The Assyrian Christian community in the northwestern city of Tabriz has been left it a state of shock, after the Presbyterian church was forcibly closed earlier this month.
Intelligence agents stormed the 100-year-old church, which is a National Heritage site, on Thursday, 9 May, changed all the locks, tore down the cross from the church tower, and ordered the church warden to leave.
"They made it clear that the Assyrian people are no longer allowed to hold any worship service there," explained a trusted source to Article18.
The source said church members had been fearful since just a few days after Christmas, when pastors from other churches were prevented from visiting the Tabriz church for a joint worship service with other Assyrian and Armenian Christians.
Then on 9 May "a large number" of agents from the Ministry of Intelligence and EIKO, an organisation under the direct control of the Supreme Leader, "entered our church compound and changed all the locks on the doors, removed the cross from the church's high tower, installed some monitoring instruments and started to threaten and force our custodian to leave his place inside the compound immediately."
The church, belonging to The Assyrian Presbytery, offered services in Assyrian for many years, was "confiscated" by the Revolutionary Court order in 2011, but church members had been able to continue using the building for services in the Assyrian language -- until now.
"Many churches owned by Protestants have been confiscated in Iran," explains Article18's Advocacy Director, Mansour Borji, "In most cases the government has been unable to repurpose them, especially if they were listed. So they typically remain as empty buildings, often neglected, and turn into ruins before being demolished, as was the case with the church in Kerman."
Christians from Iran's historic Assyrian and Armenian communities are a recognised minority, who are usually able to freely practise their faith, providing they don't open their doors to Muslim-born Iranians by holding services in Persian.