European human rights court rejects Christian convert facing deportation to Iran

A photo of the judges of the European Court of Human Rights sitting in the courtroom during a hearing.
A photo of the judges of the European Court of Human Rights sitting in the courtroom during a hearing. | Reuters/Vincent Kessler

The European Court of Human Rights has rejected the case of an Iranian Christian convert who was denied protection in Germany and could face deportation, leaving him vulnerable to persecution upon his return to Iran. 

Hassan, whose name has been changed to protect his identity and is recorded as H.H. on public documents, is a 44-year-old Iranian cabinetmaker. He applied for asylum in Germany in 2018 but was denied by the German authorities. 

According to his advocates at the global legal advocacy group ADF International, the Iranian appealed to the Greifswald Administrative Court, which dismissed his case because it is "not particularly likely" that a Muslim would convert after his brother-in-law was killed and his wife abused for converting.

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The Administrative Court declared that if such events did occur, they would have a "deterrent effect" on third parties.

"No one should be persecuted for their faith. Iran is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for Christians, and converts are particularly at risk. In the last year, religious persecution has greatly worsened," ADF International Legal Officer Lidia Rieder said in a statement

"So-called 'religious deviants' can be given prison sentences, national security charges are continuously used to target religious minorities. The courts in Germany must take this into account when processing asylum applications." 

Hassan told Federal Office for Migration and Refugees that he was introduced to Christianity by his brother-in-law, who was imprisoned for participating in a house church. According to ADF, his brother-in-law was killed for practicing his faith in jail. Hassan and his family gave their lives to Christ. 

According to persecution watchdog organization Open Doors USA, the view of the Iranian government is that all ethnic Persians are by definition Muslim, and any Persian Christians are considered "apostates." Any Christian activity in the Persian language is considered illegal. 

Once their new faith was discovered, security forces reportedly stormed Hassan's family home and confiscated books, the computer, their passports and their Bible. The family fled to Turkey and later to Germany.

"In Germany I share the Gospel. I organize prayer circles here in the accommodation," Hassan stated. "I want to be a good example, to win the others to faith in Jesus Christ. My greatest goal would be for my children to be able to find Christ in freedom and to do good."

Open Doors USA, which monitors persecution in over 60 countries, reports that Iranian asylum seekers are often suspected of feigning a conversion. 

"There appears to be a tragic disregard for the application of a uniform and objective standard of examination for these kinds of dire asylum cases, in violation of international law," Rieder stated. 

"When decision-makers and judges decide on asylum applications according to their own criteria and without regard for the on-the-ground situation in the countries of origin, it results in severe personal suffering. H.H.'s case is a very worrying example of this." 

Open Doors estimates there are around 800,000 Christians in Iran, making them a minority in the Muslim-majority country.

The country is ranked No. 9 on the organization's World Watch List, an annual ranking of 50 countries where Christians face extreme persecution. 

As the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported last August, Iran's then-President Hassan Rouhani signed amendments to Articles 499 and 500 of the country's penal code. 

The amendment to Article 499 imposes prison sentences and fines on anyone who insults "divine religions or Islamic schools of thought recognized under the Constitutions with the intent to cause violence or tensions in the society." 

The amendment to Article 500 penalizes those who conduct "any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam." 

report released last month by USCIRF titled "Religious Propaganda in Iran" warned that Iran's government uses official media to spread "falsehoods and misconceptions" about religious minorities to sway public opinion against them. 

The report attributed the propaganda effort to a "systematic campaign to deny freedom of religion or belief to groups that do not conform to the government's singular interpretation of Ja'afri Shi'a Islam." 

In February, the human rights watchdog Article 18 reported that Branch 34 of the Tehran Court of Appeal issued a ruling following an order last November by the Islamic Republic's Supreme Court for the lower court to review convictions against nine Christian converts. 

The Iranian appeals court acquitted the nine converts serving five-year prison sentences on charges of "acting against national security" for their participation in house churches. The converts were also charged with "promoting Zionist Christianity." 

Judges Seyed Ali Asghar Kamali and Akbar Johari found "insufficient evidence" that the accused acted against national security, arguing that Christians are taught to live in "obedience, submission and support of the authorities." 

Article 18 Advocacy Director Mansour Borji said the court's decision was "unlike any other of its type" that he has seen. He said in a statement that "the judges have gone to considerable length to explain their verdict, listing nine different reasons based on the constitution, judicial principles, legal provisions and Islamic tradition."

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