A Christian retreat centre in Iran will finally close tomorrow, 10 March, nearly three years after it was ordered to do so and then later accused of being funded by the USA’s “CIA spy agency”.
The caretakers of the Sharon Retreat Centre in Karaj, west of Tehran, have been ordered to vacate the property and hand it over to the Executive Headquarters of Imam’s Directive (EIKO), presided over by Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The confiscation of the property, which has been owned by the Council of Assemblies of God (AoG) Churches in Iran since the early 1970s, was ordered by a revolutionary court on 21 July 2015, but the process has taken nearly three years to come into effect . (The Iranian revolutionary court system is designed to try those suspected of serious crimes such as trying to overthrow the government, blaspheming against Islam or inciting violence.)
Mansour Borji from advocacy group Article 18 told World Watch Monitor the closure was “not only a takeover of a property by corrupt judiciary and Intelligence officials, but yet another move in an ongoing and systematic campaign by the Iranian state to uproot Protestant Christianity”.
In December 2016 the revolutionary court said the retreat centre belonged to an organisation “funded by the US through the CIA spy agency to infiltrate the Islamic world, and particularly Iran, by conducting evangelistic activities”.
But Borji said: “Labelling a long-standing and vibrant Church with national security charges for its rightful religious activities and accusing them of collusion with the CIA is indeed worrying. It should be a concern for anyone who is interested in safeguarding freedom of religion and belief in this country.”
The pressure on Evangelical churches in Iran, including AoG churches, has intensified since 2009. Most Evangelical churches have been forced to conduct only one service – on a Sunday, which is a working day in Iran – rather than two, as was their custom.
“This was an attempt to restrict participation in services, especially for the converts to Christianity, as Sunday is a weekday and Friday is a day off for many people in the country,” said Borji. “Training camps and programmes held during the week were shut down too.”
In 2013, the central church of the AoG Churches in Iran was shut down and its leader, Robert Asseriyan , was arrested and given the choice of either leaving the country or serving a long-term prison sentence.
The AoG Church in Iran was established prior to the 1979 Revolution; it is not organisationally affiliated with the AoG denomination in the US. After the Islamic Revolution, the status of Assemblies of God as a registered religious institution in Iran was re-instated.