The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has raised concern over the sentencing of Christian converts to long-term imprisonment within less than two months in Iran.
“Christians are recognized as an official religious minority in Iran’s constitution, but the state continues to persecute members of the faith, especially converts,” CHRI said in a July 20 statement.
While calling on Iranian authorities to immediately halt the “disturbing trend of arrests and imprisonment of Christians,” CHRI noted that according to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran ratified in 1975, “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
According to Christian and human rights organizations, “In less than two months, since June 2017, Judge Mashallah Ahmadzadeh of Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran has issued long prison sentences to at least 11 Christian converts and the former leader of the Assyrian Pentecostal Church in Iran.”
“The state must respect its own laws and international obligations and allow Christians and all religious minorities [to have] full freedom of worship,” said CHRI Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi.
Iran views any alternative belief system, especially those seeking converts, as a threat to the prevailing Shi’ite order.
Only the traditional Christian churches, such as the Armenian or Assyrian churches are tolerated. These churches do not engage in missionary activities and do not convert Muslims.
On July 6, Ahmadzadeh sentenced four Protestant Christian converts to 10 years in prison each in a trial completely lacking due process, according to Mansour Borji, the advocacy director of Article 18, a London-based organization that defends Christians in Iran.
“Charges against these Christians is legally unfounded, and their conviction to 10 years’ imprisonment is violating the obvious right of freedom of opinion,” he told Radio Farda. “So many Christians in Iran are accused of merely attending Mass and prayer gatherings even in the privacy of their homes. They are all waiting for the Revolutionary Courts’ verdict against them.”
Christian Solidarity Worldwide, headquartered in London, has also bitterly criticized the recent convictions, calling on Iranian authorities to respect the rights of the four converts.
Prosecuting new converts to Christianity is not limited to Iranian citizens. Yusif Farhadov, Eldar Gurbanov, and Bahram Nasibov from Azerbaijan, as well as Iranian national Nasser Navard Goltapeh were arrested by security forces at a reception hosted by Christian friends in Karaj in June 2016.
No evidence was presented to show the defendants had acted against national security, Borji told CHRI, but the four were convicted of being “Zionist Christians” who “acted against national security with the intention of overthrowing the state in a soft war.”
“The Azeris will only serve their sentences if they return to Iran,” a local source explained. “They will not be imprisoned in Azerbaijan for an alleged crime committed in another country,” World Watch Monitor quoted Christian sources as saying.
Charged with “assembly and collusion against national security” for organizing home churches and preaching “Zionist Christianity,” Pastor Yousif Nadarkhani, Mohammad Reza (Yasser) Omidi, Mohammad Ali Mosibzadeh and Zaman (John) Fadaei were also sentenced to 10 years in prison by Judge Mashallah on June 24.
After serving his prison term, Nadarkhani will be exiled to Nikshahr, in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, for two years. Omidi will be exiled for two years to Borazjan, Bushehr Province, after the completion of his sentence, CHRI added in its statement.
The four, who were given 20 days to appeal, were arrested by Intelligence Ministry agents while performing Christian rituals at the home of a friend in Rasht, Gilan Province, in May 2016.
Furthermore, on June 11, Victor Bet Tamraz, the former leader of Iran’s Assyrian Pentecostal Church, and Christian converts Hadi Asgari and Kavian Fallah Mohammadi, were sentenced by Mashallah to 10 years in prison while convert Amin Afshar Naderi was issued a 15-year prison sentence.
They were also all previously arrested by Intelligence Ministry agents.
There are no recent official statistics available on the number of Christians in Iran, but 117,704 were counted in a 2011 state census, CHRI maintained.
In 2010, the World Christian Database (WCD) recorded 270,057 Christians in Iran. Some Christian organizations argue the number is much higher.
Many church leaders have been murdered and hundreds more have been either interrogated or incarcerated in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s.
Publishing the Persian version of the Bible in Iran is forbidden, while several churches have been forced to shut down.