The cross was removed from the church’s tower. (Photo: Article 18)

An Assyrian church in northwestern Iran has been closed down and the cross removed from its tower, reports advocacy organisation Article 18.

A “large number” of agents from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and EIKO, an organisation presided over by the Supreme Leader, reportedly stormed the 100-year-old-church on 9 May, changed all the locks, tore down the cross and ordered the church warden to leave.

Article18 quoted a source as saying: “They made it clear that the Assyrian people are no longer allowed to hold any worship service there.”

The source said church members had been fearful since Christmas, when pastors from other churches were prevented from visiting for a joint service with other Assyrian and Armenian Christians.

In Iran, members of the historically Christian Assyrian and Armenian communities are a recognised religious minority, whose freedom of religion is protected by national law.

However, churches that have attracted Muslim-born Iranians by holding services in the Persian language have been forced to close, or to at least stop those services and hold them only in their respective native languages.

 Church members who are found to have evangelised to Muslims, such as the Assyrian pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, have been charged with “actions against national security” and handed long prison sentences.

 In 2011, the Assyrian church, which is a National Heritage site, was “confiscated” by the government, but it remained open until this month.

“Many churches owned by Protestants have been confiscated in Iran,” commented Article18’s Advocacy Director, Mansour Borji, “In most cases the government has been unable to repurpose them, especially if they were listed. So they typically remain as empty buildings, often neglected, and turn into ruins before being demolished, as was the case with the church in Kerman [a city in the southeast].”