Case Studies

Ebrahim Firouzi and Sevada Aghasar

Ebrahim Firouzi and Sevada Aghasar

Referenced by

Article18, HRANA, World Watch Monitor

Summary

Sevada Aghasar, an Iranian-Armenian Christian, and Ebrahim Firouzi, a Christian convert, were arrested on 21 August 2013, just a week before Ebrahim was due to be summoned to serve a one-year jail sentence. Ebrahim was due for release on 13 January 2015, but on 8 March 2015 he was re-tried on new charges of “acting against national security by gathering and collusion”. On 20 April 2015 he was sentenced to an additional five years in prison. One week later, Sevada received the same sentence. Their appeals were finally rejected in February and March 2017.

Case in full

On 21 August 2013, Sevada Aghasar, an Iranian-Armenian Christian, and Ebrahim Firouzi, a Christian convert, were arrested during a raid by plain-clothed security officers at their friend Masoud Mirzaei’s place of work. All three men were taken to an unknown location, while Masoud’s home was raided and personal possessions confiscated. Masoud was then released, but Ebrahim and Sevada were detained.

The arrests took place just a week before Ebrahim was due to be summoned to serve a one-year jail sentence he had received on 13 July. Ebrahim was also sentenced to two years in exile in the remote city of Sarbaz, in Sistan-Balochestan province. The official charges against him were “propaganda against the regime by establishing and organising Christian gatherings” and “having contacts with anti-revolutionary networks outside Iran”.

Ebrahim had earlier been arrested on 7 March in Robat Karim, a city near Tehran.He was taken to Evin Prison and kept in solitary confinement for 10 days while being interrogated for his evangelistic activities. He was then released on bail on 29 April after paying IRR 300,000,000 (around $10,500).

Ebrahim was due for release on 13 January 2015, but on 8 March 2015 he was re-tried on new charges of “acting against national security by gathering and collusion”. On 20 April 2015 he was sentenced to an additional five years in prison. 

One week later, Sevada received the same sentence.

Their appeals were finally rejected in February and March 2017. A previous hearing had been due to take place on 13 July 2016, but it was postponed after one of the judges failed to appear. Ebrahim had refused to attend that hearing, due to his ill health, but he was beaten and then forcibly taken to the court, only to discover the hearing was to be postponed.

In June 2015, Ebrahim went on hunger strike to protest against being held in a ward with non-political prisoners. After five days, he ended his hunger strike when the officials agreed to improve the conditions of his imprisonment.

In July 2016, Ebrahim’s mother pleaded for her son’s release, saying she needed help due to her worsening health and recent loss of sight. However, her request was rejected and in December 2018 she died and was buried without her son being able to see her or attend her funeral. 

Ebrahim previously spent 154 days in Karaj’s Ghezelhesar Prison in 2011. During his detention, following his arrest on 18 January, he was interrogated about his Christian activities and charged with“propaganda against the regime”, “insulting the sacred” (blasphemy) and “acting against national security”. 

Sevada has twice been given a week’s leave from prison – first in May 2018, and then in April 2019, when he sang in his church choir on Easter Sunday, as was his custom before his imprisonment. He also celebrated his 30th birthday while on leave.

Authorisation 

Article18 has been authorised by Ebrahim and Sevada 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. Neither 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 Christian faith. 

Recommendations 

Article18 petitions the international community to: 

  • 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. 
  • Call for the immediate acquittal and release of Ebrahim Firouzi and Sevada Aghasar.
  • 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 Rahman, 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. 

Background 

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 Farsi (the national language of Iran and the common language of converts). Bibles and other Christian literature are also illegal in Farsi 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. 

Iran is 9th on Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is hardest to be a Christian. Last year at least 171 Christians were arrested for peacefully practising their Christian faith, as Amnesty International highlighted when referring to 2018 as Iran’s “year of shame”.

Iranian government heightened its systematic targeting of religious minorities in 2018 – USCIRF

Iranian government heightened its systematic targeting of religious minorities in 2018 – USCIRF

Embed from Getty Images

Iran remains among the world’s most egregious violators of religious freedom, according to the 20th annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

The report, released today, recommends that, as in every year since 1999, Iran be listed among the US State Department’s Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) “for engaging in or tolerating systematic, ongoing, egregious violations”.

“In 2018, religious freedom conditions in Iran trended in a negative direction relative to 2017,” USCIRF says, adding that the Iranian government “heightened its systematic targeting” of religious minorities such as Christians, Baha’is, and Sunni and Sufi Muslims.

The report notes the “dramatic uptick” in documented arrests of Christians – 171 in 2018 compared to 16 in 2017 – particularly in the run up to Christmas, when 114 Christians were arrested in just one week.

“Christians arrested in Iran are often treated and charged as enemies of the state, and lawyers who take on their cases face the threat of detention,” the report says.

“Christians have been sentenced to prison terms for holding private Christmas gatherings, organizing and conducting house churches, and traveling abroad to attend Christian seminars. Evangelical Christian communities face repression because many conduct services in Persian and proselytize to those outside their community. Pastors of house churches are often charged with national security-related crimes and apostasy.”

USCIRF specifically references the cases of Youcef NadarkhaniHagi AsgariAmin Afshar-NaderiSaheb Fadaie and Fatemeh Bakhteri, and the Bet-Tamraz family, all of which have been highlighted by Article18.

USCIRF also notes that despite President Hassan Rouhani “signalling his intent to address some religious freedom violations, these promises have yet to be implemented”. It notes that in December 2016 he released a Charter on Citizens’ Rights that promised, among other rights, recognition of all religious identities and nondiscriminatory legal protection. “However, since his reelection in May 2017, religious minorities in Iran have seen little change based on this document.”

USCIRF makes the following recommendations to the US government:

• Speak out publicly and frequently at all levels about the severe religious freedom abuses in Iran, and highlight the need for the international community to hold authorities accountable in specific cases;

• Identify Iranian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom, freeze those individuals’ assets, and bar their entry into the United States, as delineated under the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, and related executive orders, citing specific religious freedom violations;

• Press for and work to secure the release of all prisoners of conscience, including Youcef Nadarkhani, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, and Mohammad Ali Taheri;

• Work with European allies to use advocacy, diplomacy, and targeted sanctions to pressure Iran to end religious freedom abuses, especially leading up to Iran’s 2019 Universal Periodic Review;

• Develop and utilize new technologies to counter censorship and to facilitate the free flow of information in and out of Iran.

