Meet Iran’s latest Christian prisoners of conscience

Meet Iran’s latest Christian prisoners of conscience

This article, written by Article18’s News Director Steve Dew-Jones, first appeared on The Critic under the headline, ‘Christians are being jailed in Iran’.

Sara Ahmadi, 44, and Homayoun Zhaveh, 63, were unexpectedly detained in mid-August 14 months after their previous summons.

Iran has long been known as a silencer of dissenting voices, but even by its standards the jailing in mid-August of a 63-year-old man with advanced Parkinson’s disease, and his wife, came as a surprise.

Last week, a 58-year-old man and 49-year-old woman joined them in Tehran’s Evin Prison. And apart from their senior years, these four Iranians have one crucial thing in common: they profess to be Christians.

Yet the quartet also possess one crucial difference: in the regime’s eyes, only one of them can truly be considered a Christian.

Joseph Shahbazian, 58, is of Armenian descent and therefore at least recognised as a Christian by the regime.

Fifty-eight-year-old Joseph Shahbazian, you see, is of Armenian descent and as such is considered to be “ethnically Christian”.

The other three — 63-year-old Homayoun Zhaveh, his 44-year-old wife Sara, and 49-year-old Malihe Nazari — are ethnic Persians, and this, in the regime’s eyes, means that they were born Muslims, and remain so, regardless of what they may have since come to believe.

The similarities and differences between these four Iranians — and their shared predicament — show clearly that, in the Islamic Republic, neither recognised nor unrecognised Christians are free to act out their beliefs.

For while Iranians of Armenian (and Assyrian) descent are permitted a degree of freedom to worship — they have their churches, as the regime likes to point out – they are not permitted to teach in the national language of Persian, nor to welcome “Muslim-born” Iranians into the church.

In August, eight UN experts called on the Iranian authorities to “stop persecution and harassment of religious minorities and end the use of religion to curtail the exercise of fundamental rights”.

They pointed to an increase in arbitrary arrests, and highlighted concern for members of the Baha’i faith, Christian converts, Gonabadi dervishes and atheists.

The experts said: “The international community cannot remain silent while Iranian authorities use overbroad and vague national security and espionage charges to silence religious minorities or people with dissenting opinions, remove them from their homes and effectively force them into internal displacement.”

Christians in Iran have seen an uptick in arrests and sentencings in the first half of 2022 – with 58 arrested just in the first half of the year compared to a total of 72 arrests in 2021.

Meanwhile, 15 Christians were sentenced in 2021, compared to 25 so far this year.

Malihe Nazari, 49, is the latest Iranian Christian to have been incarcerated in Evin Prison, where she is now serving a six-year sentence.

Over the past decade, the Iranian regime has closed all but a handful of Persian-speaking churches, and those that remain must prove that their members were Christians before the revolution of 1979, while new members are strictly forbidden.

The move to close Persian-language services came as a response to growing interest among Iranians in other faiths, including Christianity, and a wave of conversions, with some estimating there may even be as many as one million Iranian Christian converts today.

So when the churches were closed — at least to Persian-speakers — this huge mass of converts were left with nowhere to worship.

It was in the wake of this that the “house-church” movement sprang up, as converts and their pastors continued to meet together, in their homes.

But these were quickly vilified by the regime, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declaring in October 2010 that house-churches (and the Baha’i faith) were among the “fake schools of mysticism” being “pursued” by the “enemies of Islam … with the goal of undermining religion in society”.

In the wake of this declaration, a new wave of arrests of house-church members began and has not ceased.

Which brings us back to Joseph, Malihe, Homayoun and Sara, the latest Iranian Christians – one recognised, the others unrecognised — to have been arrested, charged and now imprisoned only as a result of their involvement in a house-church.

For this “crime”, Joseph was handed a 10-year prison sentence, Sara eight, Malihe six, and Homayoun, two.

Mina Khajavi, 59, remains at home for now only because she is not deemed well enough to go to prison.

Another Iranian-Armenian pastor, 60-year-old Anooshavan Avedian, is also awaiting a summons to serve a 10-year prison sentence, while another woman convert sentenced alongside Joseph and Malihe, 59-year-old Mina Khajavi, must also serve a six-year sentence.

Mina, in fact, went to Evin Prison alongside Joseph on 30 August, but was told she could return home as she was so palpably unfit to go to prison – she arrived with the help of a walker — having only just had a cast removed from her leg after breaking it in three places in a car accident.

She may be permitted to remain at home for another six weeks, if a government-approved doctor can supply her with a medical note to clinically prove her visible frailty.

Homayoun and Sara, meanwhile, were actually summoned to serve their sentences more than a year ago, but perhaps in recognition of Homayoun’s condition, they were initially told by the prison authorities to return home.

So when, 14 months later, they received another summons, the couple assumed they were simply being called to receive back personal items confiscated from them by the intelligence agents who raided their home.

Instead, they were arrested on the spot, and are now serving their sentences in one of Iran’s most infamous prisons.

Homayoun, Sara, Joseph, Anooshavan, Mina and Malihe have done nothing more than to meet together in what Christians around the world most commonly refer to as “house groups”.

Anooshavan Avedian, 60, is another Christian of Armenian descent facing 10 years in prison for holding church services in his home.

For this, and this alone, they must serve a combined 42 years in prison.

The advocacy organisation for which I work, Article18, launched a campaign last year called #Place2Worship, asking the Iranian authorities to declare where Persian-speaking Christians may worship, free from fear of arrest and imprisonment.

In our latest submission to the UN, alongside partner organisations CSW, Open Doors, Middle East Concern, and the World Evangelical Alliance, we again asked for clarification of “how Persian speakers in Iran, whatever their ethnicity, may freely gather to worship, as envisaged by Article 18 of the [International] Covenant [on Civil and Political Rights]”, to which Iran is a signatory, without reservation, and therefore legally bound to uphold.

Article 18 of this covenant, from which we derive our name, enshrines freedom of religion, including freedom to change one’s faith and to share it with others.

The British Ambassador to Iran, Simon Shercliff, tweeted on 22 August, the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief: “Everyone should be free to choose any religion/belief, practise it freely, share their religion … and also freely change their religion/belief.”

But Joseph, Homayoun, Sara and Malihe — soon to be joined by Anooshavan and Mina — are in prison because, despite what it may claim in public, Iran demonstrably fails to provide these freedoms.