Jun 24, 2019 No Comments ››

By Rebecca Simon

The government of Iran has struck again! On May 9th of 2019, a large number of Iranian security forces of the Ministry of Intelligence and State Agency (EIKO) who are under the direct control of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, assailed the Assyrian Presbyterian Church in the northwestern city of Tabriz, according to “Project 18”, a London based organization advocating for the rights of Christians in Iran. The agents changed the locks on the 60-year-old church, threatened the churchwarden to leave the compound, removed the sign of Christianity, the cross, from atop the high tower, and installed some monitoring instruments. The prelude to this outrageous takeover was when shortly after Christmas of 2018, pastors of other churches who wanted to have a joint service for other Christians and Armenians, were prevented from congregating at the church. This encroachment of the Islamic Republic of Iran into the church affairs goes back many years. In 2011 the church was confiscated by order of a Revolutionary Court judge.

Nevertheless, Assyrians were still allowed to continue praying at the church but only in their native tongue of Assyrian. On the surface, Iran allows the minority Christians mainly comprised of Assyrians and Armenians whose number has dwindled down to an estimated 80,000, to practice their religion freely. So long as the church sermons are conducted in Assyrian or Armenian, all is fine. But when services are held in Farsi, is when the totalitarian core of the regime bursts open. In 2018, more than 100 Christians, many of whom converts, were arrested. The prison term for Muslims converting to other religions is generally between 10-15 years. The Government of Iran fears that the Muslim population of the country falls in love with tenets of Christianity and gets proselytized by the peaceful churches. Despite severe punishments for apostasy, there are an estimated 800,000 former Muslims who practice Christianity underground in Iran. Up to the era of the rein of Shah, Muslim conversion to Christianity was nominal and almost unheard of. It is only after the 1979 Iranian Revolution that the masses of Iranians disillusioned with the violent nature of the Islamic rule are accepting Jesus Christ as their savior and turning their back to the religion that was brought to Iran by the Arabs centuries ago. At this time, it is unclear whether the Tabriz Assyrian Presbyterian Church was raided because it had allowed Muslims to worship there.

There have been many Assyrian ministers who were imprisoned for not expelling Muslims who attend church services on their own volition. Even Pastor Edmon Sarkissian who was a pastor of the Tabriz Assyrian Presbyterian Church for 16 years was imprisoned twenty years ago for two weeks for allowing Muslims to sit in the pews. One cannot resist but surmise that there is an economical motive behind the confiscation of the Tabriz Assyrian Presbyterian Church which is incidentally designated a national heritage site. According to some estimates, the church sits on a 4-5 acre lot located in the Beverly Hills of Tabriz, on a street formerly known as “South Shahnaz” but currently renamed “Shariiati Street.” EIKO that seized the Tabriz Assyrian Church has been established through land grabs by the thousands after the 1979 revolution. A Reuters investigation revealed that the Ayatollah Khamenei-controlled EIKO built its empire on the systematic usurping of properties belonging to ordinary citizens, religious minorities, business people, expatriated Iranians, or those who live abroad. To justify such egregious acts of morbidity, EIKO falsely claims the properties were abandoned by their owners. As it stands now, the Assyrian community of Tabriz has lost its rightful place of worship and an invaluable property that is worth millions of dollars. Sadly, the Assyrians of Tabriz just like their brethren in Christ, the ex-Muslims, must go underground to practice their peaceful religion. Gone are the days when Assyrian families would gather at the church’s plush grounds adorned with tall old trees under the shade of which men played games of backgammon, when the youth played volleyball, children happily ran around, and women spent their leisure time with loved ones. Once again, as the annals of history have proven time and time again, there never has been and will likely never be justice for Assyrians in the Middle East. As the West ponders on the reason for the closure of many churches across the continents due to lack of attendance and as Christianity gets a deadly blow from mockery by the non-believers, the little enclave of Tabriz’ devout Assyrian Christians long for their due place of prayer. Conversely, the United States of America, Europe, and Australia are doing their very best to foster an environment where Muslims can practice their religion without interference and prejudice. The very Muslims who prosecute and even execute converts, find it opportune to convert as many Westerners in the ever increasing number of mosques outside of Islamic lands. Hence, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. And one must ask, why the world’s Christians are not protecting their own very vulnerable Assyrian Christians? The Assyrians are in a sense Christ-like because they have been crucified over centuries for never denying their Christian faith even when facing pogroms–as the world leaders indifferently looked away. What good is being a superpower when the power isn’t being used to rescue the powerless from annihilation by despots? And a very despaired Assyrian who’s well versed on his history might wonder if it has been all worth it.

This may lead to some question whether the next course of survival plan going forward should be an emphasis away from Christianity but more of a laser focus on nationalism and preservation of culture and language. This is a critical question every one of us Assyrians must inquire from within the depth of our souls. But in the meantime, we stand in solidarity with our violated Assyrians in Tabriz.

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