In the midst of tyranny, thousands of Iranian Muslims are finding hope in Christ! They are being invited to Iran's house churches by other Muslims who have turned to Jesus. And Iran's fundamentalist Islamic government is embarassed. They can only offer stepped up arrests and repression.
AP reports that "Iran has arrested about 70 Christians since Christmas in a crackdown that demonstrates the limits of religious tolerance by Islamic leaders who often boast they provide room for other faiths. Caught in the middle is the small community of Iranian Christians who get together for prayer and Bible readings in private residences and out of sight of authorities. They are part of a wider "house church" movement that has taken root in other places with tight controls on Christian activities such as China and Indonesia.
"Authorities increasingly view them with suspicions that range from trying to convert Muslims to being possible footholds for foreign influence."
Christian activists claim their Iranian brethren are being persecuted simply for worshipping outside officially sanctioned mainstream churches.
"Iran has claimed as a point of pride that it makes space for other religions. But in past years, authorities have staged arrests on Christians and other religious minorities, but the latest sweeps appears to be among the biggest and most coordinated.
"In the West, the followers are drawn to house churches because of the intimate sense of religious fellowship and as an alternative to established denominations. In places such as Iran, however, there also is the effort to avoid monitoring of sanctioned churches from Islamic authorities — who have kept closer watch on religious minorities since the chaos after hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed election in 2009.
"Tehran Governor Morteza Tamadon described the Christians as "hard-line" missionaries who have "inserted themselves into Islam like a parasite," according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
"It's the nature of the house churches that worries Iran. It's all about possible converts," said Fleur Brading, a researcher for Middle East and North Africa at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a British-based group the follows Christian rights issues around the world. "It's a very specific and pinpoint strike by Iran."
"The wave of arrests began Christmas morning and since then, opposition websites have reported 70 Christians arrested, including those regarded as pastors in the house church movement. Many were later released, but the reports say more than a dozen remain in detention and officials have hinted more raids are possible.
"The use of the word missionaries instead of evangelicals is an intentional move by the government," she said. "As evangelicals, they are a group entitled to their faith. As missionaries, they are enemies of the state seeking to corrupt its people."
"What's most troubling about this wave of detentions is the fact that Iran is continuing its recent trend of targeting evangelical Christians, which they've been doing for years, and also leaders from the recognized and protected Armenian Christian community," said Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent government advisory panel.
"The manager of the Iranian Christian News Agency, Saman Kamvar, said authorities likely perceive some kind of challenge to the religious status quo and are "feeling insecure." "This, in my opinion, was a green light to the other authorities to crack down on them," Kamvar said from Canada, where he now lives.
(for more, see Iran rounds up Christians in crackdown, Brian Murphy, Associated Press)