And for the US Congress to:

• Reauthorize and ensure implementation of the Lautenberg Amendment, which aids persecuted Iranian religious minorities seeking refugee status in the United States.

US Commission on International Religious Freedom 2019 Annual Report

US Commission on International Religious Freedom 2019 Annual Report

Iran remains among the world’s most egregious violators of religious freedom, according to the 20th annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

The report, released today, recommends that, as in every year since 1999, Iran be listed among the US State Department’s Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) “for engaging in or tolerating systematic, ongoing, egregious violations”.

“In 2018, religious freedom conditions in Iran trended in a negative direction relative to 2017,” USCIRF says, adding that the Iranian government “heightened its systematic targeting” of religious minorities such as Christians, Baha’is, and Sunni and Sufi Muslims.

The report notes the “dramatic uptick” in documented arrests of Christians – 171 in 2018 compared to 16 in 2017 – particularly in the run up to Christmas, when 114 Christians were arrested in just one week.

“Christians arrested in Iran are often treated and charged as enemies of the state, and lawyers who take on their cases face the threat of detention,” the report says.

“Christians have been sentenced to prison terms for holding private Christmas gatherings, organizing and conducting house churches, and traveling abroad to attend Christian seminars. Evangelical Christian communities face repression because many conduct services in Persian and proselytize to those outside their community. Pastors of house churches are often charged with national security-related crimes and apostasy.”

USCIRF specifically references the cases of Youcef NadarkhaniHagi AsgariAmin Afshar-NaderiSaheb Fadaie and Fatemeh Bakhteri, and the Bet-Tamraz family, all of which have been highlighted by Article18.

USCIRF also notes that despite President Hassan Rouhani “signalling his intent to address some religious freedom violations, these promises have yet to be implemented”. It notes that in December 2016 he released a Charter on Citizens’ Rights that promised, among other rights, recognition of all religious identities and nondiscriminatory legal protection. “However, since his reelection in May 2017, religious minorities in Iran have seen little change based on this document.”

USCIRF makes the following recommendations to the US government:

• Speak out publicly and frequently at all levels about the severe religious freedom abuses in Iran, and highlight the need for the international community to hold authorities accountable in specific cases;

• Identify Iranian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom, freeze those individuals’ assets, and bar their entry into the United States, as delineated under the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, and related executive orders, citing specific religious freedom violations;

• Press for and work to secure the release of all prisoners of conscience, including Youcef Nadarkhani, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, and Mohammad Ali Taheri;

• Work with European allies to use advocacy, diplomacy, and targeted sanctions to pressure Iran to end religious freedom abuses, especially leading up to Iran’s 2019 Universal Periodic Review;

• Develop and utilize new technologies to counter censorship and to facilitate the free flow of information in and out of Iran.

And for the US Congress to:

• Reauthorize and ensure implementation of the Lautenberg Amendment, which aids persecuted Iranian religious minorities seeking refugee status in the United States.

16 Bushehr converts face prison as appeals fail

16 Bushehr converts face prison as appeals fail

Left to right: Shapoor Jozi, Parastou Zariftash, and Payam Kharaman

Sixteen converts to Christianity in the southwestern city of Bushehr are facing time in prison after their convictions were upheld at an appeal hearing last month.

Twelve have been sentenced to a year in prison; the sentences of the other four were reduced to five months at a hearing on 5 March at the 4th Branch of Bushehr’s Appeal Court, the verdict of which was communicated to them last week. A seventeenth member of the group was acquitted after protesting that he was not a Christian and never had been.

Article18 has seen a copy of the appeal-court verdict, but the case against the converts is complex and the majority of them have requested to remain anonymous, which further complicates the reporting of their case. 

In June 2018, Article18 reported that 12 Christians had been sentenced to a year’s imprisonment for “propaganda activities against the regime through the formation of house churches”. They were sentenced under Article 500 of Iran’s Penal Code, which provides for up to a year’s imprisonment for those found guilty of “any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or support of opposition groups and associations”.

At the time of their sentencing, only 12 Christians were named in the court documents. But the appeal-court verdict names a further five, including the one acquitted. 

The converts have been on bail since their sentencing, awaiting the result of their appeal, but could now be summoned to serve their sentences at any moment. 

The case against them actually dates back to April 2015, when they were arrested following extensive operations by intelligence agents in Bushehr.

Plainclothes agents raided their homes and confiscated materials including books, pamphlets, family photographs, and paintings and carpets imprinted with the image of Christ or other Christian symbols. These items were described in court as “evidence” of their crimes.

One of the Christians willing to be identified, Payam Kharaman, told Article18: 

“The charges against us are based on their interpretation of our religious activities. They put me under immense personal and financial pressure, and did not even give me back the family photos they confiscated, despite promising to return them.

“For up to three months they interrogated me with the same questions, writing several thousands of pages. 

“And they put a lot of pressure on us not to publish or broadcast the case in the media.”

Most of those sentenced are official members of the Assemblies of God denomination. Some of them have been members since as far back as the 1990s, when the authorities asked their church to provide details of all its members.

“We were official members of the Assemblies of God church, but after the closure of the church in 2013, we came under increasing pressure until eventually we were arrested in 2015,” explained another of the Christians, Shapoor Jozi, whose wife, Parastou Zariftash, is also facing jail time. 

“My wife and I rejected all the allegations, and emphasised that we are only Christian believers, with no ties to any overseas organisations, and have not been involved in any evangelism, but [the authorities] insisted on connecting us with overseas groups,” Shapoor added. 

“Due to the high pressure we were under, we at first refused to report our case to human rights groups or media organisations. But contrary to the claims of the Iranian authorities, our silence over the past three years did not affect the final outcome of our case.”

During their trial, the converts were threatened with torture or even death if they refused to deny their Christian faith and return to Islam, as Article18 highlighted in its inaugural annual report in January.

According to Iran’s law on “Respecting Citizens’ Rights”, passed in 2004 in the Islamic Consultative Assembly, “The use of any kind of torture in order to obtain a confession, by force, is illegal and has no legal or judicial validity.”

