The family of a Christian convert pastor executed by the Islamic Republic of Iran is grieving after the grave of their loved one was desecrated.
A cement slab commemorating the burial site of pastor Hussein Soodmand and other political dissidents was recently removed, according to the nonprofit watchdog group Article 18.
Soodmand was killed over 29 years ago on Dec. 3, 1990. The Assemblies of God pastor who converted to Christianity in the 1960s served in ministry for over two decades. He was accused of apostasy and sentenced to death by hanging.
Article 18, which promotes religious freedom and tolerance for Christians in Iran, reports that Soodmand was buried on the edge of the Beheshte-Reza cemetery in the northeast city of Mashhad.
But the only indication that he was buried in that location was the nondescript concrete slab above his grave.
An Article 18 spokesperson told The Christian Post that the family discovered that the slab was missing when they went to visit the grave for the 29th anniversary of his death on Dec. 3.
“We don't know when it happened but we know when they found out,” the spokesperson told CP. “The family had gone to the gravesite for the anniversary and saw what had happened.”
Article 18 was told that there had been talks about the possibility of demolishing graves at the cemetery for years. The organization reports that it can be said that "official authorities" are responsible since they want to "give way to new luxury families graves that wealthy can buy.”
Article 18 can't say for sure whether the pastor's body was exhumed from the grave.
"All we know is that this place where he was buried, which used to be outside of the main cemetery by quite a distance [but] has over time come to be just on its outskirts," the Article 18 representative explained. "So it is for this reason that now, after all this time, they have sought to use the space for further development of the cemetery. [It's] so they can offer the site for other families to bury their own dead."
"Rev. Soodmand was not the only one buried on the plot," the spokesperson continued. "There were around 20 in total, all of whom were considered dissidents — most if not all the others were part of the MKO or MEK, which even today seeks to overthrow the Iranian regime and is therefore considered a pariah."
According to Article 18, the family was told by the people who maintain the cemetery that they had been ordered to expand the cemetery.
"So we know it was officially sanctioned but just not precisely by who, though the land is owned by the local mayor's office, so that's our best guess," the Article 18 spokesperson said. "When the family asked who was responsible, they were just told 'they did it' — meaning the government, but when they tried to press for clarification, they were not given a precise response."
Soodmand’s daughter, Rashin, told Article 18 in an interview that the “recent disrespect shown to our father’s grave wounded our hearts yet again.”
“Our father was killed cruelly and contrary to the law,” she said. “They buried him in a place they called la’anatabad [accursed place] without our knowledge and did not even give our family the opportunity to say goodbye to him or to see his lifeless body.”
Rashin Soodmand explained that for years, the family had to travel to the remote site to visit his unmarked grave.
“[W]e were not even allowed to construct a gravestone bearing his name,” she recalls. “And now, they want to completely remove the only thing of him left for us. We will take our appeal to any relevant national or international institution about this disrespect and cruelty.”
According to Article 18, Soodmand was tortured and held in solitary confinement after his arrest in 1990. Even though he was granted a short reprieve from prison, Soodmand refused pleas from friends and family for him to flee the country. He reportedly told loved ones that he was “willing to sacrifice my life for my sheep.”
“My escape from these dangers would weaken the flock of God and discourage them,” he was quoted as saying by the nonprofit. “I don’t want to be a bad example to them, so I am ready to go to jail again and, if necessary, even to give my life for them.”
Soodmand was executed about two weeks after he returned to prison and his family wasn’t told about his execution until after it was carried out.
His son, Ramtin, a pastor of an evangelical church in Mashhad, was arrested by authorities in 2008. He was charged with anti-government activities and released months later.
Iran has for years been listed by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” for having engaged in “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
Iran also ranks as the ninth-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List.
Open Doors USA reports that it is illegal to hold church services or produce Christian literature in the native language Farsi. The regime also cracks down heavily on converts from Islam.
Despite the immense persecution that converts from Islam face in Iran, the underground church movement in Iran has shown exponential growth in the last several years.
Open Doors estimates that there are over 800,000 Christians in the country of about 82 million people.
The Iranian government has imprisoned several underground church leaders.
Among them is Youcef Nadarkhani, who was arrested along with others in 2016 for promoting “Zionist Christianity.” Before his arrest in 2016, he was sentenced to death in 2012 but was later acquitted.
Nadarkhani recently went through a hunger strike to protest the regime for barring his children from completing their education.
Last month, an Iranian pastor and eight other Christians were reportedly sentenced to five years in prison each.
In 2017, a court in Iran sentenced pastor Victor Bet Tamraz to 10 years in prison for “acting against national security” while his wife was sentenced to five years in prison. Together, they helped run a Farsi-language church.
In August 2018, it was reported that 12 Christian converts were sentenced to one year in prison for holding worship meetings and evangelism.