic, the issue of converts has been – and remains – the central challenge for the Church in Iran.

Only those churches that have agreed to close their doors to converts, and latterly – in a bid to further crackdown on any chance of converts attending – to preach in Armenian or Assyrian, have been permitted to remain.

Those churches that have refused to comply have been closed, and their leaders arrested.

The only churches now open to converts are the secret network of underground house-churches, which can only survive for as long as they remain secret.

Once discovered, these house-churches are forcibly disbanded and their members forced to sign “commitments” to have no further engagement in Christian activities, or face prosecution for “actions against the state”.

The former superintendent of the AoG in Iran, Haik Hovsepian, who was killed in 1994, was one of those who refused to commit not to preach to converts or allow them to enter his churches.

Similar “commitments” were sought from the as many as 85 AoG church leaders arrested in 2004 – among them Pastors Sabokrooh and Asseriyan – as they gathered at the Karaj retreat centre that would later be confiscated.

The same thread links all these incidents together: the issue of converts – anathema to the vision of an Islamic Republic. And until that vision changes, converts and those individuals or churches that aid them or evangelise to them can expect little in the way of freedom.

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