Case Studies

Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Mehdi Khatibi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Hossein Kadivar, Mohammad Vafadar, Matthias Ali-Haghnejad, Behnam Akhlaghi, Khalil Dehghanpour and Kamal Naamanian

Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Mehdi Khatibi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Hossein Kadivar, Mohammad Vafadar, Matthias Ali-Haghnejad, Behnam Akhlaghi, Khalil Dehghanpour and Kamal Naamanian

(Last updated: May 2022)
Clockwise from top-left: Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Mehdi Khatibi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Hossein Kadivar, Mohammad Vafadar, Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad, Behnam Akhlaghi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Kamal Naamanian

Case referenced by

Article 18, Middle East Concern, World Watch Monitor, CSW, Open Doors


Abdolreza (Matthias) Ali-Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Behnam Akhlaghi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian and Mohammad Vafadar – all members of the non-Trinitarian “Church of Iran” in the northern city of Rasht – were arrested during raids on their homes and house-churches within the space of a month in January and February 2019. They were sentenced in October 2019 to five years in prison for “actions against national security”. Their appeals were rejected in February 2020. However, in November 2021 the Supreme Court ruled that their convictions should be reviewed, as “merely preaching Christianity” should not have been viewed as an “action against national security”. All nine men were subsequently freed, pending the outcome of this review, and on 28 February 2022 all were acquitted. However, by this time Matthias was already back in prison serving a separate sentence related to his faith, while Behnam and Babak have also been handed new charges of “propaganda against the state”.

Case in full

Hossein Kadivar and Khalil Dehghanpour were detained following a raid on the “house-church” meeting they were leading on 29 January 2019; Abdolreza (Matthias) Ali-Haghnejad was arrested on 10 February 2019 during a raid on his home; Kamal Naamanian, Mohammad Vafadar and Shahrooz Eslamdoust were arrested at a “house-church” gathering on 15 February; Babak Hosseinzadeh and Mehdi Khatibi were arrested at two separate “house churches” on 23 February; and Behnam Akhlaghi was summoned to the offices of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (Sepah) that same day.

The nine men were each helping to lead services in the absence of their imprisoned pastor Yousef Nadarkhani

Two of them – Matthias and Kamal – had been arrested before for their religious activities.

Seven of the men – all except Matthias and Shahrooz – were released on bail in March 2019, after depositing the equivalent of $13,000 each. Matthias and Shahrooz were detained.

In July 2019, Matthias, Shahrooz, Behnam, Babak and Mehdi had their bail increased tenfold after insisting upon being defended by their own lawyer. 

Judge Mohammad Moghiseh, who has earned the nickname the “Judge of Death” for his harsh treatment of prisoners of conscience, rejected their choice of lawyer and demanded they were defended by a lawyer of the court’s choosing.

When they refused, the judge increased their bail amount to the equivalent of $130,000 each, and, being unable and unprepared to pay such an amount, they were transferred to Ward 4 of Tehran’s Evin Prison, where they have remained.

The other four decided to defend themselves and were therefore released on their pre-existing bail (the equivalent of $13,000 each) until their next hearing, when the judge accused them of promoting Zionism and said the Bible had been falsified.

On 13 October, all nine men were sentenced to five years in prison for “acting against national security”, after a hearing on 23 September. 

Their appeals were rejected following a hearing on 25 February 2020.

Matthias, Shahrooz, Behnam, Babak and Mehdi have been in Evin Prison since July 2019, when they were unable to pay the high bail demanded from them after they insisted on being defended by their own lawyer.

The other four men, Hossein, Khalil, Kamal and Mohammad, began serving their sentences on 1 June 2020. They had been awaiting summonses since their appeals were rejected in February.

They had gone to the Revolutionary Court in Rasht a day ahead of their summons deadline of 2 June to ask for a few more days with their families before beginning their sentences. Instead, they were placed in handcuffs and held for five days, before being transferred directly to Evin Prison on Saturday, 6 June, to begin their five-year terms.

In October 2021, two of the men, Behnam and Babak, joined another prisoner, Saheb Fadaie, in publicly demanding an answer to the question of where they should worship following their release, given that Persian-speaking Christians aren’t allowed in to the churches of the recognised Assyrian and Armenian Christian minorities, while house-churches are outlawed. This question formed the basis of the #Place2Worship campaign.

