Western Missionary Released
from Prison in Iran

Following an international campaign including intensive diplomatic efforts, Daniel Baumann was released from prison to Swiss Embassy officials in Tehran, Iran on Sunday, March 16, at 2:30am EST (11:00 am local Tehran time). He was detained for nine weeks in the infamous Evin prison. He flew to Switzerland on Tuesday, March 19.

Missionaries Daniel Baumann, Swiss/American dual national, and Stuart Timm, South African national, went to Iran on tourist visas on December 28, 1996. Prior to their trip, they worked in Turkmenistan. According to Timm, the purpose of their trip was to collect information about Iran's various "people groups" and to ascertain how missionaries could live and work in Iran. They had contacted several Evangelical pastors and lay Christians and a number of Muslim Iranians during their trip to Isfahan, Tehran and Gonbad. The condition of the people they contacted is unknown. Upon their return to the Iran-Turkmenistan border on January 10, Iranian border guards confiscated their passports and told them to go to Tehran to obtain their passports from authorities there. They were arrested and detained in Tehran when they requested the return of their passports.

After spending four days in an underground prison with about eight hours per day of interrogation, both men were transferred to the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. They were placed in cells about three or four cells apart. Timm reported hearing Baumann speaking out loud to himself. However, when Timm tried to speak to Baumann, Baumann did not reply. They could hear the cries of other prisoners in nearby cells. The men were blindfolded and taken separately to a sound-proof room for interrogation.

After intense diplomatic intervention by the South African government, Timm was released to the South African Embassy on February 17 and left Iran on February 22.

During Baumann's imprisonment, Swiss Embassy officials in Tehran were allowed only one visit. It took place on February 18, more than one month after the arrest. Iran violated the Vienna Convention of consular relations by not observing visitation rights and not notifying the Embassies of Timm's and Baumann's arrest and imprisonment.

The Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that Baumann lived under hard conditions and psychological pressure during his detention. Timm described Baumann's condition as fragile. He also revealed that Baumann looked "gaunt" when he saw Baumann in prison clothes at Iran's Revolutionary Court hearing the day before Timm's release. Timm believes his travelling companion was treated worse because he was American.

In response to the U.S. Congressional legislation in 1996 to spend $20 million to destabilize the government of Iran, Iran's parliament passed legislation to spend a minimum of $20 million to counter the U.S. efforts. Since then the Islamic Republic of Iran has heightened its security.

According to Reuters News Service, the Iranian Parliament passed a strict law imposing the death sentence for espionage in May 1996. The article states: Iran's parliament has passed a law imposing the death sentence for espionage and singling out agents working for the United States and Israel . . . . The law requires the "death sentence for anyone convicted of providing confidential or classified information or correspondence to foreigners, especially [those] from the United States or Israel, or to opposition groups fighting to overthrow the government." The law covers "spying in military, political, security, economic, social and scientific fields" and is considerably tougher than a previous law.

It was feared that Baumann would be charged and tried under this new espionage law. In 1996 and early 1997 a rising number of Iranians have been arrested, condemned and executed under the espionage law. The Iranian government has often used espionage charges as a cover-up for religious or political persecution. This has been the case with Iranian Christians.

Western missionaries were expelled from Iran in 1979 and 1980 following the Islamic regime's takeover. Prior to the Revolution, the Christian missions had established thirty-seven Evangelical churches. About half were Persian language churches and half Assyrian or Armenian language churches. In 1977, a census found 3,000 Evangelical Christians in Iran. Of that number, only 300 were from Muslim background. The remaining were from ethnic Armenian, Assyrian and Jewish backgrounds.

Despite or because of the gradually escalating persecution of Evangelical Christians since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, there has been a phenomenal growth in the number of Evangelical Christians in Iran. The number of Evangelicals has grown to 20,000 known in 1996, with Muslim converts to Christianity numbering about 10,000. (There are also an estimated 100,000 secret converts.) Since the Islamic takeover, a number of open and underground churches have been established and pastors trained.

The acceleration of persecution led to the execution of Muslim convert pastor Rev. Hossein Soodmand in Mashad in December 1990, and the execution order of Rev. Mehdi Dibaj in December 1993. Other Evangelical Christians disappeared or were executed.

Rev. Haik Hovsepian-Mehr was killed in January 1994 after he campaigned internationally for the release of Rev. Mehdi Dibaj from prison. Dibaj had spent nearly 10 years in prison solely because of his conversion to Christianity. Although Rev. Dibaj was released one week after the campaign began, he was killed in late June 1994 along with Rev. Tateos Michaelian.

The harassment, arrest, imprisonment and torture of Evangelical Christians, particularly Muslim converts to Christianity continued to escalate after the murders of the three pastors in 1994. All (except for three) Persian-speaking Evangelical churches have been closed or forced underground by government authorities. Christians, particularly Muslim converts to Christianity, are arrested imprisoned, tortured and forced to recant their faith. Many have lost their jobs and are kept under heavy surveillance and refused permission to leave the country.

In May 1996 a new wave of persecution of Evangelical Christians in Iran ensued. Pastors have again been arrested, interrogated and pressured to sign statements that they would not evangelize Muslims inside or outside their churches, admit Muslims to their churches or baptize Muslim converts. They are forbidden to contact the outside world and ordered to report to the Ministry of Information and Islamic Guidance whenever the Ministry deems it necessary. In late September 1996 Pastor Ravanbakhsh (legal name: Mohammad Baghar Yusefi) was killed in Iran; his body was found hanged on a tree in the forest near Ghaem-Shahr. He had been reportedly detained prior to his death. Ordinary church members and church leaders have been pressured into accepting persecution or leaving Iran. In July 1996 Shahram Sepehri-Fard, an ordinary Evangelical Christian, was arrested and imprisoned in Iran on charges of espionage and adultery--surrogate charges for his earlier conversion from Islam to Christianity. He was later released following an international campaign.

What lessons can be learned from the recent imprisonment of these two Western missionaries in Iran? Western missions need to rethink their mission strategies and act in conjunction with Iranian churches and ministries working outside of Iran who have close contact with the church in Iran. The presence of the two men in Iran created risk for the people they contacted, and much of the information they sought was already available outside of Iran. Uninformed and ill-advised ventures not only endanger the lives of Western missionaries, but also generate great harm to the church in Iran, which is already under severe persecution. With the advice and cooperation of Iranian churches and international organizations, useful and careful projects can be undertaken to strengthen the church in Iran. The Iranian nationals, who are much more effective than Western missionaries, will do the missionary work if they are equipped with the necessary resources.

For more information and photos please contact: Iranian Christians International, Inc. <[email protected]>

"World Evangelical Fellowship's Religious Liberty e-mail Conference."

For information previously shared on this conference, please check us out on the web at: www.xc.org/wef/wefintro/.

This article is published courtesy of Ramon A Williams, The Religious Media Agency. If you would like to contact him, email Ramon A Williams.


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