Article18’s Advocacy Director, Mansour Borji, says the case against the Christians is “another example of Iran violating the freedom or religion or belief of its citizens”.

“Security agencies, following an ineffective policy in recent years, have tried to eliminate Farsi-speaking Christianity through unlawful pressures and false accusations in Revolutionary Courts, using pseudo legal language that fool onlookers into thinking they have acted within the law – when in reality they are violating the religious freedom guaranteed by Iran’s own constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a signatory.”

The converts’ case has also been reported on several international news sites, including Fox News.

Armenian Christian enjoys Easter break from prison

Armenian Christian enjoys Easter break from prison

An Iranian-Armenian Christian serving a five-year jail sentence for “acting against national security through house-church activities” was permitted temporary leave over Easter, Article18 can reveal.

Sevada Aghasar (left) singing with his choir at St. Gregory’s Church in Tehran on Easter Sunday (IRNA) 

Sevada Aghasar, who began his jail term in July 2017, sang with his church choir on Easter Sunday, as was his custom before his imprisonment, and also celebrated his 30th birthday while on leave.

He is due to return to Tehran’s Evin Prison on Thursday, 25 April.

A photograph of Sevada singing with his choir at St. Gregory’s Church in Tehran was among those published on the state news agency IRNA

This is the second time Sevada has been granted temporary leave from prison; he was also granted one week’s leave in May 2018.

Sevada was first arrested in August 2013 alongside two Christian friends, Ebrahim Firouzi, with whom he was later sentenced, and Masoud Mirzaei, who was also arrested but later released.

Sevada spent more than six months in Ward 350 of Evin Prison before his release on bail in March 2014.

In April 2015, Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court of Karaj sentenced him to five years in prison. His appeal was unsuccessful and he began serving his sentence on 4 July 2017.

Ebrahim, a convert to Christianity, remains in Karaj’s Rajaee Shahr Prison. Late last year his mother, who had been battling ill health for some years, passed away without the opportunity to see her son one last time.

In July 2016, Kobra Kamrani, who was 56 when she died, had pleaded with the authorities to release her son to help take care of her, as she had lost her eyesight and also had cancer.

But her request was rejected and in December 2018 she died and was buried without her son being able to see her or attend her funeral.

Religious minority representatives defend Revolutionary Guard ‘terrorists’

Religious minority representatives defend Revolutionary Guard ‘terrorists’

Representatives of Iran’s ethnic religious minorities in the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Iranian Parliament)

After the USA designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a “terrorist group”, representatives of Iran’s ethnic religious minorities in the Islamic Consultative Assembly have caused a stir by defending the guards as “the most mythical and popular revolutionary force in the world”.

Among the representatives to have signed a joint statement in the guards’ defence was Yonathan Betkolia, the Assyrian representative, who earlier this year was criticised for calling Iran a “paradise” for religious minorities, while at the same time sending his children to school in America.

In February, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said he was “troubled” by the hypocrisy of Iranian leaders “sending their kids abroad to go to school, to shop, to benefit from the very freedoms that we have here in the United States, because they know their country is not good enough for their own people. It’s good enough for you, but it’s not good enough for their families”.

Now in their joint statement, the minority representatives, including Betkolia, criticise American interference and accuse US President Donald Trump of “Zionist arrogance”.

Despite his position as representative for Iran’s Assyrian Christian minority, Yonathan Betkolia has been instrumental in putting pressure on church leaders, and in the closure of at least two churches.

At the same time, he has called Iran the “safest place in the world” for religious minorities, and said Assyrian Christians – a recognised minority in Iran – need no protection from foreign powers. 

Yet these comments come as Assyrian Christians such as the Bet-Tamraz family face persecution for practising and propagating their religious beliefs.

Victor Bet-Tamraz and his wife, Shamiram, were leaders of the Assyrian Pentecostal Church of Shahrara in Tehran before it was forcibly closed in March 2009 because the church held services in the Farsi language and was known to attract converts from a Muslim background.

Indeed, it was with the intervention of Mr. Betkolia and the pressure of officials from the Ministry of Intelligence that Victor was removed from the leadership of the church and the church was forced to halt all meetings in Farsi and ban all non-Assyrian members. 

Now both Victor and Shamiram are facing long jail sentences of ten and five years, respectively, for having “acted against national security” in sharing their faith with Muslims.

Three of the converts from their church – Kavian Fallah-Mohammadi, Hadi Asgari and Amin Afshar-Naderi – are also facing prison sentences of between ten and 15 years for their religious activities, labelled “actions against national security”.

Victor and Shamiram’s son, Ramil, has also spent time in prison for his religious activities.

Betkolia’s other comments

Responding to claims in 2017 from the former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, that there was no religious freedom in Iran, Betkolia declared: “This claim cannot be true, as all religious minorities have their rights and freedoms in Iran.” 

He added that religious minorities in Iran were free to conduct their religious ceremonies and that the US and other Western countries should follow Iran’s example. 

“The Iranian government does not allow anyone to attack and violate our values, while we can all see that in some Western countries religious minority leaders have been attacked by extremists and no-one has stood up for them,” he said. 

He also criticised the reports of the former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, who highlighted violations of the rights of religious minorities in Iran. 

Betkolia was elected as an MP with little over 2,000 votes from among the estimated 20,000 ethnic Assyrians left in the country.

His other public comments include:

“The fact that we have many churches in Iran, even in the smallest villages, shows how religious minorities enjoy absolute freedom and security in Iran.” 

“Officially recognised religious minorities have no problem practising their faith in Iran. Our constitution grants them special privileges like civil and religious rights.” 

“Religious minorities, especially Christians, have no problem in Iran and I testify against the reports on the violation of Christian rights in Iran.”

Bahram Nasibov, Eldar Gurbanov, Yusif Farhadov and Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh

Bahram Nasibov, Eldar Gurbanov, Yusif Farhadov and Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh

Left to right: Bahram Nasibov, Eldar Gurbanov, Yusif Farhadov and Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh

Case referenced by

Article18, Middle East Concern, Mohabat News, World Watch Monitor

Summary

On 24 June 2016, Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh, an Iranian convert to Christianity, was arrested alongside three Christians visiting from Azerbaijan – Eldar Gurbanov, Yusif Farhadov and Bahram Nasibov – at a private gathering near Tehran. In May 2017, all four were sentenced (the Azerbaijanis in absentia) to 10 years’ imprisonment for “actions against national security”. On 20 January 2018, Nasser was taken to Evin Prison to begin his sentence. The Azerbaijanis remain in their home country but will face arrest and imprisonment should they return to Iran. 

