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Iranian pastor, 8 other Christians sentenced to 5 years in prison

Iranian pastor, 8 other Christians sentenced to 5 years in prison

An Iranian flag flutters in front of the United Nations headquarters in Vienna, Austria, June 17, 2014. | (Photo: Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader)

Nine Christians were reportedly sentenced to a combined total of 45 years in prison by Iran’s Revolutionary Court as the Islamic Republic continues its persecution of Christian converts from Islam. 

The Iran Human Rights Monitor raised an alarm last week about the sentencing of nine Christian converts who were arrested in January and February 2019. In Iran, it is illegal for a Muslim to convert to Christianity.

The monitor, which provides information in collaboration with the National Council of Resistance of Iran, reports that the nine were sentenced to five years imprisonment each by the head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court, Mohammad Moghiseh.

The convicted Christians include Pastor Matthias Haghnejad, Shahrooz Islamdust, Behnam Akhlaqi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian, and Mohammad Vafadar.

Haghnejad was arrested in his church in Rasht after service on Feb. 10. Authorities confiscated Bibles and churchgoers' cell phones. According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Haghnejad has been arrested on several occasions since 2006. 

The Christian persecution advocacy group Open Doors USA reports that sentencing for the nine was announced in October.  Open Doors, which monitors persecution in dozens of countries, further reported that the converts were accused of “acting against national security” and “promoting Zionism.” 

The nine have appealed their convictions. 

Open Doors notes that seven of the accused were released on bail (equivalent to $12,500) in March. However, Pastor Matthias and Shahrooz remained detained. 

According to Iran Human Rights Monitor, bail was increased tenfold for those who demanded a lawyer. The judge would not allow the lawyer to represent five defendants and the defendants refused to be represented by a court-appointed lawyer, according to Open Doors. 

The five converts who demanded a lawyer were reportedly transferred to Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. 

A hearing for the other four defendants was held four days later. Sources relayed to Open Doors that a lawyer was allowed to attend. 

“Acting against national security” is a charge that Iran’s theocratic government often uses to persecute Christian converts. Iran ranks as the ninth worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List. 

Iran has for years been labeled by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom violations.

The convictions of the nine Christain converts follows a long line of other converts who have been arrested and convicted on similar charges. Christians in Iran face the threat of arrest for doing something as simple as attending a house church service or possessing a Bible.

In 2017, an Iranian court sentenced Pastor Victor Bet Tamraz, who led a Farsi-language church in Iran, to 10 years in prison for "acting against national security." His wife was sentenced to five years in prison on similar charges. 

Last August, the Iranian Christian news agency Mohabat News reported on the sentencing of 12 Christian converts to one year in prison for holding worship meetings and evangelizing. 

In August 2019, 65-year-old Mahrokh Kanbari was sentenced to one year in prison by the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Karaj. Kanbari was arrested in her home on Christmas Eve 2018 and charged with “acting against national security.”

In September 2019, Iran imprisoned a bookshop owner named Mustafa Rahimi in the Kurdish town of Bukan for selling a Bible. 

More recently, Iranian security forces have been accused by Amnesty International of killing hundreds of unarmed protesters who demonstrated in the streets beginning in November to voice their displeasure with rising gas prices.

Meanwhile, a State Department representative said in December that the death toll could be over 1,000 with some of the victims being children or teens. 

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback told reporters earlier this month that a State Department meeting was held to discuss the persecution taking place in Iran. 

On Dec. 19, the U.S. Treasury Department issued sanctions against two top Iranian judges — Moghiseh and Abolghassem Salavati — for depriving religious minorities of their human rights.

"Abolghassem Salavati and Mohammad Moghisseh oversaw the Iranian regime's miscarriage of justice in show trials in which journalists, attorneys, political activists, and members of Iran's ethnic and religious minority groups were penalized for exercising their freedom of expression and assembly and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, lashes, and even execution," a statement from the Treasury Department reads. 

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