Landmark Iranian judgement: going to church does not make Christians ‘enemies of state’

Jailed Christians, clockwise from top-left: Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Mehdi Khatibi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Hossein Kadivar, Mohammad Vafadar, Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad, Behnam Akhlaghi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Kamal Naamanian (PHOTO: Article 18)

Originally published by Assist News Service

Ruling could see 9 Christians released from prison

Iran has decided that belonging to a house church does not make Christians ‘enemies of the state’, according to Open Doors UK & Ireland.

The charity reports that the country’s Supreme Court has ruled that nine Christian converts serving five-year prison sentences for going to house-churches should not have been charged with ‘acting against national security’.

The decision, handed down on November 3 but only communicated to the Christians’ lawyers on November 24, states explicitly that their involvement in house-churches and even the propagation of what is referred to as the

“Evangelical Zionist sect” should not be deemed as against national security.

Open Doors’ partner and Article18’s advocacy director, Mansour Borji, says the judgement has the potential to become a landmark ruling.

“We welcome this ruling from the highest court in the land,” he said. “The Supreme Court’s ruling should now pave the way for the release of the nine Christians following a retrial at a Revolutionary Court.

“Even more importantly, it will give the Christians – and thousands of others across Iran – hope that they may now be able to worship together in their homes without fear of imprisonment.”

The nine men, members of a house church in Iran’s northern city of Rasht, were arrested in January and February 2019.

Nine months later, in October, they each were handed a five-year prison sentence on charges of ‘acting against national security through promoting Christian Zionism’. They appealed their sentences but with no success.

While Iran’s legal system does not allow for a court precedent to be set, the judgement could influence cases against Persian-speaking Christians.

More than 20 Christians are currently jailed in Iran for their involvement in house-churches. In all cases the charges amounted to ‘actions against national security’.

The Supreme Court’s ruling states that: “Merely preaching Christianity, and promoting the ‘Evangelical Zionist sect’, both of which apparently means propagating Christianity through family gatherings [house-churches] is not a manifestation of gathering and collusion to disrupt the security of the country, whether internally or externally.”

It adds that the “formation of these societies and groups [house-churches] is not [a breach of] Articles 498 and 499 of the Islamic Penal Code [relating to membership or organisation of “anti-state groups”], or other criminal laws.”

This is significant because Articles 498 and 499 were used in the convictions of each one of Iran’s Christian prisoners of conscience.

The ruling further states: “The promotion of Christianity and the formation of a house-church is not criminalised in law.”

Open Doors and Article18 are continuing to call for clarification from the Iranian authorities of where Persian-speaking Christians can worship without fear of arrest and imprisonment.

Mansour said: “We further call for Persian-speaking Christians to be provided with a specific place of worship, as is their right under both Iran’s constitution and the international covenants to which Iran is a signatory, without reservation.”

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