December 23, 2016
The property of the main Protestant church in Iran has been seized by the Supreme Leader’s office after the church was summarily convicted of spying for the CIA, the church has announced.
The Jama’at-e Rabbani Church is part of the World Assemblies of God Fellowship, a protestant church claiming 68 million members globally.
The Jama’at-e Rabbani Church is based in Karaj, where it owed a one-hectare (2 1/2-acre) property, the Sharon Gardens. That property, it said, has now been seized by the Headquarters for the Implementation of the Imam’s Decree, an arm of power of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenehi.
The seizure implies that the state is escalating its campaign against Christian groups that seek converts in Iran. Many Christian converts in Iran meet as independent house churches in members’ homes. Pastor Saeed Abedini, freed from prison last January in the prisoner exchange with the United States, helped organized such house churches.
But Jama’at-e Rabbani is a formal national organization that predates the revolution. It is believed to be the largest formal organization of Christian evangelicals in Iran, so in some ways it is surprising that the state hasn’t moved more strongly against it.
The World Assemblies of God Fellowship is a group of over 140 autonomous but loosely associated national groupings of churches, which together form the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination. Jama’at-e Rabbani is the affiliate in Iran.
The Assemblies originated from the Pentecostal revival of the early 20th Century in the United States. This revival led to the founding of the Assemblies of God in the United States in 1914. Through foreign missionary work and establishing relationships with other Pentecostal churches, the Assemblies of God expanded into a worldwide movement. It was not until 1988, however, that the world fellowship was formed.
The Jama’at-e Rabbani Church Council went public with the news of the property seizure on December 13. It said the Karaj property was seized in July and the seizure was upheld on appeal in August.
A statement issued by the general superintendent of the World Assemblies of God Fellowship, George O. Wood, an American, said: “The 68 million worldwide adherents 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.”
Vartan Avanesian, a Jama’at-e Rabbani official based in Turkey, told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI),’“As far as I know, none of the leaders of the church were present during the trial and they did not have lawyers. Iranian Christians were told that if they publicize this case it would be very costly for them. But we can’t stay quiet about this.”
Avanesian said, “I was accused of working for the CIA and earning dollars. But all our church officials are Iranian. They even arrested my wife one day and told her I was a spy. They put us under so much pressure that we were forced to leave Iran in August 2013.”
The Headquarters for Implementation of the Imam’s Decree, which seized the Sharon Gardens, was established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 to confiscate properties abandoned after the revolution. Today it operates under the supervision of Khamenehi and is not accountable to the government or Majlis.
Sharon Gardens has been the location for many Christian youth camps and family picnics organized by the Jama’at-e Rabbani Church Council, which purchased the property in 1974, five years before the revolution.
According to ICHRI, the ruling issued by the Revolutionary Court states: “The Jama’at-e Rabbani Church Council is a branch of the Philadelphia Church in the US that was established by the Central Intelligence Agency for the purpose of penetrating the Isl d only as Borji, told ICHRI, “The court’s ruling shows how uninformed they are. It’s really funny. ‘Philadelphia’ is a word in the holy Bible that means ‘brotherly love.’ Many churches around the world have this name, and it is also a city in the US, but Jama’at-e Rabbani has no connection with the US and the court did not show evidence that it does.”
Borji said that, under pressure from the Intelligence Ministry, the Jama’at-e Rabbani Church on Taleghani (Takht-e-Jamshid) Boulevard in central Tehran has been closed for “major repairs” since May 2013 and several of its pastors and members have spent time in prison.