The largest Persian-speaking Protestant community in Iran, Jama’at-e Rabbani, has announced that it has been stripped of its ownership of Sharon Gardens, a large and valuable piece of real estate in the city of Karaj, by an organization operating under the supervision of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
“They have simply charged the community with espionage and convicted them without any evidence,” said Borji, a spokesman for Article 18—which defends the rights of Christians in Iran based on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)—in an interview with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Unsubstantiated charges about the group’s alleged ties to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) enabled the confiscation of the two and a half acre property by the Headquarters for Implementation of the Imam’s Decree, according to an order by Branch 3 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court, on July 21, 2015, said Borji. The Appeals Court upheld the ruling in August 2016.
The Jama’at-e Rabbani Church Council officially went public with the news on December 13, 2016.
“The 68 million worldwide adherents of the Assemblies of God wish to express dismay at the recent confiscation of campground and garden property from the Iran Assemblies of God. We hereby request the return of the property to its legal owner,” said a statement issued by the chairman of the World Assemblies of God Fellowship, George O. Wood.
“As far as I know, none of the leaders of the church were present during the trial and they did not have lawyers,” Vartan Avanesian, a Jama’at-e Rabbani official based in Turkey, told the Campaign. “Iranian Christians were told that if they publicize this case it would be very costly for them. But we can’t stay quiet about this.”
“I was accused of working for the CIA and earning dollars,” he continued. “But all our church officials are Iranian. They even arrested my wife one day and told her I was a spy. They put us under so much pressure that we were forced to leave Iran in August 2013.”
“Christians out of fear kept quiet about a lot of church property confiscations in the past,” Borji told the Campaign. “But confiscating Sharon Gardens is not a simple matter. They can accuse all the other Christian groups of espionage and working for the CIA and take away their properties, too.”
“They want to undermine the legitimacy of Protestant churches established before the  revolution, such as Jama’at-e Rabbani, and destroy the foundations of Persian-speaking Christian Protestants in the country,” he added.
The Headquarters for Implementation of the Imam’s Decree, which had sued to take over Sharon Gardens, was established by the founder of the Islamic Republic, Rouhollah Khomeini, in 1989 to confiscate properties abandoned after the revolution. Today it operates under the supervision of Khamenei and is not accountable to the government or Parliament.
Sharon Gardens, located in the Valadabad district of Karaj, has been the location for many Christian youth camps and family picnics organized by the Jama’at-e Rabbani Church Council, which purchased the property in 1974. It is currently worth some eight billion tomans (about $2.5 million USD), according to Borji.
The ruling issued by the Revolutionary Court states: “The Jama’at-e Rabbani Church Council is a branch of the Philadelphia Church in the U.S. that was established by the Central Intelligence Agency for the purpose of penetrating the Islamic world and conducting missionary activities, especially in Iran….Therefore, the property described in this ruling is confiscated in favor of the [Headquarters for Implementation of the Imam’s Decree] based on articles 10 and 20 of the regulations for tackling cases subject to Article 49 of the Constitution.”
Borji strongly denied any connection between Jama’at-e Rabbani to the CIA and the “Philadelphia Church,” adding that no evidence was presented to support the charge.
“The court’s ruling shows how uninformed they are,” he told the Campaign. “It’s really funny. ‘Philadelphia’ is a word in the holy Bible that means ‘brotherly love.’ Many churches around the world have this name, and it is also a state in the U.S, but Jama’at-e Rabbani has no connection with the U.S. and the court did not show evidence that it does.”
Under pressure from the Intelligence Ministry, the Jama’at-e Rabbani Church on Taleghani (Takht-e-Jamshid) Boulevard in central Tehran had been closed for “major repairs” since May 2013 and several of its priests and members have spent time in prison,” Borji told the Campaign.
On November 30, the Campaign joined 18 other international human rights organizations in defending the rights of Christians and all other religious minorities in Iran.
“Governments should factor human rights, including the rights of religious minorities, into all bilateral dealings with the Islamic Republic,” said the statement. “Governmental agencies should explore avenues beyond dialogue alone to ensure human rights violators are held accountable and that trade and diplomatic relations do not contribute to further abuses.”
Despite assertions by government officials that Christians enjoy full rights as citizens of Iran, the Christian community—particularly Evangelicals and Protestant communities, which are seen as encouraging conversion to Christianity—suffers severe and widespread discrimination and persecution in Iran, as documented in the Campaign’s report, The Cost of Faith: Persecution of Christian Protestants and Converts in Iran.