Case in full

On 24 June 2016, Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh, an Iranian convert to Christianity, was arrested alongside three Christians visiting from Azerbaijan – Eldar Gurbanov, Yusif Farhadov and Bahram Nasibov – at a private gathering near Tehran. Several other Iranian Christians were also arrested during the raid by as many as 30 security agents, but they were soon released.

But Nasser and the three men from Azerbaijan were detained for over four months, including two months each in solitary confinement. 

Their family members were not informed where they were being held, and they were refused access to consular assistance and legal counsel.

In September 2016 they were transferred from solitary confinement to shared cells in Ward 350 of Evin Prison.

They faced charges of engaging in missionary activity and propaganda against the regime.

On 7 November they were released on a bail of 100 million tomans each (around $35,000), after which the Azerbaijanis returned to their homes and families and have not been forced to return.

On 23 May 2017, all four men were sentenced (the Azerbaijanis in absentia) at Branch 26 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran, presided over by Judge Mashallah Ahmadzadeh, to 10 years’ imprisonment for actions against [Iran’s] national security”, “missionary activities”, “organic relations with Sweden’s ‘Word of Life’ Church”, and what the prosecutor called “Zionist Christianity”.

They were sentenced under Article 498 of the Islamic Penal Code, which provides for punishment of between two and 10 years’ imprisonment for members of religious groups deemed to have “undermined the security of the country”, though their lawyers were not given access to the documents purported to show evidence of these crimes.

So the sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment was the harshest possible punishment they could receive, even though Nasser’s lawyer, Hussein Ahmadi-Niyaz, told Article18 the Christians’ meeting had been only religious in nature – “they prayed together and spoke about the Bible” and not at all about wanting to overthrow or undermine the security of the state.

On 12 November 2017 their sentences were upheld by Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, presided over by Judge Hassan Babaee. 

The judge referred to the Ministry of Intelligence in the course of the hearing. However, neither Nasser nor his lawyer were allowed access to the documents and reports cited by the prosecution. 

In a strange process, the judge called on Nasser to cooperate with his interrogators from the Ministry of Intelligence, in order to reduce his sentence. However, the Ministry of Intelligence was the plaintiff and investigating body in the case.

On 20 January 2018, Nasser was taken to Evin Prison to begin his sentence. He is in Ward 8, Hall 10 of the notorious prison. The Azerbaijanis remain in their home country but will face arrest and imprisonment should they return to Iran. 

In April 2018, Nasser was denied access to the emergency dental treatment he needed, with family members telling Article18 he was in danger of losing all his teeth if left untreated.

On 9 August 2018, Nasser wrote an open letter from Evin Prison to Iran’s judiciary, stating: “It’s clear to all, including the prison authorities, judges, lawyers and my fellow prisoners, that I am in prison because of my faith in Jesus Christ.”

In his letter he asked three questions:

“Would it be even 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?

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

“Isn’t it in fact 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 are a sanctuary sanctified as a place to praise and worship God due to closure of churches in Iran?”

Authorisation 

Article18 has been authorised by Nasser to conduct advocacy on his behalf. The charges against Nasser and the three Azerbaijanis 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 Christian faith. 

Recommendations 

Article18 petitions the international community to: 

  • 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. 
  • Call for the immediate acquittal and release of Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh, and for the overturning of the ten-year prison sentences awaiting Eldar Gurbanov, Yusif Farhadov and Bahram Nasibov should they return to Iran.
  • 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 Rahman, 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. 

Background

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 Farsi (the national language of Iran and the common language of converts). Bibles and other Christian literature are also illegal in Farsi 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. 

Iran is 9th on Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is hardest to be a Christian. Last year at least 171 Christians were arrested for peacefully practising their Christian faith, as Amnesty International highlighted when referring to 2018 as Iran’s “year of shame”.

Saheb Fadaee, Yousef Nadarkhani, Mohammad Ali Mossayebzadeh and Mohammad Reza Omidi

Saheb Fadaee, Yousef Nadarkhani, Mohammad Ali Mossayebzadeh and Mohammad Reza Omidi

This case study was used as part of a UK government-funded report into the persecution of Christians worldwide. The case involves four Christian prisoners: Yousef Nadarkhani, Mohammad Ali Mosayebzadeh, Zaman Fadaee, and Mohammad Reza Omidi.

Left to right: Saheb Fadaee, Yousef Nadarkhani, Mohammad Ali Mossayebzadeh and Mohammad Reza Omidi.

Case referenced by

Human Rights Activists News Agency, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, ForbesMiddle East ConcernRelease International.

Short Summary

On Friday, 13 May 2016 Iranian security forces raided a house-church and arrested five members including Yousef Nadarkhani’s wife, Tina. Mr. Nadarkhani and his wife were released the same day but the other three were detained. Two months later, on 24 July 2016, Yousef Nadarkhani was summoned and detained in Rasht prison, charged with “acting against national security”. All four of the above men are members of the leadership team of the “Church of Iran”.  (The “Church of Iran” is a Unitarian denomination that has been targeted in the recent years. Over the past 8 years, a number of its members have been detained. Of most concern is the imprisonment of Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, and three other leaders of the Church in Rasht (above names), who have been sentenced to 10 years in prison.) Their case has been an ongoing issue since their arrests.

Background events

On Friday, 13 May 2016 security forces raided a house gathering of a group of Christian converts and arrested 5 members including Yousef Nadarkhani and his wife, Fatemeh (Tina) Pasandideh, along with Mohammad Ali (Yasser) Mosayebzadeh, Zaman (Saheb) Fadaee, and Mohammad Reza (Youhan) Omidi.

All four men are members of the leadership team of the church run by Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani. Prior to the raid, VEVAK (MOIS) officers summoned Saheb Fadaee and Mohammad Reza Omidi to their offices by telephone, telling them that their homes had been raided and they had seized their Bibles, computers and mobile phones. (Iran’s intelligence service is called in English, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and Vezarat-e Ettela’at va Amniat-e Keshvar (VEVAK) in Farsi.)

