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Behnam Irani
Photo via Facebook
Behnam Irani

Iran’s crackdown on Christians hasn’t let up

Persecution | As Christians pray for the persecuted church, Iranian believers remain in prison

When Christians around the world mark the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church on Nov. 3 (or Nov. 10 for some groups and churches), Iranian pastor Behnam Irani will mark nearly 900 days in prison for his Christian faith.

Four years remain in the pastor’s sentence for crimes against national security. Those crimes include holding church services and telling Muslims about the gospel.

Irani, 43, has served more than two years of his sentence, and has suffered deteriorating health. The Christian group Present Truth Ministries reports the husband and father of two children has endured beatings from Iranian guards and suffers from an inflammatory bowel disease that has crippled him at times. Prison officials haven’t offered sufficient medical treatment.

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In September, Irani’s attorney appealed his prison sentence. Iranian authorities had granted freedom to 11 prisoners of conscience, and the pastor hoped a judge would reconsider his sentence. Present Truth reported the judge stated the only way he would pardon and release Irani was “if he repented and returned to Islam.” The ministry reports: “He will not accept this condition and will remain in prison.”

Dozens more Christians remain in Iranian prisons as well. In a country where less than half a percent of the population are Christians, devotion to Christianity remains dangerous—and in cases of male converts from Islam—punishable by death.

At least one Christian escaped death last year: A court acquitted and released Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani last September after an international outcry over his death sentence. The court had accused Nadarkhani of apostasy from Islam.

Other cases involve less severe sentences, but have gained widespread attention: Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini remains in Tehran’s Evin Prison, serving an eight-year sentence related to his Christian activities.

His wife, Naghmeh, hand-delivered a letter asking for her husband’s release to the staff of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a New York City hotel lobby in September. But in an interview with CNN, the new president said he couldn’t interfere with Iran’s due process.

For Christians arrested and convicted in Iran during speedy trials with scant evidence, most find that due process isn’t a pressing concern for Iranian courts. In July, a judge sentenced eight Iranian Christians to as much as six years in prison for “action against the national security” and “propaganda against the system.” Authorities arrested the Christians—who denied any political activities—during an evening prayer service.

Other Christians serve lengthy sentences with little international attention. Iranian pastor Farshid Fathi has spent nearly three years in prison for his Christian activity. A judge sentenced Fathi, 34, to six years in Evin prison.

Fathi spent nearly a year of that sentence in solitary confinement, and described in a letter from prison how interrogators used emotional manipulation to try to break his resolve. (He says officials falsely told him his wife had been arrested, and his father had suffered a heart attack.)

But Fathi also reports his faith remains strong. In early October, the Christian group Voice of the Martyrs published excerpts of another letter Fathi wrote from prison: “How can I complain about my suffering when my brothers and sisters are paying a high price for their faith all over the world? I recently learned about many people killed in front of a church in Pakistan. I also heard a young sister in Christ sharing about how she lost her family for the sake of the gospel and still she is willing to share the good news. … So when I look at all these heroes of faith, how can I complain about my suffering?”

A song and a prayer

By Jamie Dean

As Christians prepare to mark a day of prayer for persecuted believers, some are finding fresh ways to remember those suffering for their faith. Nate White, a Virginia-based teacher for online college courses, also writes music and serves in his local church.

White recently released He Has Made Us One—a collection of six songs available online and on iTunes. (Part of the proceeds from White’s music will go to Living Bread Ministries, a Christian ministry planting churches in poor areas around the world.) White dedicated one of the songs, “Noble Army of Martyrs,” to Iranian pastor Behnam Irani after reading WORLD’s story about persecuted Christians in Iran last year.

In an email earlier this week, White wrote: “God really gripped me with his story, and I just had an intense affection for him, especially seeing his picture. He’s so beautiful and so precious. I couldn’t stop thinking about him and our brothers and sisters who are offering up their lives as sacrifices to the Lord.”

White says thinking about Behnam and others led to writing a song about persecuted Christians focused on the exhortation in Hebrews 13 to “Remember those in prison, as those in prison with them.”

“How do we remember them as though in prison with them?” White asked. “I’m not entirely sure, but I’m trying. And this song was a product of that, and who knows? Maybe the Lord will use it to help others remember too.”

Listen to the song here and read the lyrics below.

Noble Army of Martyrs
(for Behnam Irani)

Dear Brother, I am to love you,
And remember your chains.
And remember your chains.

Precious Sister, in my comfort,
I cannot carry your pain.
I cannot carry your pain.

But you are finding your souls,
As this world dies to you.
And blessed be the beautiful feet of those whose lives proclaim the truth.

By your wounds you fill up what is lacking
In the sufferings of Christ.
In the sufferings of Christ.

In these fires of hatred and darkness,
We watch the flames bring peace and life,
And the dawn consume the night.

Now let our voices join the slain,
Who cry for all to be made right.
Whose blood is one with Him whose Name proceeds in triumph and all Love’s might.

The weapon of the Enemy becomes the scepter of the slain.
The spear and cross a crown upon their battered brows and fragile frames.
The outer nature wastes away with death at work through suffering.
The inner nature grows in strength beneath the weight of glory.

Oh God, help us enter in, into the company of worthy souls.
Whose Body, torn, gives bread and life to those who crucify our Lord.

No greater love has one than this, that he lay down his life for a friend.
Even a friend whose made himself an enemy of God and men.

© 2013 by Nate White. Vocals by Alicia Leigh Schick.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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