Iranian Christian convert loses appeal of prison sentences 18 months after arrest

An Iranian flag flies in an Abyaneh mountain village.
An Iranian flag flies in an Abyaneh mountain village. | Wikimedia Commons/Nick Taylor

An Iranian Christian convert convicted of being a member of a “zionist” evangelical group has lost his appeal against two prison sentences he received earlier this year, according to a London-based Iranian human rights watchdog organization. 

Article 18 reports that Ismaeil Maghrebinejad, a 65-year-old member of the Anglican Church, was informed last week that two of the three prison sentences he received earlier this year have been upheld while one has been overturned. 

According to the watchdog group, Maghrebinejad was told last Sunday that the charge of insulting the sacred beliefs of Muslims had been overturned on appeal. 

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But last Wednesday, Maghrebinejad’s two sentences for “propaganda against the state” and “membership of a group hostile to the regime” were upheld. 

Although the three sentences amounted to six years in prison, the nonprofit notes that Maghrebinejad will likely only serve a two-year sentence for “membership of a hostile group."

Article18’s Mansour Borji said in a statement that it's striking that the Iranian government accused an Anglican pastor of membership in a group hostile to the state. 

As the Islamic Republic ranks as one of the worst country’s in the world for Christian persecution, Borji said that “such blanket labeling is inaccurately applied to any Christian arrested for their religious activities, as the revolutionary courts try to justify their violations of religious freedom.”

Maghrebinejad was arrested at his home in January 2019. He was sentenced in January 2020 by a civil court in Shiraz to three years in prison under Article 513 of the Islamic penal code for insulting religious beliefs. 

In February, he was sentenced to an additional two years in prison for “membership of a group hostile to the regime” under Article 499 of the penal code. 

According to Article 18, a court document identified the “hostile” group in question as being one that holds “evangelical zionist” Christian views. 

In May, Judge Seyed Mahmood Sadati called for a retrial because he wanted to make some “corrections” due to his unhappiness with the initial verdict. The nonprofit reports that the judge gave Maghrebinejad an even harsher sentence. 

According to an earlier Article 18 update, the harsher sentence came because Maghrebinejad acknowledged that a Bible verse from the book of Philippians was sent to his cell phone by a satellite TV channel. 

Farshid Rofoogaran, Maghrebinejad’s lawyer, argued in court that receiving text messages without forwarding them does not “constitute the membership of that organization.”

Maghrebinejad’s daughter, Mahsa, who now lives in the United States, said in an earlier interview with Article 18 that her father is just a Christian who lives out his faith. She added that the family expected her father to be acquitted and that his continued imprisonment presents other concerns because her father is the sole caretaker for her unwell brother.  

“I have never seen him do anything against the regime,” Mahsa Maghrebinejad said. “He always respected people of other faiths, always respected the law.” 

The daughter stressed that her father has never been a member of any group that is against the regime. 

“What kind of policy or law is that condemns someone like my father to prison for doing nothing more than being a Christian?” she asked. 

Earlier this month, it was reported that at least a dozen Iranian Christians were arrested across three cities. 

In Iran, it is illegal for a Muslim to convert to Christianity. Open Doors USA, a leading Christain persecution watchdog group that works in over 60 countries, labels Iran as the ninth-worst country in the world for Christian persecution. 

Iran is also recognized by the U.S. government as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in egregious and systemic violations of religious liberty. 

Christian converts regularly face the risk of being arrested just for attending house churches. 

Open Doors USA reported in its 2020 annual report that 169 Christians were arrested in Iran during the organization’s 2019 reporting period — Nov. 1, 2018, to Oct. 31, 2019.

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