Convert forced to receive religious ‘instruction’ from Islamic cleric

Convert forced to receive religious ‘instruction’ from Islamic cleric

(Middle East Concern)

A 61-year-old woman who converted to Christianity has been forced to visit an Islamic cleric to receive religious “instruction” and be offered the chance to revert to Islam.

Rokhsareh (Mahrokh) Ghanbari has also been charged with “propaganda against the system”. 

This follows her appearance before a prosecutor two weeks ago.

Mahrokh was one of five female converts arrested just before Christmas during a raid on her home in Karaj. The names of the other four women have not yet been made public.

The officers confiscated several of Mahrokh’s belongings, including her mobile phone, Bibles and other Christian materials.

Mahrokh was then detained and interrogated from morning until evening for ten days, before being released on a bail of 30 million tomans (around $2,500).

UK launches review into persecution of Christians globally

UK launches review into persecution of Christians globally

The UK government today launched an independent review into the persecution of Christians globally.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the review would focus especially on “key countries” in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, where the severest persecution of Christians is believed to occur.

Among them will no doubt be Iran, which was ranked the 9th hardest place to be a Christian on Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List.

Article18 noted in its inaugural annual report earlier this month that there was an “unprecedented” wave of arrests of Christians in Iran ahead of Christmas 2018: 114 Christians were arrested in just one week across ten different cities, following raids on private house gatherings of Christians – known as “house churches”.

Those arrests have continued into 2019. In the past few days, Article18 has reported on the arrests of two more Christian converts: Sina Moloudian, 26, in Isfahan, and Ismaeil Maghrebinejad, 64, in Shiraz.

“The Iranian regime feels under siege,” says Article18’s Advocacy Director, Mansour Borji, “And with the rising unrest resultant from economic hardship as a consequence of sanctions and widespread corruption, they are cracking down on civil liberties.

“They seem to have began this campaign of terror by arresting and detaining groups that they feel most vulnerable against. This includes human rights activists, who expose injustice and corruption, and religious groups like Christians, whose continued growth exposes the weak legitimacy and broken monopoly of the theocratic state.”

The UK government’s review is set to conclude by Easter, which this year falls on 21 April.

The Foreign Office estimated that 215 million Christians worldwide faced discrimination or abuse in 2018.

Hunt said recommendations made following the review would be used to build a “cohesive and comprehensive policy response”.

“So often the persecution of Christians is a telling warning sign of the persecution of every minority,” he said. 

“We wanted to do this not just because freedom of worship is a fundamental human right, but also because freedom of worship is the invisible line between open societies and closed societies.”

Christian convert’s jail sentence reduced on appeal

Christian convert’s jail sentence reduced on appeal

An Iranian Christian convert sentenced last year to five years in prison for “membership of an evangelical group and conducting evangelism” has had his sentence reduced to two years. 

Majidreza Souzanchi, 35, has been in Evin Prison since his arrest on 17 November 2017, due to his membership of a “house church” in Tehran.

He was sentenced to five years in prison – the maximum possible sentence for the charges he faced – at Branch 26 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court on 25 April 2018, by Judge Ahmed Mashallah.

His appeal took place at Branch 54 of the Tehran Regional Court of Appeals, where Judge Hassan Babaei reduced his sentence.

Majidreza was arrested and sentenced alongside Fatemeh Mohammadi, 19, who received a six-month prison sentence for “membership of an evangelical group”.

Fatemeh was allowed to go free after her sentencing, owing to time already served in the women’s ward of Evin Prison, but she left with a criminal record.

Both Majidreza and Fatemeh were mentioned in Article18’s inaugural annual report, documenting rights violations against Christians in 2018.

Majidreza was one of at least 14 Christians still in prison in Iran at the start of 2019.

An unprecedented wave of raids on “house churches” at the end of 2018 led to over 100 Christians being arrested. Most of those arrested were released after a few hours, but only after they had written down details of their Christian activities and been ordered to have no more contact with other Christians.

Their mobile devices were confiscated and they were told they would soon hear from Ministry of Intelligence.

Those suspected of being leaders of “house churches” remain in detention.

