One Iranian Christian convert imprisoned for his faith has been released early from prison and it is expected that two more converts will also be granted an early release.
According to Middle East Concern, Asghar Salehi was freed from his six-month prison sentence this week after being charged with propaganda against the Islamic Republic.
The nonprofit advocacy group that operates in 24 countries across the Middle East and North Africa previously reported that Salehi was arrested along with Mohammadreza Rezaei and four other associates in the Fars Province after their homes were raided by intelligence officers in September 2018.
Asghar was allegedly interrogated for three days in which he was kept blindfolded for most of the time. He was eventually transferred to Eghlid prison for eight days before being released on bail.
Asghar, Mohammadreza and one other convert whose name was not reported were summoned to a court hearing in Eghlid last April and charged for their Christian activities.
According to the advocacy group, the judge refused to allow Asghar to speak. Additionally, he was warned that he was being monitored and told he would have to commit to stopping his Christian activities before another court session.
Last September, the three men were reportedly sentenced to six months in prison under Article 500 of the Iranian legal code banning “propaganda against the System through promoting Zionist Christianity.”
Asghar was again arrested last December and sent to Eghlid prison. He and the other two applied for a pardon and early release. According to MEC, Asghar’s request for early release was granted after serving only two months of the six.
While he was freed on Feb. 2, MEC reports that the two other converts are scheduled to be released on Feb. 8.
A source close to Asghar told MEC that pardons are less likely in the larger cities or for Christians accused of acting against national security.
“Iranian Christians are very pleased that Asghar Salehi has been given early release from Eghlid Prison,” a MEC spokesperson told BosNewsLife. “It is expected, fellow prisoners Mohammadreza Rezaei and A.T. will also be released soon.”
Iran ranks as the 9th worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s 2020 World Watch List. The regime has for years arrested, tortured and imprisoned Muslim converts to Christianity and has severely restricted the rights of recognized Christian minorities like Assyrians and Armenians.
This week, the daughter of an Assyrian pastor currently imprisoned in Iran on a 10-year sentence for running house churches spoke at a Family Research Council panel discussion in Washington, D.C., on religious freedom.
Dabrina Bet Tamraz described what it was like for her growing up as an Assyrian in Iran.
“We have been monitored, our house has been broken in. My father was regularly arrested and interrogated,” she said. “Sometimes it was just before the Sunday service began. We always had to be prepared to preach in case my dad got arrested. That became normal but it was part of our life growing up.”
In 2009, her family’s Pentecostal church in Tehran was shut down by the government for refusing to agree to only allow Assyrian-speaking members.
Today, Tamraz’s father, mother and brother are all in prison. She is traveling the world to advocate for their release.
“Today, there is not a free church. There is no free evangelical church, nor free Pentecostal,” she said. “The only churches that are allowed to function are orthodox or Catholic churches with restrictions. They are not allowed to have books in Farsi. They are not even allowed to, nowadays, print books in our own language. Any Christian literature or Bible even in our own language is not permitted. They are not even allowed to speak to a Farsi person near the church.”
Muslim background believers risk arrest just by simply attending church in Iran.
“Any time if the government find out, they can raid the gathering, arrest people, torture them and confiscate their property,” Marziyeh Amirizadeh, a former Muslim who helped lead two house churches in Iran before fleeing in 2010, said during the FRC panel discussion.
“That is why they have to be very cautious about their communications. They can’t worship God loudly. We have to stay very quiet because you never know who is your neighbor and it can happen at any time.”
The Christian persecution watchdog group Article 18 reports that there were at least 25 Christians arrested in Iran in 2019 while at least 13 Christians received sentences that ranged from four months to five years.
According to Article 18's annual report, in 2019, intelligence agents harassed family members of Iranian converts who fled the country even though they themselves may not be Christian.