Three Iranian Christian leaders have seen their convictions overturned following an appeals hearing, in what persecution watchdog groups are hailing as an encouraging victory. Pastor Matthias Haghnejad and Deacon Silas Rabbani have been granted their freedom after their six-year sentences were overturned, but pastor Benhram Irani is still serving six years for previous convictions.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide confirmed the court's decision in an email to The Christian Post on Tuesday. The group's Chief Executive, Mervyn Thomas, said in a statement:
"We are extremely pleased to learn of the release of Pastor Matthias Haghnejad, Deacon Silas Rabbani, Hossein Baraunzadeh and Rahman Bahman. While we welcome this news, we remain concerned at the continued detention of Amin Khaki and long-term prisoners like Behnam Irani and Farshi Fathi – all of whom who have been unjustly detained."
He added: "We continue to call on the Iranian government to uphold the rule of law and allow the country's religious minorities to enjoy freedom of religion or belief as guaranteed under Iran's own constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is party."
Thomas refers in his statement to the release of two other Christian Iranians, Hossein (Daniel) Baraunzadeh and Rahman (Zia) Bahman, who had been arrested during a picnic in May. Another Christian man arrested in the same incident, Amin Khaki, remains in prison.
Haghnejad, Rabbani and Irani had all appealed on Dec. 9 against their six-year sentences for "crimes against national security" and "forming a network to overthrow the government," with the first two being released from prison following the court's decision.
Irani still remains in Ghezal Hesar Prison in Karaj, however, where he has served four years out of a five-year sentence for "action against national security," and a separate one-year sentence for action against the state.
CSW had previously said that the only 'crime' the Christian leaders had committed was exercising their right to freedom of religion.
Other watchdog groups, such as the International Christian Concern, have also praised the court's decision to overturn the sentences, but warned that more needs to be done to advance religious freedom rights in Iran.
"It is encouraging to see the Iranian judicial system rule on the merits of the case, rather than simply exploiting the system as a means of persecuting religious minorities, as is regularly the case. It is a fundamental aspect of religious freedom to be able to meet together with others who share your beliefs. For too long, the Iranian regime has treated such meetings as a threat to national security," ICC Regional Manager Todd Daniels said.
"The judicial system should uphold the commitments made by the Iranian government both in its constitution and in International Agreements to provide religious freedom for its citizens and should end the prosecution and unjust imprisonment of Christians for nothing more than practicing their religious beliefs. We continue to call for the full release of Pastor Benham Irani, Saeed Abedini, and the dozens more who are imprisoned unjustly."
Jason DeMars, president of Present Truth Ministries, added: "We are very thankful for the prayers and the action the Christians have taken to speak out on their behalf and to intercede for them before the Lord."