TEHRAN (BP) — Eight Iranian Christians were charged with “action against the national security” and “propaganda against the system” recently after being arrested in a raid of an evening prayer service, evidence of ongoing persecution of Christians in Iran.
The news comes as Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini marked 300 days in a brutal Tehran prison July 23. Supporters say he is being held solely on the basis of his faith, enduring intense physical and psychological abuse.
Earlier in July, the American Center for Law and Justice reported that persecution of Christians in Muslim nations is on the rise, particularly in Iran.
“In the Islamic Republic of Iran alone there are countless Christians imprisoned, facing charges or convictions for one crime, apostasy (essentially becoming a Christian in a radical Islamic nation),” ACLJ reported.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide said July 18 that the eight members of the Church of Iran were sentenced in Shiraz, more than 500 miles south of Tehran, after being arrested last fall.
“Mohammad Roghangir was sentenced to six years, Massoud Rezaie to five years, Mehdi Ameruni and Bijan Farokhpour Haghighi to three years, Shahin Lahooti and Suroush Saraie to two and half years each. Eskandar Rezaie and Roxana Forughi were both sentenced to one year in prison,” CSW reported.
“It is both disappointing and deplorable that the Iranian regime persists in detaining religious minorities on political charges as has occurred, once again, in this case,” CSW’s Mervyn Thomas said.
“These Christians in no way constitute a threat to the state. We call for their unconditional release and urge the government to end the practice of characterizing legitimate religious activities as national security crimes and to uphold the right of all religious minorities to freedom of religion and belief,” Thomas said.
CSW press officer Kiri Kankhwende told Morning Star News that little has changed in terms of religious freedom for non-Muslims in Iran since the election in June of the country’s supposedly more moderate president, Hassan Rouhani.
“It is now common practice to subject religious minorities to political charges, as any alternative belief system is deemed a threat to the theocratic state,” Kankhwende said.
The eight Christians earlier were given enormous bail terms meant to cause severe financial hardships as punishment, CSW said. The bail amounts ranged between $80,000 and $200,000.
Morning Star News also reported on Mostafa Bordbar, 27, a convert to Christianity from Islam who is held in Evin prison and could face 10 years there if convicted on charges of participating in an “illegal gathering and participating in a house church.”
Bordbar’s case is being handled by Judge Pir-Abbas, who is known as the “hanging judge” for assigning long prison sentences and death penalties. Pir-Abbas sentenced Abedini, Morning Star News said.
As recounted by ACLJ, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard entered the home of Abedini’s parents in Tehran — he lived at the time with his wife and two children in the United States and was visiting Iran — and arrested him for his earlier involvement in a house church movement. He has been sentenced to eight years in prison.
After months of denying Abedini medical treatment, including two occasions of taking him to a hospital without granting an examination, Iranian authorities reportedly allowed Abedini to receive treatment July 20, ACLJ said. A physician determined that he suffered from an internal injury in his stomach caused by beatings from prison guards.
ACLJ said Iranian authorities “have heard the international outcry for medical attention” after more than 600,000 people signed a petition on Abedini’s behalf and his case received attention at the United Nations.
“Thank you to all of the individuals who have prayed, written letters, signed petitions, called government officials, run benefit races, tweeted and shared Saeed’s story,” his wife Naghmeh Abedini said. “Thank you to all of the government officials from around the world who have stood for my husband. Iran has listened to your pleas.
“While I am encouraged that Saeed is finally getting medical care, the fight is not yet over,” Naghmeh Abedini said, according to ACLJ. “It has been a difficult 300 days — 300 days of torment simply because Saeed loves Jesus Christ. I am hopeful Iran will do the just and honorable thing and release Saeed.”
Jordan Sekulow, ACLJ’s executive director, said he was pleased that Abedini finally received medical care.
“It is our hope that the Iranian regime will take additional steps to correct their wrongdoings by giving his case a fair and impartial review in the court of appeals, where his case is currently pending,” Sekulow said.
“A fair and impartial review must result in a decision that continuing to hold Pastor Saeed is a grave violation of Iran’s constitution and its international obligations,” Sekulow said.
ACLJ’s international affiliate, the European Centre for Law and Justice, has filed a report in an international legal proceeding detailing Iran’s radical Islamic legal framework and the plight of specific Christians facing intense persecution.
“How does Iran circumvent its own constitution and treaty obligations?” ECLJ wrote. “First, it claims that converts to Christianity aren’t really Christians deserving of any protections under the law.”
Also, Iran makes judicial determinations according to Sharia law.
“Iranian judges, like that of many radical Islamic nations operating under Sharia law, use the opinions and proclamations of radical clerics in determining that someone is an apostate and must be punished under Islamic law, and in an alarming number of cases even executed,” ECLJ wrote.
In an effort to stamp out the spread of Christianity, ECLJ said the government monitors churches and their members to “catch” converts.
“For example, in Iran, one must put their religion on any job application. Thus, Christian converts, who almost certainly have Muslim names, must choose either to risk exposure or are forced to lie on a job application regarding the truth of their faith,” ECLJ explained. “And when they are found out, they are often arrested or detained as a result.”
ECLJ provided these updates on specific Iranian Christians — in addition to Abedini — who have been imprisoned for their faith:
— Farshid Fathi, a pastor who was arrested in late 2010 and is accused of converting from Islam and practicing the Christian faith. He was sentenced to six years in prison, and much of his time has been spent in solitary confinement.
— Benham Irani, a pastor who was arrested for leading a house church in 2008. An apostasy charge against him was suspended and then reinstated in 2011, and he was sentenced to five years in prison. Like Abedini, ECLJ said, Irani has suffered severe injuries and has been denied medical treatment.
— Ali Golchin, arrested for distributing Bibles in the Persian language. After spending 87 days in solitary confinement in Evin prison, he eventually was acquitted and fled the country.
“It is unquestionable that persecution of Christians is on the rise, not only in Iran, but in other nations that have similarly adopted radical Islamic Sharia law,” ACLJ said. “With all the upheaval in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, it is critical that we all remember these brave individuals.
“As we freely practice our faith we should encourage our own leaders to truly stand up for religious liberty worldwide.”
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Erin Roach. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress ), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp ).