Iranian pastor who was once sentenced to death faces new charge after recent prison release

Iranian flag waving with cityscape on background in Tehran, Iran | Getty images/stock photo

Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, recently released from detention as part of Iran's national amnesty, is facing new charges of undermining state security along with another pastor, according to the United Kingdom-based charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

The charges against Nadarkhani and Pastor Matthias (Abdulreza Ali) Haghnejad were leveled after a couple within the Church of Iran denomination were allegedly pressured into accusing the pastors of attempting to undermine national security. CSW reports that they could have been under pressure from political police.

Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani preaches to a congregation of 400 before he was arrested by authorities in Oct. 2009. | American Center for Law and Justice

Nadarkhani was summoned to appear in court on Saturday for charges of undermining state security. Meanwhile, Pastor Haghnejad is facing the same charge but is detained on charges he was acquitted of in 2014 that have since been reinstated.

Pastor Nadarkhani only has a vague acquaintance with the couple, identified as Ramin Hassanpour and his wife Saeede Sajadpour, due to his recent release after years in detention, CSW contends. Pastor Haghnejad, residing in a different sub-region of Gilan, has never met them.

CSW's Founder President Mervyn Thomas described it as a "long litany of injustices" experienced by the two pastors.

"Moreover, [these charges] reportedly emerged after psychological pressure was exerted on their accusers, who only have a passing acquaintance with one of the pastors," Thomas said in a statement. "This alone should render these allegations unreliable and inadmissible."

Accusations of this nature are rarely initiated by ordinary citizens, and according to a CSW source, the Hassanpour family was allegedly coerced into incriminating the pastors under the threat of their children being taken away.

"The idea is to threaten to take the children away," the CSW source was quoted as saying, indicating that such tactics are being used by certain members of the political police to suppress minority groups.

CSW is calling for "due process" to be observed and the pastors' charges to be dropped. 

"These men are clearly being subjected to officially engineered harassment due to their church leadership roles, in contravention of a November 2021 Supreme Court ruling that 'merely preaching Christianity' should not be deemed a threat to national security," Thomas added. "CSW reiterates our call for Iran to respect, protect and fulfil the right to freedom of religion or belief for all citizens as articulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a signatory."

Nadarkhani, who was once sentenced to death for apostasy, was pardoned earlier this year as part of the government's annual amnesty marking the anniversary of the 1979 revolution. His sentence for leaving Islam, levied in 2010, was commuted after his acquittal of apostasy in September 2012. Nonetheless, he was found guilty of evangelizing and sentenced to three years in prison.

The pastor was arrested again in May 2016, as agents with the Ministry of Intelligence raided Christian homes and house churches in Rasht. Nadarkhani was charged with "crimes against national security" and labeled a Zionist. Nadarkhani, his wife, and two other Christians were subsequently found guilty in June 2017 of acting against national security, propagating house churches, and promoting Zionist Christianity.

Though the pastors' previous sentences were reduced upon review, this new charge underscores a worrying trend of suppression of religious freedom.

Despite a crackdown on house churches in Iran, the 2023 World Watch List from Christian support organization Open Doors states that there has been "phenomenal growth in its underground church movement."

However, Iranian Christians face mounting oppression, especially those who convert from Islam.

"Leaders of Christian convert groups, as well as members of other denominational backgrounds who support them, have been arrested, prosecuted and received long prison sentences for 'crimes against national security,'" the WWL report states.

Iran is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and is therefore obliged to respect, protect and fulfill the right to freedom of religion or belief for all citizens, Thomas said, adding, however, that these recent events raise serious concerns about the nation's commitment to these principles.

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