Originally published in World Watch Monitor
An Iranian church leader and two men who converted from Islam to Christianity have received lengthy jail sentences for offences relating to evangelism and acting against national security.
The defendants were not in Tehran’s Revolutionary Court when the sentences were read out July 4, but their lawyer was present and will appeal against the court’s decision this week.
Victor Bet-Tamraz, who led the Tehran Pentecostal Assyrian Church until its closure by Iran’s Interior Ministry in 2009, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Of Assyrian descent, the pastor was found guilty of “conducting evangelism”, “illegal house church activities” and “acting against national security”, among other charges. Bet-Tamraz had been arrested on December 26 2014 while celebrating Christmas in his home, held in solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison and released on bail in February 2015. His convictions are believed to relate to actions before and after the closure of his church.
Also in the verdicts delivered on July 4, Amin Afshar Naderi received a 15-year jail sentence and fellow-convert Hadi Asgari was handed a 10-year sentence and a two-year travel ban, according to the religious rights groups Middle East Concern.
The judge also increased their bail amounts to 200 million tomans (R808 000) each.
Naderi was convicted of “acting against national security” and “insulting the sacred” (blasphemy). Asgari was found guilty of “acting against national security” and “organising and creating ‘house churches’”.
Earlier this year the two men went on hunger strike to protest against being denied medical treatment, having reportedly suffered ill health. MEC reported that Asgari had faced “particularly intense pressure” during his interrogation.
The pair had been arrested in August 2016 while on a picnic in the Alborz mountains, north-east of Tehran, and six months later they had still not been charged. Three other Christians arrested at the picnic – including the pastor’s son, Ramil – were later released after paying $33 000 (R440 000) bail each.
Naderi had previously been arrested with Victor Bet-Tamraz at the 2014 Christmas celebration, along with another convert to Christianity. The two converts were kept in solitary confinement with Pastor Bet-Tamraz until their release in early 2015.
Meanwhile, Bet-Tamraz’s wife, Shamiran Issavi, and their son Ramil await trial. Issavi was last month charged with “participating in foreign seminars” and “acting against Iranian national security” as a church member. She was released a day later on bail of 100 million tomans (R404 000).
Ramil Bet-Tamraz has been charged with “acting against national security” and “organising and creating house churches” as well as charges relating to his father’s ministry.
Meanwhile, Mission Network News reports that four Iranian Christians who were arrested on May 13 2016 while celebrating communion, are being charged with threatening national security in Iran.
80 lashes for drinking communion wine
In addition to the charges of threatening national security, the four, “Yasser, Saheb and Mohammadreza” and “their pastor Yousef”, have been charged and sentenced with 80 lashes for drinking communion wine, reports Miles Windsor of Middle East Concern.
Windsor writes: “For Christians in Iran, it is legal for them to drink communion wine.” So why the charges? “The issue is they don’t recognise these men as Christians; they recognise them as Muslims.”
Sadly, this isn’t the only case of persecution against Muslim converts, reports MNN. “They are the ones largely facing this kind of pressure and this kind of persecution, and we’d certainly appreciate prayer.”
In fact, charges against Christian meetings, public and private, are nothing new. “It can seem as if [officials] have this paranoia that any gathering, any meeting of those who stand contrary to the political and religious nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran can be seen as a threat.
“My experience with Iranian believers is that they’re extraordinarily bold and they’re extraordinarily faithful,” Windsor says. “They persevere in the full knowledge of the situation that could become them for living as believers in Iran.”
In a recent hearing, “the local court officials had been unable to reach a verdict,” according to the Middle East Concern press release. Windsor explains, “During the hearing, the judge informed the men that within 20 days the court would issue a verdict relating to the charge of ‘acting against national security’ which has been made against them.”
MNN calls for Christians to keep the men in prayer as they await a verdict next week.