WASHINGTON (BP) -- "Scores of Christians" have been detained since Christmas in Tehran, according to a statement protesting the action by Iranian authorities issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on Jan. 7.
"They were informally accused of being 'evangelical missionaries,' although no formal charges have been filed by authorities," USCIRF stated, noting: "Iranian law makes proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims illegal, in contravention of international standards."
According to the USCIRF statement: "Reports indicate that as many as 70 Christians have been detained over the past two weeks. Some individuals have since been released, although it is unclear how many remain in detention. While most of those detained are Evangelical Christians, members of Iran's Armenian Christian community also have been detained."
Bryant Wright, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, noted in a Jan. 7 statement: "This Christmas season, while we were celebrating the birth of our Savior in relative peace, many of our brothers and sisters in other countries have lost their lives or been put in prison because they bear His Name.
"The bombing of the church in Egypt, the events in Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, and the recent wave of arrests in Iran grieve our hearts," Wright continued. "These followers of our Lord have been called upon to suffer for the Name of Jesus. We pray for them and their families.
"We also call upon the respective governments to take all steps necessary to preserve the fundamental human rights of their citizens to worship our Lord according to the dictates of their own hearts without fear of reprisal or persecution."
Wright added, "We especially pray for the people of Southern Sudan as they vote on independence on Sunday, Jan. 9." Wright is pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga.
USCIRF chair Leonard Leo, concerning the detentions in Iran, was quoted in the commission's statement as noting: "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.
"USCIRF calls on Iranian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release those Christians who have been detained and urges the U.S. government and international community to condemn these detentions and demand the detainees' release," Leo said.
The governor of Tehran, Morteza Tamaddon, "called the detained Christians 'deviant' and 'corrupt' and vowed to identify and detain more in the days ahead," USCIRF reported. "In a statement Tuesday, Tamaddon likened the detained Christians to the Taliban. It is unclear what Tamaddon meant by his analogy."
In its 2010 annual report, USCIRF noted that even recognized non-Muslim religious minorities in Iran -- Jews, Armenian and Assyrian Christians, and Zoroastrians -- protected under the Iranian constitution faced increasing discrimination and repression.
"While the constitution of Iran formally recognizes Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians as protected religious minorities who may worship freely, members of these groups are subject to legal and other forms of discrimination, particularly in education, government jobs and services, and the armed services," USCIRF stated.
The Dec. 25 sweep by Iranian authorities targeted Muslim-background people who have accepted Christ and Christians accused of evangelizing Muslims, which can carry the death penalty under Iranian law.
Police forced their way into homes in the early morning hours of Christmas Day while the families were asleep in Tehran and other cities, according to news reports. They searched the homes for Bibles and Christian literature, CDs and photos. Personal computers and documents also reportedly were confiscated.
More arrests were expected, according to state media reports quoting Tehran's governor.
Tamaddon reportedly called evangelical Christian activity in Iran a "cultural invasion of the enemy," according to The Wall Street Journal.
"Just like the Taliban, who have inserted themselves into Islam like a parasite, [evangelicals] have crafted a movement in the name of Christianity," Tamaddon said, according to The Journal, which was quoting Iran's state media outlet, IRNA.
While about 1 percent of Iran's population is Christian, sanctioned groups like Armenians and Catholics generally are allowed to worship in peace, The Journal said. However, Iran outlaws Persian-language Bibles and preaching, and Muslims are not allowed to attend Christian services.
Among those arrested, according to a source with contacts in Iran, two couples were separated from their babies, and there has been no contact with eight of those who were arrested.
Compiled by Baptist Press editor Art Toalston and assistant editor and senior writer Mark Kelly.
© Copyright 2011 Baptist Press