Iranian who converted 40 years ago arrested in Shiraz

Iranian who converted 40 years ago arrested in Shiraz

An Iranian who converted to Christianity nearly 40 years ago was arrested in Shiraz on Friday morning by plainclothes officers claiming to be from the Ministry of Intelligence.

Ismaeil Maghrebinejad, 64, has been regularly harassed by Iran’s security forces since his conversion in the early 1980s. Sources close to him told Article18 that around ten years after his conversion, an attempt was made on his life, which he only narrowly survived.

After his arrest on Friday, Ismaeil Magrebinejad was taken by the officers to his home, where they conducted a search of the property and confiscated many of his personal belongings, including his laptop, mobile phone, Christian books and daily notebook. 

The officials said that they had a search warrant for his premises, but did not allow Ismaeil to see it.

After he had been taken away, family members attempted to contact the authorities to find out where he had been taken. They were told that Ismaeil was not being held in any of their detention centres, so they should register him as a missing person.

Ismaeil has since contacted his family, but only to report that he does not know where he is being held, nor on what charges.

His late wife, Mahvash, also converted to Christianity in 1999, but when she died, in 2013, Ismaeil was prevented from burying her in a Christian cemetery, despite a letter from the head of the Anglican Church in Iran, Bishop Azad Marshall, stating that Mahvash was a “committed member of the Anglican Church in Iran, who had been baptised and confirmed”.

Instead, her body was taken to a Muslim cemetery, where she was buried following a Muslim ceremony in the presence of security guards, with only five family members allowed to attend.

Mahvash had also been interrogated on numerous occasions during the first years after her husband’s conversion. She was also fired from her job.

Earlier this month, Article18 published its inaugural annual report, noting the “unprecedented” wave of arrests of Christians that took place at the end of 2018 – a pattern that appears to be continuing into 2019. In one week alone, 114 Christians were arrested in raids on “house churches” in ten different cities.

Convert, 26, arrested during violent raid on Isfahan home

Convert, 26, arrested during violent raid on Isfahan home

A 26-year-old convert to Christianity was arrested following a violent raid on his home in Isfahan last week, Article18 can confirm.

Witnesses told Article18 that Sina Moloudian was dragged away from his home with bruises around his eyes following the raid, which took place at around 9am on Wednesday, 23 January.

Sina was reportedly told that he had been “under surveillance for months”.

Article18 understands that eight plainclothes officers claiming to be from the Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) failed to show a warrant and forced their way inside his house by breaking down the door. Sina’s parents were also present during the raid and witnessed their son’s arrest.

The officers searched the house and confiscated Sina’s phone and computer, as well as his Bible and other Christian items, such as books, CDs and a cross.

Sina was then taken away to an unknown location. 

He telephoned his family a few hours later to let them know he is being held in Isfahan’s Dastgerd Prison and will be taken to court, where he will be told the charges against him.

But when his family asked the authorities about where precisely he was being held, they refused to confirm that Sina was being held in Dastgerd Prison.

Earlier this month, Article18 published its inaugural annual report, noting the “unprecedented” wave of arrests of Christians that took place at the end of 2018 – a pattern that appears to be continuing into 2019. In one week alone, 114 Christians were arrested in raids on “house churches” in ten different cities.

2018 was Iran’s ‘year of shame’ – Amnesty International

2018 was Iran’s ‘year of shame’ – Amnesty International

Amnesty International has called 2018 Iran’s “year of shame” for its “chilling” crackdown on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

The charity’s new report, which focuses on the more than 7,000 people arrested for partaking in protests against poverty, corruption and authoritarianism, also highlights Iran’s “intensified discriminatory crackdowns against religious and ethnic minorities by arbitrarily arresting and imprisoning hundreds, and curtailing their access to education, employment and other services”.

Citing Article18, Amnesty notes that “at least 171 Christians were arrested in 2018 solely for peacefully practising their faith… Some received sentences of up to 15 years in prison”.

Last week, Article18’s inaugural annual report revealed that at least 14 Christians were still in prison in Iran at the start of 2019, after an unprecedented wave of raids on “house churches” at the end of 2018 led to over 100 Christians being arrested in just one week. 

Amnesty’s report, released today, also highlights Iran’s repression of other religious minorities, including Gonabadi dervishes and Bahá’ís.