Mr. Nadarkhani and his wife were released the same day, but the other 3 remained detained. After two weeks in prison, they were all released on bail for the equivalent of $33,000 (100 million tomans).

On 24 July 2016 Yousef Nadarkhani was summoned to the 13th Branch of the Revolutionary Court in Rasht. He was formally charged with “acting against national security” and given until 31 August to deposit $33,000 bail. He was held in Rasht Prison on 1 and 2 August, but was released after title deeds were submitted.

On 10 September 2016, Mohammad Ali Mosayebzadeh, Zaman Fadaee, and Mohammad Reza Omidi were summoned to Rasht Court to answer charges of drinking wine during communion, and were sentenced to 80 lashes each, which they appealed. Their appeal remains outstanding.

On 15 October 2016, Mohammad Ali Mosayebzadeh, Zaman Fadaee, and Mohammad Reza Omidi had a hearing to face charges of “acting against national security”. On 8 May 2017, all four had a hearing at the branch of the revolutionary court presided over by Judge Masha’allah Ahmadzadeh. The second hearing was scheduled for 14 June.

On 6 July 2017 Yousef Nadarkhani, Mohammad Reza Omidi, Mohammad Ali Mosayebzadeh, and Zaman Fadaee were given 10-year prison sentences for “acting against national security by propagating house-churches and promoting Zionist Christianity”. Yousef Nadarkhani and Mohammad Reza Omidi were also sentenced to 2 years’ exile, Yousef in Nik-Shahr and Mohammad Reza in Borazjan – both of these locations are in the south of the country, far away from their families in Rasht. The verdict was dated 24 June but was received by the lawyer for the four men on 6 July. They lodged an appeal.

On 14 December, 2017 the appeal court took place. On 2 May 2018 all four received notification from the appeal court through their lawyer that the ten-year prison sentences were upheld by Judge Hassan Babaee.

On 22 July 2018, Pastor Nadarkhani was taken to Evin Prison in the capital, Tehran, after a violent raid on his home in the northern city of Rasht. The other three members of his congregation sentenced along with him were also taken to Evin the following day. They had been expecting a summons to serve their sentences. However, rather than being summoned, plain-clothed officers forced their way into Mr. Nadarkhani’s home early on Sunday morning. The officers asked for Pastor Yousef after his teenage son, Danial, opened the door. When he went to call his father, the officers attacked him with a taser and incapacitated him. When Pastor Yousef came, they also tasered him, before taking him away. The security forces used unwarranted and excessive force: Pastor Nadarkhani was beaten up, despite the fact that neither he, nor his son, had offered any resistance. Pastor Nadarkhani was able to call his family from Evin Prison on 23 July to let them know he was being held there, in quarantine, before being transferred to Ward 8 of Evin Prison.

Previous arrests

Pastor Nadarkhani was initially arrested in 2009 after going to his children’s school to question why all students needed to study the Quran in school. He was charged with“apostasy” and sentenced to death in 2010, a decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2011. The pastor was repeatedly asked to renounce his faith during court hearings in order to avoid the death penalty, but he refused.

On 8 September 2012, he was released from prison following his acquittal on apostasy charges, though he was found guilty on charges of “evangelising Muslims and conducting illegal house-church services in his home”, for which he received a three-year sentence. Pastor Nadarkhani was re-arrested on Christmas Day 2012 on the orders of the director of Lakan Prison, where he had been held, ostensibly to serve the remainder of a three-year sentence. He was released once again on 7 January 2013.

Mohammad Reza Omidi was initially detained on 31 December 2012, during the annual government crackdown on house-churches around Christmas time. He was part of a group of four Christians who in October 2013 were charged with “drinking alcohol during a communion service, and possessing a receiver and satellite antenna”. The group were sentenced to 80 lashes each.

In February 2015, all four men were briefly detained following similar raids.

Analysis

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 a Muslim background.

The Iranian constitution supports freedom of religion for religious minority groups recognised by the government – those being Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. Though apostasy is a crime under Islamic law, the Iranian Penal Code has not specifically assigned any punishment for apostates. (Apostasy has always been a controversial issue within Shia Islam. There is no agreed understanding among clerics and Islamic scholars on what actually constitutes apostasy. The issue has been discussed in parliament several times, the latest discussions took place in 2015, whether to enter the apostasy code into the Iran Panel Codes. The parliament did not come to a full agreement and it is therefore an ongoing debate.) However, there are several legal provisions that give judges the discretion to find defendants guilty of apostasy. These provisions give more power to prosecutors and judges to bring charges of apostasy along with other crimes related to national security and politics. Moreover, in recent years, converts to Christianity have not been charged with apostasy but rather with “crimes against the regime” and“acting against national security”. Those charges are mainly political charges rather than religious. This might be mainly to avoid an 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.

Therefore 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 in or are suspected of engaging in any Christian activity.

UK involvement

There has been UK local diplomatic activity in support of Pastor Nadarkhani and others going back to the time of his first imprisonment. Ministers have also made statements bilaterally and in multilateral fora where resolutions condemning breaches of human rights in Iran have been supported at both the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council.

Persecution of Christians in Iran – Dr. Sara Afshari

Persecution of Christians in Iran – Dr. Sara Afshari

Dr. Sara Afshari provided this testimony at Westminster Abbey on Monday 8 April to members of an independent review team working on behalf of the UK government on a report on the persecution of Christians worldwide.

This brief overview forms part of a much bigger article on the persecution of Christians in Iran that will be published by Article18 in the near future.

The year, 2019, marks 40 years of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The year also recalls 40 years of persecution of Christians by the Islamic state, starting with the assassinations of Bahram Dehghani- Tafti (1980) and the beheading of Revd. Sayah (1979). Since then many churches have been closed and most of churches’ properties confiscated. Hundreds of Christians have been arrested, and several house churches raided.

