According to Middle East Concern (MEC), a human rights organization that keeps track of the persecution of Christians in the region, leaders in Tehran have handed down some harsh punishments against Christian converts for simply promoting their religion.
The most recent case was against four Christian leaders: Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, as well as Deacons Yasser Mossayebzadeh, Mohammadreza Omidi, and Saheb Fadaie. On May 13, the men were arrested in Rasht by security service agents who raided Christian homes. This is the latest in the recent series of excessively harsh prison sentences against Iranian Christians.
The trial was originally set to be determined by a Rasht court. The local court had to transfer the case to Tehran because they could not reach a verdict. After many delays, the verdict was finally issued by Tehran’s 26th branch of the Revolutionary Court on June 24, although it didn’t reach their lawyers until weeks later, on July 6. Each of the men were sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In addition, Nadarkhani and Omidi have also been sentenced to two years of exile, away from their homes of Rasht where their families are. According to MEC, the lawyer for the accused Christians plans to appeal the sentence and has 20 days from the date of the verdict to do so.
The four were charged with “acting against national security,” which is a generic charge the Iranian government often uses to punish political and religious dissent. It is typically used against Christian converts in an effort to avoid the negative international reputation they would have if they charged them of apostasy.
Ironically, Omidi, Mossayebzadeh and Fadaie are also awaiting a ruling on an appeal they filed against a sentence of 80 lashes they each received for unlawfully drinking wine during a Communion service. In Iran, Christians are allowed to consume alcohol, however, Muslims are not. As converts from Islam to Christianity, the law still considers the men to be Muslim since conversions that occur away from Islam are not recognized in Iran. This is the second time Fadaie and Omidi have been sentenced for taking Communion.
Sentences Are Getting Worse
Fortunately, the number of Christians arrested in Iran has decreased for the most part. However, according to the regional director of MEC, the leaders of the Christian church are now prime targets who are receiving much harsher sentences than usually seen. A “crime” that would typically yield a first offender a sentence of one to two years now has now a sentence of around 10 years.
“There is a lot of pressure on church leaders to leave the country,” said an MEC regional director. “It’s difficult because we have so few trained church leaders remaining in the country now.”
Christian Solidarity Worldwide Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said the following in a statement to the press:
“We are deeply disappointed by these excessive sentences, which are based on spurious charges and are clearly part of an intensified campaign of judicial harassment aimed at intimidating members of minority faiths.”
Judge Comes Under Scrutiny
According to Article 18, an advocate that defends persecuted Christians in Iran, Judge Ahmedzadeh is known for doling out excessive sentences as well as ordering that defendants be lashed. In fact, in the past three months alone, Judge Ahmadzadeh has sentenced 16 Christians to prison for at least five years. Some defendants have seen 10-year sentences under his watch.
Advocacy director for Article 18Mansour Borji , told CSW that he was concerned about the recent sentences, indicating the punishment was “particularly alarming, as many other Iranian Christians are still awaiting trial for exercising their right to worship as Christians in privacy of their homes.”
The fear is that Judge Ahmedzadeh’s intervention and especially the ordered execution of defendants, may indicate that the Secret Police have directed him to deliver these harsher sentences.
Christians Take a Stand
Several rights groups and advocates confirm that the ‘underground church’ in Iran continues to grow in numbers, despite the government’s obvious intent to issue harsher punishments to violators. There are thought to be at least 450,000 Iranians who practice Christianity in Iran but some organizations, such as Open Doors, believes the number to be closer to 1 million.
It is imperative that Christians around the world stand together and condemn the harsh conditions their brothers and sisters in faith face in Iran. Only through prayer and action can these believers find the salvation they deserve.
~ 1776 Christian