By Worthy News Middle East Service
TEHRAN, IRAN (Worthy News)-- An evangelical pastor and eight other Christians were behind bars in Iran Friday, February 26, after authorities closed their church as part of a new government crackdown on devoted Christians in the Islamic nation, rights investigators said.
Reverend Wilson Issavi and the other believers were arrested by Iranian state security agents in the city of Isfahan, some 340 kilometers (212 miles) south of the capital Tehran, explained Jeff King, president of advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC).
"Issavi was visiting a friend’s home in [the area of] Shahin Shahr [in] Isfahan when state security raided the house unannounced," King explained. "Reverend Issavi, his hosts and others were apprehended by the security agents and immediately taken to prison. Friends and family are deeply concerned as they are unable to contact Reverend Issavi."
King did not reveal the names and whereabouts of the eight Christians detained with the pastor, citing security concerns. He said the location and physical condition of the nine Christians is unknown.
The ICC official described the arrest of Issavi as a "devastating blow" to Iran's Christian community. "Reverend Issavi is known among friends as a humble and devoted servant of the church. He is considered a man of prayer who has lived a modest life to better assist those in need."
King said the arrests came after the government closed Issavi’s church, the Evangelical Church of Kermanshah, on January 2. "Before its closure, the Evangelical Church of Kermanshah was among the few remaining open churches in the country."
Middle East Concern (MEC), another rights group investigating the plight of Iranian Christians, said believers have also been detained since last month in Tehran, Shiraz and Rasht. Those held include former Muslims who converted to Christianity, MEC confirmed.
"Iranian Christians are under constant threat of discrimination, imprisonment, torture, and even execution by the Iranian government which severely restricts religious freedom," King added.
He said ICC had urged Christians to pray that the pastor and the other Christians will be released and that the detainees and their families can experience "strength" to continue.
Elam Ministries, an organization supporting churches in Iran, has linked the crackdown on Christians to concern among Iran's leaders about the spread of Christianity in the Islamic nation. "Because Iran is a strategic gateway nation, the growing church in Iran will impact Muslim nations across the Islamic world."
The group said recently that in 1979, there were less than 500 known Christians from a Muslim background in Iran. "Today the most conservative estimate is that there are at least 100,000 believers in the nation."
The perceived hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has come under international pressure to improve religious rights and abandon his nuclear program. He has denied wrongdoing. (With Worthy News' Stefan J. Bos).