The Iranian government has assumed control of a church-owned retreat centre, accusing the church of being funded by the US government and the CIA.
The government said the retreat centre in Karaj, a city just west of Tehran, 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”.
Article 18, a London-based NGO, says the move represents a “renewed phase” in the government’s crackdown on Protestant churches, “with intensifying efforts to confiscate remaining properties [that] belong to Evangelical churches”.
This is “the latest action in an intensified campaign by the regime aimed at curbing the growth of Christianity in Iran, particularly among former Muslims,” Article 18 reports. “Over the last few years, the Iranian government has begun taking possession of remaining properties belonging to official Protestant churches.”
“The ultimate goal of the campaign,” former church leaders told Article 18, “is to render Protestant and Evangelical churches, with more than 630 million adherents worldwide, as an outsider cult with no official recognition in Iran.”
Article 18’s Mansour Borji told the BBC yesterday (11 Dec.) that, after the government linked the Church with the CIA, “every church leader, every church member [will be] quite frightened because of the prospects of prison and being labelled as collaborators with the ‘enemy’”.
Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians are “protected religious minorities” under Iran’s constitution, but Article 18 says Iran’s “constitutional theocracy discriminates against its citizens on the basis of religion”. Traditionally, Iran’s Christian minority was comprised of ethnic minorities of Armenian and Assyrian descent, but Article 18 says an increase in Iranian nationals converting to Christianity has been seen as a “threat to the nation’s security”.
The retreat centre has been owned by the Council of Assemblies of God (AoG) Churches in Iran since the early 1970s. 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.
One reason for the confiscation seems to have been a misunderstanding relating to the former name of the affiliated Central AoG Church in Tehran, which used to be known as “Philadelphia”: a name commonly used all over the Christian world, and not necessarily linked to the city in the US, or to any other appearance of the same name anywhere else in the world.
In its notice of confiscation, the Executive Headquarters of Iman’s Directive (EIKO), a government body under the direct control of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wrote: “Considering that the property belongs to the Council of Assemblies of God churches, which is a branch of Philadelphia Churches in the United States, funded by the US through the CIA spy agency … the court issues and declares the order of confiscation of the mentioned property.”
However, as Article 18 explains, “While the Central AoG Church in Tehran was formerly called ‘Philadelphia’, this alluded to the Greek word found in the New Testament meaning ‘brotherly love’. Nevertheless the former name is reported to have been referenced consistently during interrogations. By deliberately, and erroneously, ascribing the former name of the Tehran Central Church to the US and falsely attributing the AoG’s funding to the CIA, the authorities appear to be seeking to facilitate both the seizure of property in line with the remit of the EIKO, and the possible prosecution of remaining church leaders on national security-related charges”.
In a statement, the General Superintendent of the AoG said: “The 68 million worldwide adherents of The General Council of the Assemblies of God wish to express dismay at the recent confiscation of campground and garden property from the Iran Assemblies of God. We hereby request the return of the property to its legal owner.”