Three pastors have been called Monday to report to prison in Shiraz, a city in southwestern Iran, within the next 30 days in what is estimated to be an act of religious persecution, according to Present Truth Ministries, a Minnesota-based Christian advocacy group that monitors church communities abroad.
Parviz Khalaj, Mohammed "William" Belyad and Behrouz Sadegh Khandjani are three pastors of a non-denominational house church, the Network for Church of Iran. They were charged with "crimes against national security" and sentenced in Spring 2011, Jason DeMars, founder of Present Truth Ministries, who spoke with members of the Iranian church, told The Christian Post Wednesday. Khalaj has two convictions and is to serve two years, DeMars reports. Belyad was previously convicted and sentenced to 5 years in prison. He will serve a total of 6 years. Khandjani is expected to serve one year in prison.
All three pastors have families, the advocacy group reports. Khalaj has a 10-year-old son, Belyad has a one-month-old son and Khandjani has a 7-year-old daughter.
The pastors were essentially being sentenced for having meetings at home, making the government able to accuse them of conspiring, DeMars suggested. The wife of one of the pastors was sentenced with them but she was eight-months pregnant at the time and she fled the country several months ago, he added.
"Please pray that God makes a way of escape for them so that they can continue in the ministry," Present Truth Ministries appealed on its website.
The Christian Post did not manage to independently confirm the information.
"Based upon past experience, Christmas is a time of increased persecution in Iran. I ask that as you prepare for the Christmas season you remember our Iranian brothers and sisters in prayer," DeMars said.
As CP reported recently, a year ago, a major raid on Iran's house churches took place on Dec. 26. The Christian community in Iran is now also reportedly experiencing anxiety after Heydar Moslehi, Minister of Intelligence, declared recently that house churches are a threat to Iran's youth.
The story evokes a bitter memory of pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian Christian convert who remains in prison in Iran after he was sentenced to death in 2010 for alleged apostasy. The pastor remains imprisoned and reports coming from Iran say his health has been deteriorating.
President Barack Obama, the U.S. Departament of State and the European Union.
David Yeghnazar, of Elam Ministries, an organization based in the United States and United Kingdom that helps Iranian Christians who fled the country due to persecution, told CP Wednesday that Christians who want to practice their faith in Iran are victims of a paradoxical arrangement. The authorities are forbidding them to build churches, but when they meet at homes, they are being charged with conspiring, just like the three pastors.
According to U.S.-based organization Iranian Christians International, Inc. (ICI), the persecution of the Christian community started in Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, after foreign missionaries were chased out of the country.
"The increasing growth of Christianity in Iran is of course viewed as a threat to the Iranian regime which uses Islam to control its people. In order to maintain control, the regime continues to try to weed Christianity out of the country," Aidan Clay, ICC's regional manager for the Middle East told The Christian Post Tuesday.
Clay also told CP that the persecution experienced from the authorities is actually helping the Christian community in the country become stronger and more tightly-knit.
"Rather than fighting persecution, Iranian church leaders have accepted it and are using it to their advantage. In fact, an Iranian pastor recently told me that the church is thriving under persecution. And, it is the youth who are among those that God is using to spread this incredible movement that is leading thousands of people to Christ in Iran," Clay told CP Tuesday.
"There is still a chance that they would not be required to serve their sentences," he said.