“Hundreds [of dervishes] were arrested and more than 200 were sentenced to a total of 1,080 years in prison, 5,995 lashes as well as internal ‘exile’, travel bans, and bans on joining political and social groups,” Amnesty says.

One dervish was reportedly sentenced to death after a “grossly unfair trial”, then “swiftly executed”.

Meanwhile, Amnesty notes that an administrator of the Majzooban-e-Noor website, which reports on human rights abuses against the dervishes, was sentenced to 26 years and three months in prison and 148 lashes.

At least 95 Bahá’ís were “arbitrarily detained”, according to Amnesty, citing data from the Bahá’í International Community. 

“Throughout 2018 the Iranian authorities have sought to crush the spirits of protesters and human rights defenders demanding respect for human rights by carrying out mass arrests and even grotesque flogging sentences,” commented Philip Luther, MENA Research and Advocacy Director at Amnesty International, in his concluding remark.

“Governments which are engaged in dialogue with Iran must not stay silent while the net of repression rapidly widens. They must speak out in the strongest terms against the crackdown and forcefully call on the Iranian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those jailed for peacefully expressing their right to freedom of expression, association and assembly, including through their human rights activism.”

Sunni spiritual leader decries discrimination against religious minorities

Sunni spiritual leader decries discrimination against religious minorities

The spiritual leader of Iran’s Sunni minority says the country’s religious minorities continue to suffer discrimination, despite the pledges of the leaders of the revolution to ensure equal treatment for all.

Molavi Abdol-Hamid (Radio Farda)

Molavi Abdol-Hamid, 72, speaking to Radio Farda, noted that nearly four decades since the revolution that made Twelver Imams’ Shi’a the religion of the state, the constitution still prevents members of minority religions, such as Sunnis, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, from serving in high state positions.

After years of writing unanswered letters to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Abdol-Hamid received a surprise response in September 2017.

In a letter published on the state-state-run news agency ISNA, Khamenei said the Iranian regime was “duty-bound” by the “pillars of the Islamic Republic” not to discriminate against its citizens.

However, at the same time, Article 12 of the constitution proclaims that Twelver Imans’ Shi’a is the official denomination of Iran, while Article 115 stipulates that the roles of Supreme Leader and President must be held only by Shi’ites.

Abdol-Hamid, who is the Friday Prayer Leader of Zahedan, noted that in the Sunni-majority province of Sistan & Baluchestan, only six to 12 per cent of public employees are Sunnis.

He added that Shi’ite leaders continue to “promote discrimination” against Sunnis, who make up around 9% of the population, “as a necessity”, and “use their influence to deprive Sunnis of the right to serve in high public positions”.

Abdol-Hamid said Iran’s leaders, including President Hassan Rouhani, were “well informed of these facts” but had failed to “take the necessary steps towards addressing the problem”.

1 year since Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh began sentence

1 year since Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh began sentence

Christian convert Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh is now one year into his ten-year jail sentence for “acting against national security through the establishment of ‘house churches’”.

Nasser, who is 57 years old, was first arrested in June 2016 alongside three Azerbaijanis at a private gathering. All four Christians were detained for over four months, including two months each in solitary confinement, before they were released after paying bail of 100 million tomans each (around $35,000). 

The Azerbaijanis returned to their homes and families after their release and will not be forced to return to Iran to serve their sentences. But after his appeal was rejected in November 2017, Nasser was taken to Tehran’s Evin Prison on 20 January 2018 to begin his sentence.

He has been denied medical treatment on several occasions, despite one of his family members telling Article18 he may lose all his teeth if not treated.

In August 2018, Nasser wrote an open letter to the authorities, asking: “Would it even be possible for a committed Christian – who was born and raised in Iran and whose forefathers lived in this land for thousands of years, and who is a servant to the God who has called him to a ministry of reconciliation – to act against the national security of his own country?”

He added: “Is the fellowship of a few Christian brothers and sisters in someone’s home, singing worship songs, reading the Bible and worshipping God acting against national security?

“Isn’t it a clear violation of civil and human rights, and an absolute injustice, to receive a ten-year prison sentence just for organising ‘house churches’, which is a sanctuary sanctified as a place to praise and worship God due to closure of churches in Iran?”

