Iran forces Christian retreat center to shut down due to alleged ties with CIA

(Wikimedia Commons/Orijentolog)Saint Sarkis Cathedral in Tehran, with a mural of Imam Khomeini in background (2011).

A retreat center belonging to the Council of Assemblies of God (AoG) was reportedly ordered by the Iranian government to shut down on March 10, nearly three years after it was accused of having links with the CIA.

Caretakers of the Sharon Retreat Centre have been served an evacuation notice on March 7 and were given until March 10 to remove all of their belongings before the property is handed over to the Executive Headquarters of Imam's Directive (EIKO).

Advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide noted that EIKO, which is presided over by Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was created after the 1979 Revolution to oversee the confiscation of property belonging to supporters of the former regime.

Iran's revolutionary court had ordered the confiscation of the retreat center on July 21, 2015, but the process has taken nearly three years to come into effect. In December 2016, the court maintained that the property was owned by an organization "funded by the US through the CIA spy agency to infiltrate the Islamic world, and particularly Iran, by conducting evangelistic activities."

Mansour Borji from advocacy group Article 18 asserted that the closure of the retreat center "not only a takeover of a property by corrupt judiciary and Intelligence officials, but yet another move in an ongoing and systematic campaign by the Iranian state to uproot Protestant Christianity."

"Labelling a long-standing and vibrant Church with national security charges for its rightful religious activities and accusing them of collusion with the CIA is indeed worrying. It should be a concern for anyone who is interested in safeguarding freedom of religion and belief in this country," Borji told World Watch Monitor.

The AoG church in Iran, which was registered as a church and religious institution in 1973 and reinstated as a religious institution after the Islamic Revolution, is not organizationally affiliated with the AoG denomination in the U.S., according to CSW.

Iranian authorities have repeatedly cited the former name of the Central AoG Church in Tehran, "Philadelphia," as evidence of its U.S. affiliation. However, the name supposedly alludes to the original Greek word in the New Testament, meaning "brotherly love."

By linking the AoG to the CIA, the Iranian authorities have sought to facilitate the confiscation of church property, as well as the possible prosecution of church leaders on national security-related charges.

In 2013, the authorities shut down the central church of the AoG churches in Iran and arrested its leader, Robert Asseriyan, who was then given the choice of either leaving the country or serving a long-term prison sentence.

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