Authorities in Iran are increasingly targeting Christian converts with arrests and imprisonments, according to the New York-based Center for Human Rights In Iran.
"In less than two months, since June 2017, Judge Mashallah Ahmadzadeh of Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran has issued long prison sentences to at least 11 Christian converts and the former leader of the Assyrian Pentecostal Church in Iran," CHRI said in a report.
"Christians are recognized as an official religious minority in Iran's Constitution, but the state continues to persecute members of the faith, especially converts," said CHRI's executive director Hadi Ghaemi. "The state must respect its own laws and international obligations and allow Christians and all religious minorities full freedom of worship."
On July 6, the judge sentenced four Protestant Christian converts to 10 years in prison each "in a trial completely lacking due process," the group said, quoting Mansour Borji, the advocacy director of a London-based group, Article 18, which defends Christians in Iran.
The four converts — Yusif Farhadov, Eldar Gurbanov and Bahram Nasibov from Baku in the Republic of Azerbaijan, and Iranian national Nasser Navard Goltapeh — were arrested at a reception hosted by their Christian friends in Andisheh last June.
Prosecutors couldn't produce any evidence to show the converts had acted against national security, Borji said. Yet they were convicted of being "Zionist Christians" who "acted against national security with the intention of overthrowing the state in a soft war."
Two weeks earlier, the same judge had given Christian converts Yousef Nadarkhani, Mohammadreza Omidi, Yasser Mossayebzadeh and Saheb Fadaie 10-year prison sentences for propagating house churches and promoting "Zionist Christianity."
The lawyers of these four Christians are preparing to appeal the verdict.
A ruling is still overdue for a decision on an appeal by Omidi, Mossayebzadeh and Fadaie against a sentence of 80 lashes each for drinking wine during a communion service.
The Christians were arrested May 13 during a series of raids by security service agents on Christian homes in Rasht.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was recently reelected largely due to his promises to improve civil and political rights in Iran, Ghaemi said. "Yet we're seeing an increasing number of arrests of religious minorities, as well as activists, by the Intelligence Ministry, which is supposed to operate under him. … Rouhani must use all his authority to reign in the ministry and ensure it stops its trampling of citizens' rights."
The U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide has also criticized the government of Iran for persecuting converts.
"We are deeply disappointed by these excessive sentences, which are based on spurious charges and are clearly part of an intensified campaign of judicial harassment aimed at intimidating members of minority faiths," CSW's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said in a statement.
Thomas added: "We reiterate that the national security charges leveled in all of these cases amount to the criminalization of the Christian community for exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief, and that this is occurring despite the fact that the Iranian constitution recognizes Christianity. We urge members of the international community to extend the sanctions still in place against Iranian individuals to include members of the judiciary who are implicated in ongoing and severe harassment and persecution of religious minority communities."
Christians face severe persecution in the Shia Muslim country, including regular crackdowns and jail sentences due to their faith.
House churches are not permitted, and Christian converts are beaten and arrested for gathering to worship.