After his appeal failed, Nasser’s lawyer, Hussein Ahmadi-Niyaz, told Article18: “Throughout their interrogation process these detained Christians have emphasised that their relationship had purely a religious nature. They prayed together and spoke about the Bible.

“There has been no confession, neither is there any evidence that they wanted to overthrow or undermine the security of the state.” 

Article18 calls for Nasser’s immediate release, and for the release of all other Christians in prison solely because of their faith. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran ratified in 1975, guarantees the right to freedom of religion, including the right to hold a religion of one’s choosing and to propagate that religion.

25 years since Haik Hovsepian’s murder

25 years since Haik Hovsepian’s murder

Tomorrow will be the 25th anniversary of the extrajudicial killing of Haik Hovsepian, one of several Christian leaders found dead in suspicious circumstances in the early 1990s in Iran.

Haik was the first chairman of Iran’s Council of Protestant Churches and superintendent of the country’s Assemblies of God denomination.

His family was notified of his death 11 days after his disappearance, on 30 January 1994. He was found with multiple stab wounds to his chest.

His disappearance came three days after the release of another pastor, Mehdi Dibaj, who had been sentenced to death for apostasy and had spent the past 10 years in prison. Haik had been one of the main campaigners for his release.

Six months later, Mehdi was also abducted and killed.

Haik left a wife, Takoosh, and four surviving children, Rebecca, Joseph, Gilbert and Andre (the couple’s first child died in a car accident in 1969 at the age of just six months), who left Iran five years after his death and resettled in California.

Haik’s wife and children have continued to support the Church in Iran through the charity they founded in 2007, Hovsepian Ministries.

Reflecting on the anniversary of her husband’s death, Takoosh told Article18:

“25 years has passed since Haik’s martyrdom. I have learnt a lot throughout these years. Although losing a loving and caring husband has not been easy, but I learned to trust God and praise him in all circumstances. The fruits of Haik’s martyrdom, his legacy and the testimonies that I still hear from Iranians and how their life was impacted by Haik’s sacrifice, gives me comfort and strength.”

Haik was a fierce campaigner for religious freedom in Iran. A year before his death, in November 1992, he called upon the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, to petition for “true religious freedom” in Iran, based “not on ethnic or religious identity, but on personal conviction”.

He also refused to sign a statement declaring that Christians in Iran enjoyed religious freedom and pledging that converts to Christianity would be banned from his church.

Twenty-five years after his death, the rights of Christians and other religious minorities in Iran continue to be violated, as Article18 has documented in its inaugural annual report, released yesterday.

At the end of 2018, an unprecedented wave of raids on private house gatherings of Christians in ten different cities led to 114 arrests in one week alone.

Dozens more Christians were arrested over the course of the year – with some of them subjected to violent physical assaults and one woman reporting that during her interrogation she was subjected to sexually abusive interrogation.

At the start of 2019, at least 14 Christians remained in prison, detained on spurious charges related to their faith or religious activity.

Rasht converts told to renounce their faith by appeal court judges

Rasht converts told to renounce their faith by appeal court judges

Two converts to Christianity were asked to renounce their faith during their appeal hearing on 15 January in Tehran.

Saheb Fadaee and Fatemeh Bakhteri

When Saheb Fadaee and Fatemeh Bakhteri refused, the presiding judges, Hassan Babaee and Ahmad Zargar, told them to expect their verdict in a few days.

Saheb was appealing against an 18-month jail sentence for “spreading propaganda against the regime”, issued in September 2018.

Fatemeh, who is 37, was appealing against her 12-month sentence on the same charge – which relates to the teaching given in their “house church” that Christ is Lord and the Bible is the ultimate authority. This was perceived as an attack against Islam.

Saheb was also sentenced to two years’ exile in Nehbandan, near the border with Afghanistan.

He is already serving a separate ten-year sentence, issued in July 2017, for forming a “house church” and “promoting Zionist Christianity”.

He was taken to serve that sentence in Evin Prison in July 2018, alongside his pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani, and two other members of their Rasht church – Mohammad Ali Mossabayeh and Mohammad Reza Omidi, who are both converts to Christianity.

Each of the five Christians were referenced in Article18’s inaugural annual report, released yesterday, which documents rights violations against Christians in 2018.