Soon after the revolution, a social transformation and radicalisation of Islam in Iran took place in order to bring about the Islamic “utopia”. However, the regime not only failed to keep its promise but also brought tougher restrictions on people, using religion (Shia Islam) to justify their power over people. Disillusionment with Islam (the government’s interpretation) and the regime caused significant numbers of people to search for alternative spiritual meaning and hope. Increasing numbers of people started attending the churches and converted to Christianity. This was something the Islamic government did not want to see.

The relentless pressure forced the Church to go underground, giving birth to the “house-church”movement, which soon spread across the country – in both rural and urban areas.

The election of Ahmadinejad (2005 – 20013) brought an even more intolerant approach towards Christian evangelicals especially. More churches were closed down, and church properties were confiscated. Ahmadinejad started a systematic approach to eradicate evangelical churches and house churches. Therefore persecution of Christians extended “beyond church leaders to include regular church members – particularly converts – who faced apostasy charges in Revolutionary Courts, which were punishable by death”.

October 2010 opened a new chapter in Christian persecution in Iran. The Supreme Leader, Khamenei, in his famous speech of 19 October 2010 to Qom seminarians, called house church movements a national security threat: “enemies of Islam” and “with a goal to undermine religion in society”. Security officials and religious leaders appointed by the Supreme Leader throughout the country took the message as an official memo to crack down on Christian activities and house churches. From this time forward not only the pressure and persecution of Christians increased, but also a new method was added to their harassment and intimidation which is a strategic hate campaign and incitement of hatred within the State and state-supported media using all kind of media platforms such as online, blogs, social media, radio and TV.

In this presentation I would like to highlight three strategic issues in relation to the FCO addressing persecution of Christians Iran.

1. The complexity of the Iranian System

One can argue that one of the main reasons for the ineffectiveness of the international efforts in relation to their negotiation with the Iranian government regarding Christian persecution and freedom of religion in general, is related to the complexity of the structure of the Iran government, which can be difficult for foreigners to understand. On the one hand, Iran claims to be a democratic country with elected president and parliament, on the other hand, it has a non-elected Supreme Leader at the top (theocratic). In order to negotiate and interpret the government’s actions, international players need to understand how Iran’s power structure works.

The state structure is a combination of modern state and theocratic systems with the Supreme Leader as the head of the state.

Iran’s structure of the government

Although the president is the second highest official position in the country his power is limited (see the above chart).

Any issue related to national security and the safeguarding of Islam is under the supervision of the SL. That means the restrictions and monitoring of freedom of religion and expression includes that Christian activities are under the control of the Supreme Leader’s agencies, who are directly accountable to the SL, and that the President and his team cannot intervene in their work. Therefore, negotiating freedom of religion for Christians or any religious minority groups with the president or his team may not change much except on one occasion when the SL agencies granted a favour to the presidential team and released a few individual prisoners, some of which, if they didn’t leave the country, were re-arrested later for example, Nadarkhani’s case. (This is a case of an Iranian Christian pastor who was sentenced to death – but later acquitted – in Tehran as being a Christian having been born into Islam. He was released in 2013 but then re-arrested in July 2018.)

Recommendation

Therefore, the UK FCO perhaps needs to include the Supreme Leader in their negotiations with Iran regarding religious freedom, and/or seek a deeper understanding of the Iranian system. Moreover, any negotiation or diplomatic support for Christians should not single out Christians but address the whole issue of Freedom of Religion and expression.

2. Persecution of Christians and migration

Christian persecution and discrimination in Iran should not only be considered as a human rights issue but also a domestic issue that links to the increase of refugees and asylum seekers from Iran.

The chart below has been taken from Iran’s official data and statistic website, amar.com. It shows the decline of the three religious minority groups from Iran.

Almost all Christian asylum seekers in Europe, UK and North America are from a Muslim background. Iranian Armenians and Syrians do not need to seek asylum as they can easily migrate to America.

Recommendation

To reduce Christian refugees from Iran and to support their survival, it is important to put pressure on the Iranian government, to recognise Christians from a Muslim background, to reopen Farsi- speaking churches and allow them to worship together, and to guarantee their safety. (Moreover, though apostasy is a crime under Islamic law, its crime has not been clearly defined in Shia practice. For that reason, the Iran Panel Codes have not specifically assigned any punishment for the apostate. There is no agreed understanding among clerics and Shia Islamic scholars on what actually constitutes apostasy.)

3. Hate speech against Christians in Iran

In recent years, especially since 2010, the state has expanded their harassment and discrimination against Christians into the internet, social media, radio and television, mainly against Protestant and convert Christians and house churches,. To separate Protestant Christians from traditional churches, the state has created new terminology called: Masihiat Tabshiri (Evangelical Christianity and/or Zionist Christianity).

Rahpoyan institution is a good example of state-sponsored media that produce and distribute hate propaganda against Christians.

On their website Rahpoyan Institution explains their strategy in this way:

“Following the Supreme Leader’s speech in Qom [October 2010] on house churches, Zionist Christianity and false mysticism, the Rahpoyan Institution began its work, according to theLeader’s instructions and guidelines, to confront and prevent the activities of evangelical movements. After a long period of study on evangelical movements and their activities, the institution has strategised their activities more coherently to achieve the following goals.”

The website prints eight goals among which are:

  • recognising the strategy of enemies and confronting the Cold War based on the Leader’s guidelines.
  • focusing on the activities of Zionist Christianity to warn the public about it and to fight against it.
  • using existing capacities in the Islamic communities and among the elite [clerics and other officials] to confront Zionist Christianity and the residents of the Crusade camp.
  • publicising the latest news of the evangelical movement’s activities inside the country.
  • monitoring the dynamics of their methods among the youth population and their possible strategy.

Since October 2010 until December 2018 Rahpoyan produced 1,818 critical views and anti-Christian items, including hate speech and incitement of discrimination and hatred against Christians in forms of news, views, interviews, video clips, articles and so on.

Below is a translation of their thematic categorisation of their archive and the number of entries for each category:

Number of items
Zionist Christianity603
Characteristics of Zionist Christianity294
The scholars of Zionist Christianity28
The anatomy of Crusade camps284
The leaders of evangelical/Zionist movements98
Zionist Christian organisations68
Building churches126
Satellite channels134
Crusade camps and the youth9
Zionism27
Evangelical Christianity2
A page from history114
False defendanst of Christianity26
Criticism of Christianity52
Criticism of the Bible21
Total from Oct 2010 – Dec 20181818

The main themes of the hate propaganda include:

Political accusations

Historical and national accusations

Anti-Islamic movements

Religious accusations 

  • blasphemy and insulting the prophets
  • introducing evangelical Christians as cult-like practices
  • doctrinal corruption
  • accusing the Bible of insulting the prophets such as Abraham and Jacob
  • mocking clergy.

