Iran's revolutionary court is believed to have sentenced 18 Christian converts to prison for their faith in a new crackdown on Christianity in the Islamic Republic, a report said.
Fox News noted that the charges include evangelism, propaganda against the regime, and creating house churches to practice their faith. It added that the total sentences come close to 24 years, but it's not known how many years each individual received, due to the lack of transparency in Iran's judicial system.
"The cruelty of Iran's dictatorial leaders knows no limits," said Saba Farzan, the German-Iranian executive director of Foreign Policy Circle, a strategy think tank in Berlin.
A number of the imprisoned Christians were arrested in 2013, and sentenced in accordance with Article 500 of the Islamic Penal Code, which penalizes threats to Iran's clerical leaders.
Morad Mokhtari, an Iranian convert to Christianity who fled the Islamic Republic in 2006, added: "Iranian religious authorities prefer that they [converts to Christianity] leave Iran because the authorities can't control them," Mokhatari said. "Just their name is evangelism. Imagine someone says he's a Christian and has a Muslim name."
Christians in Iran make up a tiny minority of the 78 million-strong population, and often face persecution from the government. Watchdog group Open Doors lists the country at No. 7 on its World Watch List of nations where Christians are most heavily targeted for their faith.
Open Doors points out on its website that almost all Christian activity in Iran is considered illegal, "especially when it occurs in Persian languages — from evangelism to Bible training, to publishing Scripture and Christian books or preaching in Farsi."
It added: "In 2014, at least 75 Christians were arrested. More Christians were sentenced to prison and pressure on those detained increased, including physical and mental abuse."
Iran's human rights record has faced great scrutiny, especially in light of a historic nuclear deal it reached earlier this year with the U.S. and other Western nations, which promises to lift international sanctions on Iran in exchange for restricting its nuclear program.
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The American Center for Law and Justice and other groups have said that the deal should not be finalized until Iran shows clear signs it is willing to improve its treatment of Christians — and release the American Christians it currently holds in its prisons, including pastor Saeed Abedini.
U.S. Senator Mark Kirt, R-Ill., has added in a statement: "The Iranian regime's systematic persecution of Christians, as well as Baha'is, Sunni Muslims, dissenting Shiite Muslims, and other religious minorities, is getting worse not better," Kirt said.
"This is a direct consequence of President Obama's decision to de-link demands for improvements in religious freedom and human rights in Iran from the nuclear negotiations."