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The wave of arrests began Christmas morning, and since then, opposition websites have reported 70 Christians arrested, including those regarded as pastors in the house-church movement. Many later were released, but the reports say more than a dozen remain in detention. Officials have hinted more raids are possible.

It’s still unclear what charges could be brought against the jailed Christians, but allegations of trying to convert Muslims could bring a death sentence.

Ms. Brading, however, expects Iranian authorities could opt for political charges rather than religious-linked allegations to soften a possible international outcry. Iran already is struggling against a campaign opposing the death-by-stoning of an Iranian woman convicted of adultery as well as international pressure over its nuclear program.

“The use of the word missionaries instead of evangelicals is an intentional move by the government,” she said. “As evangelicals, they are a group entitled to their faith. As missionaries, they are enemies of the state seeking to corrupt its people.”

In recent months, some members of Iran’s Armenian community also have been detained on unspecified allegations of working to undermine the state, the Iranian Christian News Agency reported. Iranian officials have not given details of the reported detentions.

On Friday, a U.S. watchdog group on religious tolerance expressed concern over the recent arrests.

“What’s most troubling about this wave of detentions is the fact that Iran is continuing its recent trend of targeting evangelical Christians, which they’ve been doing for years, and also leaders from the recognized and protected Armenian Christian community,” said Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent government advisory panel.

Iranian authorities have come down hard on religious groups seen as threats to Islam, including the Baha’is, whose faith was founded in the 19th century by a Persian nobleman considered a prophet by his followers. Baha’is are not recognized as official religious minority in the Iranian Constitution.

There are no accurate figures on the number of Christians in the house-church movement or followers outside established denominations. But the manager of the Iranian Christian News Agency, Saman Kamvar, said authorities likely perceive some kind of challenge to the religious status quo and are “feeling insecure.”

Mr. Kamvar attributes the stepped up raids against Christians to comments last month by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denouncing the growth of private house churches.

“This, in my opinion, was a green light to the other authorities to crack down on them,” Mr. Kamvar said from Canada, where he now lives.