The Assyrian Christian community in the northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz has been left in a state of shock after intelligence agents forced a Presbyterian church to close earlier this month, Assyrian International News Agency (Aina) reports.
Religious freedom charity Article18 said: “Intelligence agents stormed the 100-year-old church, officially recognized as a national heritage site in Iran, on Thursday, May 9, changed all the locks, tore down the cross from the church tower, and ordered the churchwarden to leave.”
“They made it clear that the Assyrian people are no longer allowed to hold any worship service there,” Article18 reported.
The source also said church members had been fearful since just a few days after Christmas when agents from the intelligence ministry prevented pastors from other churches to visit the Tabriz church for a joint-worship service with other Assyrian and Armenian Christians.
Quoting a source, Aina reported on May 9, “a large number” of agents from the ministry of intelligence and a state agency called Eiko entered the “church compound and changed all the locks on the doors, removed the cross from the tower, installed some monitoring instruments and started to threaten and force our custodian to leave his place inside the compound immediately.”
Eiko, also known as the executive headquarters of Imam’s directive, is under the direct control of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Eiko was established from thousands of properties confiscated in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution. A Reuters investigation found that the organization built “its empire on the systematic seizure of thousands of properties belonging to ordinary Iranians,” also seizing property from members of religious minorities, business people and Iranians living abroad. It falsely claimed many properties were abandoned.
The 100-year old church, owned by the Assyrian Presbytery, was “confiscated” by a revolutionary court order in 2011. The congregation, however, were able to continue using the building for services in the Assyrian language – until this month’s raid.
“Many churches owned by Protestants have been confiscated in Iran,” according to Article18’s advocacy director, Mansour Borji.
The reason can be deliberate targeting of any institution remotely linked with Americans.
“In most cases, the government has been unable to repurpose them, especially if they were listed. So they typically remain as abandoned buildings, often neglected, and turned into ruins before being demolished, as was the case with the church in Kerman.”
Christians from Iran’s historic Assyrian and Armenian communities are recognized minority, who are usually able to freely practice their faith, providing they don't open their doors to Muslim-born Iranians by holding services in Persian.
The Islamic Republic authorities have not yet responded to the news concerning the century-old church in Tabriz.
The Assyrian presence in Iran goes back 4,000 years.
The Assyrian community in Iran numbered approximately 200,000 before the 1979 revolution. Many Assyrians left the country in the after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, primarily for the United States. Current estimates of the Assyrian population in Iran range from 50,000 in 2007 to 32,000 in 2015. The Iranian capital, Tehran, is home to the majority of Iranian Assyrians; however, approximately 15,000 Assyrians reside in northwestern Iran, in the city of Urmia and various Assyrian villages in the surrounding area, in West Azarbaijan province, northwest Iran.
Assyrians were the first people who warmly welcomed an American Presbyterian missionary and linguist, Justin Perkins, on his arrival in Urmia.
Justin Perkins, known as the first U.S. citizen residing in Iran, established a missionary center in Urmia in 1835.
Perkins, later dubbed the “Apostle of Persia”, was assigned to look after the remaining members of the Assyrian Church of the East in northwestern Iran.
Appointed by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, Perkins began preaching, generally with the full consent of the local Assyrian church clergy, and often in their churches.
Dozens of Assyrians left Iran for America through Perkins and his successors, mainly settling in Chicago.