5 Iranian Christians to Face Trial for Blasphemy

Five Christians charged with blasphemy are to stand trial in a lower court in Iran.

Pastor Behrouz Sadegh-Khandjani, Mehdi Furutan, Mohammad Beliad, Parviz Khalaj and Nazly Beliad are due to appear before the court in two weeks, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

They were first arrested in June last year on charges of apostasy, holding political meetings, and committing blasphemy and crimes against the Islamic Order.

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The Revolutionary Court in Shiraz found the five men guilty of crimes against the Islamic Order and sentenced them to one year's imprisonment.

They served eight months of their sentence before being released in February on bail.

Their lawyer has appealed the one-year prison sentence and a decision is pending.

It had been presumed that the other charges against the men had been dropped but a source close to them confirmed that they are to stand trial for blasphemy.

CSW's national director, Stuart Windsor, said he was "dismayed" by the charges levelled against the group.

"The international community must press Iran not only to rescind the unjust punishments to which these Christians have already been subjected, but also acquit them at the upcoming trial," he said.

CSW said the situation for Christians in Iran was worsening, with churches finding it difficult to hold meetings and many considering leaving the country.

Amid the crackdown on Christians, the UN human rights council voted on Thursday to appoint a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran.
The council noted "the lack of cooperation on the part of the Islamic Republic of Iran" over ongoing and recurring human rights violations as well as an increase in executions this year.

Meanwhile, U.K.-based human rights group CSW is also drawing attention to Yousef Nadarkhani, the leader of a church network in Rasht, who was arrested in 2009 after he objected to the practice of forcing Christian school students – including his own children – to read the Quran. He argued that the Iranian constitution gives parents the right to raise children in their own faith.

He was sentenced to death for apostasy. As there are no articles in the Iranian legal code criminalizing apostasy, the judge based his ruling on texts by Iranian religious scholars.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has urged the Obama administration to demand that Iran release the Christian pastor.

USCIRF Chair Leonard Leo said Nadarkhani's case was "evidence that there is no transparency or justice in Iran's so-called legal system for religious minorities."

Nadarkhani remains in prison and his fate is uncertain as he awaits the outcome of an appeal filed at the Supreme Court last December. A hearing is due to take place in the next two months.

Windsor of CSW called on Iran to guarantee religious freedom for all its citizens.

"We are concerned that the judgement handed down in Pastor Nadarkhani's case did not follow due procedure under Iranian law," he said. "As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran has an obligation to uphold international standards of religious freedom for all its citizens, to follow due process and refrain from arbitrary judicial rulings based on open-ended legislation."

The covenant was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1966. The provisions include the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Christians are recognized as a "protected" religious minority in Iran but the government severely restricts freedom of religion as the fourth article of the constitution states that all laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria. According to U.N. figures, out of the 67 million people living in the country, only 300,000 are Christian.

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