ISTANBUL, Turkey, (BP) — In what was deemed an effort to silence house-church leader Behnam Irani, Iran has sentenced him and two other Christian leaders to six years in prison for their involvement in house churches, human rights groups have learned.
Irani, Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad and Reza Rabbani, all leaders in the Church of Iran, were sentenced Oct. 19 for “action against national security” and “creating a network to overthrow the system” — what human rights defenders say are catch-all terms the Islamist government uses to suppress Christians and political opponents it perceives as threat.
The sentence was “a serious blow” for the family of Irani, lead pastor of the group, a pastor in direct contact with members of Irani’s family said. When the verdict was handed down, Irani was already serving a prior five-year sentence for his involvement with house churches.
Irani’s wife Kristina is resolute in her faith and in her devotion to her husband but needs prayer, the pastor, who cannot be identified for security reasons, said. Irani won’t be eligible for release until 2023, according to Middle East Concern (MEC).
As part of their sentences, the three Christians will be transferred from their current locations to other prisons in remote areas around the country, according to human rights groups. Ali-Haghnejad and Rabbani were to be transferred within days to Minab Prison on a remote island in the Persian Gulf. Irani was to be transferred to Zabol Prison on the Afghanistan border.
There was some confusion however, as to when Irani would be transferred. Some human rights groups said the transfer would take place within days, but others said he would be transferred sometime in 2017, when his prior sentence is complete.
Charges were leveled against Irani in part because he contacted family members and others by mobile phones that had been snuck into prison, Rob Duncan, a researcher at MEC who specializes in Iran, said. The sentence amounts to a form of exile to put him “out of the way” from any support networks or family, Duncan said.
“He was certainly contacting people, and they basically want to remove him as far away as possible from opportunities for visits,” Duncan said.
Jason Demars, president of Present Truth Ministries, an evangelical group that works in Iran, agreed with Duncan’s assessment.
“Basically they want to silence them — they want to move them away to a place that is tough to get to, for their family to get to,” he said. “With no one on hand to know what is going on, it’s easier to mistreat them.”
Once he is transferred, Irani’s wife will have to take a two-day bus ride to see him.
Demars said there are other concerns about the prison selected for Irani.
“This prison that Behnam is going to be transferred to is on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, so it’s a place that is filled with drug dealers and drug smugglers who are bringing opium into the country over the border of Afghanistan,” he said. “It’s an extremely dangerous place.”
The three converts from Islam had originally been charged with “Mofsed-fel-arz” or “spreading corruption on earth,” which carries the death penalty. But those charges were reduced on Oct. 2, according to MEC. Demars said the capital charges were filed and then reduced as part of a ploy by the Iranian government to avoid international scrutiny for the six-year sentences that followed.
“The Iranians are chess players,” Demars said. “They always pride themselves that they play chess, so I believe they were bringing these higher-level crimes in order to make it more digestible that they gave a six-year sentence, and also to test the waters on how the international community would respond to these types of charges.”
All three Christians have experienced longstanding conflict with the Iranian government because of their faith.
Irani, lead pastor of the church in Karaj, was first arrested in 2006 for evangelizing and holding house-church meetings. He was released on bail in January 2007. In February 2008 a court sentenced him to five years in prison but immediately suspended the sentence, essentially giving him five years of probation.
Irani continued his work and was arrested again on April 14, 2010. Authorities charged him with spreading Christianity, attending house-church meetings and committing other crimes against “national security.” He was released on bail in June 2010.
In January 2011, Irani was convicted and ordered to serve a one-year sentence in prison. But on May 31, 2011, when he showed up to start serving his sentence, he was informed that the suspension on the five-year sentence had been revoked.
Iranian officials raided Ali-Haghnejad’s home in Bandar-Anzali on July 5 and arrested him and two other Christians. Authorities also confiscated Christian materials, including Bibles and a computer. Ali-Haghnejad is a leader in the Church of Iran movement in Karaj. The two others arrested at his home are now serving sentences previously ordered in court.
Like Irani, Ali-Haghnejad has a longstanding history of arrests because of his faith dating back to 2006. He has faced numerous charges, including actions against national security, blasphemy and, in 2011, a charge of propaganda against the state for drinking communion wine.
Little is known about Rabbani, an assistant pastor in the Church of Iran group in Karaj. Agents from VEVAK, Iran’s internal security agency, arrested him on May 5. He was then transferred to Gohardasht prison, also known as Rajai Shahr, where he was tortured, human rights activists said.
Activists also reported that three converts, Shahram Ghaedi, Heshmat Shafiei and Emad Haghi, were all arrested on Sept. 27 during a raid on Ghaedi’s home in Isfahan. Ghaedi, an actor, is well known for his depiction of Jesus in the Iranian version of the Jesus Film. According to MEC, all three men have been taken to Dastgerd prison.
Iranian officials recently released three Christians arrested during two days of raids in Ifshan that started on Sept. 1. Moluk Darvishi, Hamidreza Borhani and his wife Zainab Akbari were released in late September, but Mohammad Taslimi, a worship leader, and Parsa Dadkhah remain detained in Dastgerd prison, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The location of Sepideh Morshedi, Moluk Darvishi’s sister, who was also arrested in the raids, remains unknown.
Recently released on bail were two converts, Mehdi Vaziri, 28, a graphic designer, and Amir Kian, 27, a musician. On Aug. 12, security officers arrested the two at a house church in Tehran. They were being held in Ghezal-Hesar prison, in Karaj, according to MEC. The terms of their release are unknown.