While Christians around the world were celebrating Resurrection Sunday, 12 Iranian believers were defending themselves before a judge in the city of Rasht after being arrested for practicing their faith.
Jason DeMars, founder of Minnesota-based Present Truth Ministries, told The Christian Post on Thursday that the 12 believers are being charged with "crimes against the order" for activities like drinking alcohol while taking communion and holding illegal meetings. One part of PTM's mission is to support the persecuted church in the Middle East, and DeMars has stayed up to date on their situation by speaking with members of the Christian community in Iran.
Although they are not being charged with apostasy – a crime punishable by death in Iran – DeMars says the judge did call them "apostates" during the trial, and suggested in a recent blog post that it may have been a scare tactic used by the court.
A FoxNews.com report explains that those who are born into Christianity and other minority religions are supposed to be protected under the Iranian constitution, but anyone who turns from Islam is considered an apostate and can be punished with the death penalty.
According to the U.S. Department of State's Religious Freedom report, Christians are among only three recognized religious minorities that are guaranteed freedom to practice their religious beliefs but they have reported government imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on their beliefs.
Among those who faced the judge on Easter Sunday were the Rev. Matthias Haghnejad and his wife, Anahita Khadeimi, Mahmoud Khosh-Hal and his wife, Hava Saadetmend, Amir Goldoust, Mina Goldoust, Fatemah Modir-Nouri, Zhaina Bahremand, Milad Radef, Mehrdad Habibzade, Amin Pishkar and Behzad Taalipasand. In their own defense the group claimed that they had simply participated in religious ceremonies which are protected by law.
These Christians were forced to plead their own cases before the court after their attorney, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, was prevented from flying from Tehran due to fog. Dadkhah also represents Youcef Nadarkhani, the Iranian pastor who has been imprisoned for over two years and sparked an international outcry after he was sentenced to death for leaving Islam for Christianity.
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The 12 believers who are awaiting the court's judgment have been in this situation before. About a year ago they were faced with the same charges in a different court in Bandar Anzali, and were acquitted with the help of Dadkhah. DeMars says it is unclear how his absence from the trial will affect the court's decision this time around.
"It seems that these security services are just trying to find a court that's agreeable with what they're trying to accomplish, and that's to stop ... Christianity in that country," said DeMars. It is still unknown exactly when the court's decision will be handed down.
There are an estimated 100,000 Christians in Iran today, although the actual number may be much higher because of the number of underground churches that are difficult to track.
Open Doors USA ranks the country as fifth on its World Watch List, which ranks nations based on the severity of Christian persecution. According to the organization's website, in 2011 over 200 Christians were arrested in Iran.