TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- Iranian authorities have released two prominent Christian prisoners, but concerns remained Wednesday, January 29, over the future of their church.
Shahnaz Jayzan, the wife of a pastor of the evangelical Assemblies of God Church (AoG) in Iran's southwestern city of Ahwaz, was released Tuesday, January 28, some three months before her prison term was due to be completed, Iranian Christians said.
Earlier Davoud Alijani, an AoG leader in Ahwaz, was reportedly freed from Karoon Prison on January 13, about 20 days before the end of his sentence.
Jayzan's release from the women's ward of nearby Sepidar Prison doesn't mean her troubles are over, as she has to report to the feared Revolutionary Court of Ahwaz every four months, Iranian Christians cautioned.
Additionally, "Neither Mrs. Jayzan nor her husband Pastor Farhad Sabokrouh are permitted to hold church services or visit Christians in Khuzestan province. They were told they should leave their hometown Ahwaz," the provincial capital," said Mohabat News, a news agency of Christians and activists.
"The Christian couple should now live against their will in Tehran," added the well-informed agency in a statement to BosNewsLife. "Despite being an officially registered pastor, Iranian authorities have completely banned Pastor Sabokrouh from conducting any church-related activities or offering spiritual services."
Alijani faces similar problems, following an apparently difficult period in prison where he was allegedly pressured to deny his faith in Jesus Christ. "The mental anguish affects you physically, even if you are not mistreated physically," he said in published remarks.
"When my family came to visit me they said they could see the anguish written on my face...Each time I was sick, I would go to the prison pharmacy which was run by inmates and only really provided painkillers...The guards regularly tried to get me to reconvert.”
Alijani was initially detained on December 23, 2011 when Iranian security forces raided a Christmas service at the AoG church in Ahwaz and detained everyone in attendance, including children, according to rights investigators.
Though most were released several hours later, Alijani was transferred to a detention centre for interrogation along with the church’s pastor Sabokrouh, the pastor’s wife Jayzan and and Naser Zamen-Dezfuli, another church leader.
CONVERTING TO CHRISTIANITY
They were freed on temporary bail in February 2012, but were eventually forced to serve a one year prison term each on charges of "converting to Christianity" and "propagating against the Islamic Republic" through evangelism, Christians said.
The release of Alijani and Jayzan cimes after Pastor Sabokrouh and Naser Zamen-Dezfuli were allowed to leave Sepidar Prison in December when they had almost completed their sentences.
However their church can no longer holds services, despite being legally registered, Iranian Christians and rights investigators noted.
"While we welcome these releases, we remind the Iranian authorities that these people were arrested and convicted for nothing other than celebrating Christmas in their legally registered church," commented Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). "Such activity does not merit the political charges on which they were convicted," he said.
Thomas added that the "effective criminalization of conversion infringes on the right to adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice." CSW and other activists have urged Iran's leadership to end the crackdown on devoted Christians, many of whom are former Muslims, and to release all prisoners of conscience imprisoned under what Thomas called "false political charges."
FAITH IN WORSHIP
"Denying religious minorities the freedom to manifest their faith in worship and in communion with others contravenes article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)" which was signed by Iran, Thomas said.
Iranian officials have expressed concerns about the spread of Christianity in this strict Islamic nation, with at least 100,000 evangelical Christians being reported by mission groups.
While pledging to defend minorities, including apparently Christians, Iran's recently elected president Hasan Rouhani is not "allowed to do that without the approval" of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei," cautioned Firouz Khandjani, a key official of the evangelical Church or Iran movement.
"We have to remain realistic, the president is only one element of the system," he told BosNewsLife in a recent interview. The Church of Iran, the country's largest house church movement, has also expressed concerns over other recent detentions of several members and other Christians.
"Dozens of Christians in Iran spent Christmas behind bars. Their crime? Their faith in Jesus," added Iranian mission group Elam Ministries in a statement.