Social issues 

Using traditional churches against evangelical Christians

Anti-Christian campaign

Every year before Christmas and Easter Iran launches campaigns against Christians both through media as well as a crackdown on house churches.

The pattern of the campaign normally is as follows:

Anti-Christian propaganda and incitement of hatred have fatal consequences when the Supreme Leader’s agencies such as Sepah and the Basij draw on them as justification for targeting Christians with violence. This becomes more dangerous especially when the hardliners receive a green light from Khamenei, who calls them “commanders of the soft war” and orders them to bypass the law and “act on their own sense of religious duty” and act in a “fire at will” form. His order, especially to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Basij paramilitary forces, means as Shirin Abadi explains: “Fire at will means that these kinds of individuals can bypass the law, including common law”, therefore “the first side effect of this order is lawlessness and the violating of citizens’ rights”. For that reason hate speech against Christians on Iran’s state and state-sponsored media is of a great concern and should be stopped.

Recommendations

  • International powers should negotiate with the Iranian authorities, including the Supreme Leader, to halt hate propaganda against Christians.
  • they should enter into a binding agreement with Iran to promote religious freedom and to end incitement to hatred and discrimination against Christians.
  • they should initiate appropriate sanctions aimed at ending religious persecution.
  • the Iranian State must be held accountable to ICCPR article 20.2 that states “any advocacy ofnational, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility orviolence shall be prohibited by law.” It should, therefore, most formally prohibit and takecriminal measures against those who engage in and produce any form of hate speech, not only against Christians but also against other minority groups.

Questions and Answers

Can I refer you back to Page 2 of your statement- there is a real spike in the anti-Christian propaganda in 2017. It was obviously quite substantial in 2016 and 2018, but can you account for the 2017 spike at all?

I am glad you asked me that. This year again there was another famous speech Khamenei did, the Supreme Leader – in Tehran University on 7 June, when he used the phrase “Fire at will”, and whathe did he called on Basij – this is a paramilitary volunteer group, Khamenei called them“commanders of the soft war” and ordered them to bypass the law and “act on their own sense of religious duty” and act in a “fire at will” form. This caused great concern and so shortly after this he clarified his comments saying by “fire at will” I didn’t mean bypassing the law, I was referring to responding from a social and cultural point of view. So his agencies took that as needing to increase their media propaganda, and through media propaganda you increase your effectiveness in a “cultural way.” That is why you see more hate speech during 2017, it came after Khamenei’s speech. talking about “firing at will.” So the spike came about as a direct result of the Supreme Leader’s speech.

We heard from a previous witness that an Iranian would not seek help from any sort of diplomatic mission, be it British or American, because they would be monitored and therefore accused of being a spy – I wondered whether you had any knowledge of anybody that has sought help in Iran?

No. For example, I myself was arrested a few times and was in prison two or three times and all these times one of the accusations I received was that I was a spy for Britain and the reason they said this is because I was baptised in the Episcopal church. And on one of these occasions I responded: “Oh, I didn’t realise I was a British spy, where can I go to get my salary?” They didn’t like my joke.

I think again in my first recommendation, especially Britain, the UK if they want to support persecution of Christians in Iran, they have to do it under the umbrella of FoRB not to single out Christians because it may make it much harder for Christians in Iran and it would be like a confirmation of their accusations against us. That is why it is difficult to go to any embassy in reality for help.

Oral evidence on Iran: Article18’s Mansour Borji

Oral evidence on Iran: Article18’s Mansour Borji

Article18’s Advocacy Director, Mansour Borji, gave the following testimony at Westminster Abbey on Monday 8 April to members of an independent review team working on behalf of the UK government on a report on the persecution of Christians worldwide.

Dear Review Members,

I speak to you as an Iranian convert to Christianity.

While today death sentences for apostasy are less common in Iran (though they still occur), much more common are converts being charged with “actions against national security”, when in reality their only “crime” is meeting together to peacefully practise their newfound faith.

Last year at least 171 Christians were arrested for this peaceful practice, as Amnesty International highlighted when referring to 2018 as Iran’s “year of shame”.

As Article18 has documented, some of these Christians have received long sentences of between 10 and 15 years in prison.

Iranian Christians – whether converts or members of the recognised ethnic Armenian and Assyrian Christian minorities – have been under pressure ever since the revolution of 1979, 40 years ago.

Though the founding father of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomenei, promised “freedom” to religious minorities, his ultimate agenda was the establishment of an Islamic state based on a rigid, centuries-old interpretation – an interpretation that offered little room for any other expressions of faith.

In the four decades since, churches have been closed down, the Bible in Persian has been banned, Christian leaders have been murdered, and hundreds of other Christians have been sent to jail or forced into exile.

And yet while it was Ayatollah Khomenei who laid the foundations for this repression, it was a speech by his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in October 2010, which set the parameters for how Christians – especially converts – are treated today.

Addressing the crowds in the conservative stronghold of Qom – home to the religious seminaries that have provided the theological framework for the revolutionaries for the past 40 years – the Supreme Leader explicitly named the spread of “house churches” among the critical threats facing the Islamic regime and its future survival.

Security officials and religious leaders appointed by the Supreme Leader throughout the country picked this up not just as a subtle gesture but as an official memo to crack down on Christian activities, and especially house churches.

From this point onwards, religious-sounding charges against Christians – such as apostasy – gave way to Christians being charged with “acting against national security”.

Just two months after his speech, the most unprecedented, widely spread arrests of Christians across the country signalled a new era. Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, as well as other, parallel security forces, were eager to show the Supreme Leader and concerned religious clergy that they were dealing with the threat.

The many cases of arrests and imprisonment that Article18 has documented since 2010 show a trend of intolerance towards Christians that continues to this day.

Ahead of Christmas 2018, 114 Christians were arrested within just two weeks during a series of raids across nine different cities.

