BERLIN – Iran’s stepped up its crackdown on the country struggling Christian community by closing a church in Tehran, prompting an Iranian human rights group and religious freedom experts to slam the regime.

“The ability to join a church or mosque or temple is one of the most fundamental religious freedoms,” Hadi Ghaemi, a spokesman for the group International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said last week.

“This drive to close churches is an assault on free religious practice, in violation of Iran’s international commitments, and a sign of growing religious intolerance within the Iranian government.”

According to the human rights group, Iranian Christians are in a dire situation because the regime assigned the Revolutionary Guard Corps to handle the “oversight of Christian churches in Iran, which were previously overseen by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.”

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran noted, “At the end of May 2012, Iranian authorities forced the Assembly of God Church in the western Tehran neighborhood of Jannat Abad to close its doors and discontinue services, a local source with knowledge of the Iranian Protestant community told the campaign.”

A source told quoted the Iran’s authorities as saying, “You must close the church, and if you don’t do this and we have to formally close the church, then there is no hope of you even keeping the building afterwards to sell,” .

In an email to The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law & Justice, wrote, “Iran’s latest assault on the religious freedom of Christians is disturbing, yet not surprising. Iran has consistently shown that it has no respect for international human rights and religious freedom. In fact, Iran is one of the world’s worst offenders.

Those who embrace Christianity do so at great risk and are frequently targeted for persecution – including death because of their religious beliefs.”

The American Center for Law & Justice is a US-based organization that defends religious freedom in the United States and abroad.

Dr. Richard Landes, an associate professor of history and director and cofounder of the Center of Millennial Studies at Boston University, told the Post via email, “On one level, the closure reveals the insecurity of the Muslims who carry it out, re-emphasizing (if that were necessary) the profound lack of confidence that Islamists in power have in a free market of ideas. And of course, this affects not only the specific church, but any kind of dissident, infidel or Muslim. This is classic pre-modern political behavior.”

Landes , who has delivered talks about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, added, “In a larger sense, this raises the issue of reciprocity.

At a time when Muslim spokesmen and women make strong demands to be treated by the highest standards of ‘human rights’ in the West, neither these Muslim spokespeople, nor those who trust them in the West, demand any kind of reciprocal restraint from Muslims in Islamic countries: ‘Who are we to judge?’” “This failure might seem to the human rights activists who look the other way as a sign of generosity towards a morally challenged part of the world from whom we cannot expect anything like reciprocity, but it seems to ‘them’ as a sign of our moral cowardice, that we proleptically accept the dhimma [the inferior status of non- Muslims in a Muslim state],” he continued.

Nasrin Amirsedghi, a leading German-Iranian intellectual who has written extensively about human rights violations in the Islamic Republic, told the Post that “the systematic and state-sponsored persecution of Christians in Iran, particularly in the recent period, is a sign of an increasingly weakened regime leadership. Wherever there is a fear of losing legitimacy, the regime employs violence and repression.”

She noted that Iran’s parliament voted 196 to 7 for the death penalty in 2008 to be imposed on apostates, such as those who convert from Islam to Christianity.

Sekulow, from the Center for Law & Justice, said, “Christian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani is a perfect example of the persecution of Christians by Iran and its leadership. Pastor Youcef is fast approaching 1,000 days in captivity inside Iran – and a death sentence – because of his Christian beliefs. In our work in the United States and abroad to call attention to the plight of Pastor Youcef, we have seen a tremendous outcry from around the globe – support for Pastor Youcef and condemnation of Iran. Our global Tweet for Youcef campaign reaches nearly 2.5 million Twitter accounts daily in more than 200 countries around the world.”

Asked what the West can do regarding human rights violations in Iran, Sekulow said, “There are several areas of involvement where the West can make a difference. We have a duty to report on and work for the release of those persecuted, imprisoned and even facing death by execution because of their religious beliefs. As a free people, it is our job to take every bit of information we can obtain and utilize it in a way that can best assist those who too often are forgotten.”

He continued, “It is important that these crimes be publicized – that a media spotlight expose these tragic events – to let Iran know that the world is watching.”

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