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IRAN: 'American' detained as alleged spy amid crackdown on Christians [Updated]

January 6, 2011 |  6:04 am

450px-Baptistère_kelisa-e-vank_esfahan

[Updated, Jan. 6, 10:56 a.m.: Iran's state-controlled Al-Alam television channel is quoting an "informed source" as denying reports by other news outlets that an American woman had been arrested at the Armenian border. According to Iran's Arabic language channel, the woman arrived at the border requesting entry but was denied entrance because she did not have a visa.]

A woman referred to by authorities as American, who is of possible Armenian Christian descent, has been arrested on espionage charges, an Iranian newspaper reported Thursday, as officials launched a major crackdown on the country's Christian minority for alleged proselytizing.

According to the Iranian daily newspaper Iran, a mouthpiece of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the 55-year-old "American" was detained in the Iranian-Armenian border city of Nordouz.

Customs officials allegedly discovered she was carrying hidden "spy equipment" and microphones on her body.

According to the privately owned conservative Iranian news website Tabnak, the woman -- identified in media reports as Hal Talayan -- had spy equipment in her teeth at the time of arrest and feared she'd be killed by Armenian security forces if she were returned to Armenia.

"If sent back to Armenia by the Islamic Republic of Iran, then the security forces of that country will kill her," Tabnak quoted her as saying.

The semiofficial Fars News Agency, quoting a "well-informed source," reported that the woman was detained by customs officials a week ago.

Meanwhile, Iran appears to be ratcheting up pressure on the country's mostly Armenian Christian minority, reportedly arresting Christian leaders and missionaries on accusations of promoting "hard-line" religious views with foreign backing. Morteza Tamadon, the governor of Tehran province, where the Christians reportedly were detained, said more arrests would be carried out soon.

Christianity is recognized as a religion in Iran, but Christians there are not allowed to proselytize.

"The leaders of this movement have been arrested in Tehran province, and more will be arrested in the near future," he was quoted as saying to the state-run Islamic Republic news agency by Agence France-Presse.

It was not immediately clear what group the governor was referring to in his statements, which coincided with celebrations marking the Armenian Orthodox Church's Christmas. But he described the suspects as "deviants" backed by Britain and similar to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"Just like the Taliban ... who have inserted themselves into Islam like a parasite, they have crafted a movement with Britain's backing in the name of Christianity," Tamaddon said.

In the report, he called the detained Christians tabshiri, which translates as "missionaries" in Persian.

The nationalities of those arrested, their exact number and the exact date of the arrests are not known, but some Iranian political opposition websites claim that more than 60 Christians have been detained in Iran during the holiday season, including a priest who was picked up Friday in the city of Isfahan by security authorities and taken into custody, according to the Saham News website.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran

Photo: Baptistry of Vank Church in Isfahan, Iran. Credit: Fabienkhan / Wikimedia

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