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Three pastors in Iran are facing charges that could lead to the death penalty for activities in the house-church movement in an unprecedented crackdown on converts from Islam, according to human rights groups.
Iranian authorities recently filed charges against Silas Rabbani, assistant pastor in a Church of Iran group in Karaj, for “Mofsed-fel-arz” or “spreading corruption on Earth,” according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). Authorities previously charged Behnam Irani, lead pastor of the church, with the same offense. The exact date when each pastor was charged is not publicly known, but information about each pastor leaked out of Iran the first week of this month and was reported by CSW, a freedom of religion advocacy group based in London.
Prior to charges being filed against Irani and Rabbani, the Sixth Branch of the Revolutionary Tribunal on Aug. 3 charged Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad, another a leader in the Church of Iran movement in Karaj, with “Moharebeh,” or “warring against God.” A court has now changed the charge to “spreading corruption on Earth.”
The charges are “a clear escalation in Iran’s campaign against Persian Christians” and “an attempt to gain an apostasy conviction by other means,” CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said in a press statement.
While both the “warring against God” and “spreading corruption on Earth” charges can carry the death penalty, human rights activists generally consider the latter to be more serious, as legal requirements for conviction are less strict than those of “warring against God.”
According to Iranian law, the death penalty can be handed down in “warring against God” cases only when a weapon is used in the commission of a crime. There are no such constraints on the other charge, though the distinction offers minimal protection as Iran has executed numerous people under the “warring against God” statute for acts that didn’t involve weapons.
“Warring against God” has historically been a catch-all, capital charge reserved for political opponents or dissident members of ethnic minorities in Iran, including Hashem Shabaninejad, an Arab-Iranian poet and human rights activist, said Khataza Gondwe, CSW’s team leader for Africa and the Middle East. On Jan. 25, Iranian authorities hanged Shabaninejad, 32, according to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, after finding him guilty in July 2013 of both “spreading corruption on Earth” and “warring against God” for speaking out against the treatment of Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan Province.
So far this year, Iran has executed 12 people under the “warring against God” statute and two for “spreading corruption on Earth.”
What exactly Iranian authorities accuse Ali-Haghnejad of doing is unknown, but Gondwe suspects he is being punished for being a convert from Islam and for his leadership role in a fellowship in Karaj. She said the charge was a worrying sign because it shows “escalation in charges against Christians who have converted from Islam.”
“It’s almost if Christianity is being seen now as some kind of crime,” Gondwe said.
History of Harassment
Iranian officials raided Ali-Haghnejad’s home in Bandar-Anzali on July 5, arrested him and confiscated Christian materials, including Bibles and a computer. Two other Christians, Mohammad Roghangir and Suroush Saraie, both converts from Islam, were arrested at his home. Both are thought to be held in Shiraz Prison, where they are serving sentences previously ordered in court.
On July 16, both men were found guilty of “action against the national security” and “propaganda against the order of the system.” Roghangir was sentenced to six years in prison. Saraie was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. The appeal of their sentences failed.
Ali-Haghnejad has a longstanding history of arrests because of his faith, dating back to 2006. He has faced numerous charges, including actions against national security, blasphemy and, in 2011, a charge of propaganda against the state for drinking communion wine.
Irani’s record of faith-related arrests also started in 2006, when he was arrested for evangelizing and holding house-church meetings and then released on bail in January 2007. In February 2008, a court sentenced him to five years in prison but immediately suspended the sentence, essentially giving Irani, also a convert from Islam, five years of probation, so that his sentence could be brought into effect at the slightest infraction against the government, according to human rights activists.
Continuing his Christian work unabated, Irani was arrested again on April 14, 2010. Authorities charged him with spreading Christianity, attending house-church meetings and committing other crimes against “national security.” Irani was released on bail in June 2010.
In January 2011, Irani was convicted and ordered to serve a one-year sentence in prison. On May 31, 2011, when he showed up to start serving his sentence, he was informed that the suspension on the five-year sentence had also been revoked.
According to Jason Demars of Present Truth Ministries, a group that advocates for Irani, the pastor was charged with “spreading corruption on Earth” because, while in prison, he “continues to speak out on his own behalf and encourage believers in his church by phone.”