Just days later, on 3 November 2021, the Supreme Court ordered a review of their case, saying “merely preaching Christianity” and even “promoting the ‘Evangelical Zionist sect’” in house-churches did not amount to an “action against national security”.

The men were all released between 30 December 2021 and 1 January 2022, pending the outcome of the review. However, just two weeks later one of the men, Matthias, was sent back to prison to serve a historic six-year sentence for “propagating Christianity”, after a separate branch of the Supreme Court ruled he should never have been acquitted.

On 26 January 2022, the eight men still temporarily released from prison received SMS messages, telling them their case would be reviewed on 22 February 2022 at Branch 34 of Tehran’s appeal court.

But on 14 February 2022, two of the eight, Behnam and Babak, were handed new charges of “propaganda against the state”, after being summoned to see a Tehran prosecutor on 12 February 2022. They were then released on bail, after depositing pay slips.

On 28 February 2022, all nine men were acquitted of the five-year sentences. The appeal court judges, Seyed Ali Asghar Kamali and Akbar Johari, said there was “insufficient evidence” the men had acted against national security, referencing their lawyers’ explanation that they had only “worshipped in the house-church in accordance with the teachings of Christianity” and that Christians are taught to live in “obedience, submission and support of the authorities”.

However, Matthias remains in prison, while Babak and Behnam must now contest the new charges against them.

On 8 May 2022, Behnam and Babak were re-arrested, alongside two other Church of Iran members, Ayoob Poor-Rezazadeh and Ahmad Sarparast. Behnam and Babak were released the following day, but Ahmad and Ayoob remain in IRGC detention, alongside Morteza Mashoodkari, who was arrested two days later.


Article18 has been authorised by Matthias, Behnam and Babak to conduct advocacy on their behalf. The charges against them are entirely unfounded and void of any legal basis. They are instead a reflection of the Islamic Republic’s security-oriented approach towards religious minorities. None of them have committed any crime, nor are they seeking to act in any way against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The violations against their religious freedom and human rights is solely a result of exercising their faith. 


Article18 petitions the international community to: 

  • Call for Matthias’ immediate release from his six-year sentence, of which he has already been once acquitted, and which is based on very similar charges to the now-debunked five-year sentence.
  • Call for the new charges against Behnam and Babak to be dropped.
  • Urge the Iranian government to uphold its obligations under its own constitution and international law, including provisions for freedom of religion or belief contained within the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a state party, without reservation.
  • Call for the swift application of due process in the cases of all who are detained and/or awaiting charges, trials, sentences or appeal hearings on account of their Christian faith and activities. 
  • Support Professor Javaid Rehman, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, in monitoring Iran’s compliance with international human rights standards, including freedom of religion or belief. 



There has been a significant increase in human rights violations in Iran in recent years, and particularly in the persecution of religious minorities, principally of Christians from the Iranian house-church movement. 

Ethnic Christian communities (Assyrian and Armenian) are permitted a degree of freedom to worship, although it is illegal for these churches to conduct services in Persian (the national language of Iran and the common language of converts). 

Bibles and other Christian literature are also illegal in Persian and those found in possession of such materials, especially in sufficient quantities for distribution, can expect severe treatment and prison sentences. 

Therefore, the growing community of Christian converts are not permitted to attend recognised churches and they have to gather for worship in secret house-churches and risk arrest and imprisonment. 

In the past few years, a number of Christians have been handed down sentences of between 10 and 15 years, charged with offences such as “acting against national security”. These political charges are used to help avoid international outcry at religiously motivated charges such as apostasy.

Those detained or charged often have to obtain and hand over exorbitant amounts for bail, which are often forfeited as some choose to flee the country in the knowledge that they are very unlikely to receive a fair trial and just verdict. 

Those awaiting trial who flee the country are tried in absentia. Many will face a gruelling legal process, and until their case is heard, which could take several years, their lives are in limbo. 

The majority of the Christians arrested in the last few years have been released, either after finishing their prison sentences or temporarily released on bail with severe warnings and threats against any further Christian activity. Once released, they are closely monitored, and risk re-arrest and imprisonment if they engage, or are suspected of engaging, in any Christian activity. 

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