Little is publicly known about Rabbani, the assistant pastor in the Church of Iran group in Karaj charged with “spreading corruption on Earth.” Agents from VEVAK, Iran’s internal security agency, arrested him on May 5. He was then transferred to Gohardasht Prison, also known as Rajai Shahr, where he was tortured, human rights activists said.
Originally it appeared that Rabbani, a former Muslim, would be charged with apostasy.
All three men are being held in separate cells in Ghezal-Hesar Prison in Karaj, according to CSW, and have been pressured to make false confessions. Ali-Haghnejad is receiving the most pressure and is in a “dangerous situation,” according to CSW.
The only Christian known to be legally executed for apostasy in Iran in modern times was Hossein Soodmand. Lead pastor of the Assemblies of God Church in Mashhad, Soodmand was hanged Dec. 3, 1990. Although Soodmand was the last Christian to be legally executed for apostasy, numerous other pastors and converts to Christianity in Iran have been murdered since his execution.
Along with the capital charges filed against the pastors, the Iranian government conducted several raids across the country against Christians this month and in August.
On the evening of Aug. 12, Iranian authorities raided a house church and arrested two converts, Mehdi Vaziri, 28, a graphic designer and Amir Kian, 27, a musician. Human rights groups think they both are being held in Ghezal-Hesar Prison, but no other information is publically known.
Several weeks later at the beginning of this month, Iranian authorities arrested several members of the Church of Iran in Isfahan. On Sept. 1, security officials arrested Mohammad Taslimi, a worship leader for the church. The same day, authorities raided the home of Moluk Darvishi, and then the next day arrested her and her sister, Sepideh Morshedi.
Hamidreza Borhani and his wife Zainab Akbari were also arrested on Sept. 2 during a raid of their home, according to Mohabat News. Officials also seized Bibles, computers and mobile phones during the arrests. The whereabouts of the five are unknown at this time.
Also in August, the advocacy group supporting U.S.-Iranian pastor Saeed Abedini, the American Center for Law and Justice, reported that Islamic militants in prison were threatening him.
ACLJ said that other prisoners have told him that radical Islamists in the same prison planned to kill him, most likely during exercise times, when there would be an opportunity for them to harm him.
An expert on Iran who cannot be identified for security reasons said that because of this, Abedini has decided to stay in his cell.
“It would seem to be he is taking the threat very seriously,” the expert said. “Of course, he was beaten before by fellow prisoners.”
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard in July 2012 detained Saeed, during a visit to set up an orphanage he was building in Iran. After interrogation, Saeed was placed under house arrest and told to wait for a court summons to face criminal charges for his Christian faith. Two months later, in September, he was arrested at his parents’ home and taken to prison. This month marks the second year of Abedini’s imprisonment.
On Jan. 27, 2013, Abedini, 34, was sentenced to eight years in prison for allegedly threatening “national security” by planting house churches years ago. Abedini, who became a U.S. citizen in 2010, has a wife and two children in the United States. The Iranian government does not recognize his U.S. citizenship.
Fleeing the Country
Another disturbing detail to leak out of Iran concerned the leadership of various church groups fleeing Iran to live abroad. A researcher for Middle East Concern, who cannot be identified because of his work in the region, said, “There is concern about the recent emigration of Christians from Iran, some in leadership positions.”
In recent weeks, MEC has been notified of several families who have left the country because of the dangers they face inside Iran.
“It has been going on for quite a bit, but there seems to be a stronger movement in recent times,” the MEC researcher said.
According to MEC, internal pressures in Iran on banned religious groups, primarily the leaders of these groups, has something to do with the exodus. In one case, two leaders were out of the country on business, and “the authorities raided their house when they were gone, and church leaders said they should apply for asylum.”
The researcher said the exodus threatens to strip church bodies in Iran of their leaders. In some cases, members of persecuted houses churches are ready to become leaders. In others, no one is ready to take the reins or is afraid to do so.
“[In] some cases people are stepping up into their shoes,” the researcher said. “But sometimes it means some house churches are breaking up completely.”
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