Dozens more were arrested over the course of 2018 – with some of them subjected to violent physical assaults and one woman reporting that during her interrogation she was sexually harassed.

At the end of 2018 at least 14 Christians remained in prison, detained on spurious charges related to their faith or religious activity.

The arrests have continued into 2019, with at least 11 converts known to have been arrested so far this year, again as documented by Article18.

I would now like to draw your attention to two individual cases – one of a convert; another of a member of a recognised minority – to paint a picture of the pressures facing Christians in Iran today.

The first is that of Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh, a convert who is currently one year into his ten-year sentence for “acting against national security through the establishment of house churches”.

Nasser, who is 57 years old, was first arrested in June 2016 at a private gathering alongside three Christians visiting from Azerbaijan.

All four were sentenced to ten years in prison, but the Azerbaijanis returned home while on bail and have not been forced to return.

But in November 2017, Nasser’s appeal was rejected, and in January 2018 he was taken to Evin Prison to begin his sentence.

He has since been denied medical treatment in prison – a common occurrence for prisoners of conscience in Iran, as highlighted by Amnesty International.

In August last year, Nasser wrote an open letter to the authorities from prison, asking three questions:

“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 of the God who has called him to a ministry of reconciliation – to act against the national security of his own country?

“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 in fact 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 are a sanctuary sanctified as a place to praise and worship God due to the closure of churches in Iran?”

His lawyer pointed out that the Christians’ gathering had been only religious in nature- they had prayed together and spoken about the Bible – and not at all about seeking to overthrow or undermine the security of the state.

Article18 has campaigned for Nasser’s release, but for now he remains in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison.

The other case that I would like to highlight is that of the Assyrian pastor Victor Bet- Tamraz, who has also been sentenced to ten years in prison and whose wife and son have also spent time in prison.

Pastor Victor was first arrested in December 2014, as he celebrated Christmas with a number of fellow Christians – among them several converts.

The Iranian government has sought to outlaw the preaching of Christianity to Muslim- born Iranians by closing Farsi-speaking churches and insisting Armenian and Assyrian communities conduct their services only in their own ethnic languages. They have also been limited to just one weekly service on a Sunday – a day when most Iranians are at work – again with the explicit aim of dissuading new members.

Victor’s former church, the Assyrian Pentecostal Church of Tehran, was one of those targeted and he was forcibly removed from his post.

In July 2017, he and three converts – Amin Afshar-Naderi, Kavian Fallah-Mohammadi and Hadi Asgari – were each sentenced to 10 years in prison for “illegal house-church activities”. Amin was given a further five years in prison – so 15 in all – for “insulting the sacred”, or blasphemy against Islam.

Then in January 2018 Victor’s wife, Shamiram, was given a five-year prison sentence of her own for “participating in Christian seminars abroad” and “acting against Iranian national security”.

Six months later, their son, Ramil, was given the relatively lenient term of four months in prison – which he’d already served – for “acting against national security” and “organising and creating house churches”.

These examples show how both converts to Christianity and members of Iran’s historically Christian communities face pressure because of their religious activities, which are considered a threat to national security.

As Article18 highlighted in its inaugural annual report in January, this pressure continues to result in many Christians fleeing Iran and seeking asylum elsewhere.

The UK has seen a number of these Iranians arrive on its shores, though the way in which the Home Office has dealt with them has left considerable room for improvement.

It has been well reported that the Home Office recently rejected the asylum claim of one Iranian who said he had converted to Christianity because it was a “peaceful religion”. The Home Office’s response was to quote verses from the Bible which claimed to show that his suggestion that Christianity was “peaceful” had been false.

This is not the first example of the UK’s immigration service showing its lack of religious literacy, and it must not happen again.

Iran continues to fail to uphold the values enshrined in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which it ratified in 1975 and which includes provision for religious freedom.

Article18 encourages the British government to promote freedom of religion or belief in Iran and to keep this principle in mind in its political and economic discussions with Iran.

Britain should call for the immediate and unconditional release of those detained in Iran only because of their religious beliefs – whether Christians or members of other minority faiths, such as the Baha’is.

Iran’s religious and political leaders continue to speak out against Christianity, and according to the World Watch List produced by Open Doors, Iran is the 9th hardest place to be a Christian today.

With this, and the content of this testimony, in mind, Article18 encourages the British government to reconsider how it treats the asylum claims of Iranian converts.

The Christian community of just a few thousand Muslim converts in 1979, after four decades of state-led repression, has grown to several hundred thousand, or even one million according to some estimates.

This growing community deserves recognition and protection, in line with Iran’s national and international commitments to uphold human rights, including freedom of religion.

I commend this testimony to the review members for their consideration.

Q&A section

Can you comment on why 2010 was a pivotal year for Iran in relation to the arrest of Christians? 

The 2010 changes are important because they came as a result of international pressure on the apostasy issue; before then the charges levied against Christian converts arrested for their religious activities was apostasy but from 2010 arrests have been on grounds of “national security.”

What actions can the FCO take? 

They can amplify the voices of those suffering discrimination, harassment and persecution because of their faith and peaceful Christian activities. They can openly address the violations of religious freedom because that is effective and it does change their behaviour. It makes the Iranian Government feel as if they are accountable to the international community. They could be more intentional about protecting religious freedom in other diplomatic & economic dealings with Iran and make that a part of their conversations with Iran.

The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has an obligation under international law to respect, protect and fulfil the right to freedom of religion or belief. The FCO should ask for the immediate and unconditional release of Christians and other prisoners of conscience detained on spurious charges related to their faith or religious activities.

The FCO can also support the efforts of the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to consider investigating and issuing a report on the ongoing mistreatment of Christians and other religious minorities in Iran.

Is behind the scenes reaction better? 

You need a combination of both behind the scenes and openly addressing the issues. Doing only one or the other runs the risk of appearing insincere in our efforts. Iran does care about its reputation and responds to the publicity pressure. Otherwise victims will also see the West making trade deals with violators of international covenants and turn a blind eye to the actions of their persecutors.

USCIRF does a good documentation job. Multilateral efforts are perhaps more effective given the current circumstances. Because of the political standoff with the US; Iran may listen better to us (the UK). There are economic leverages that can be explored and used in relating to the Iranian authorities who are interested in retaining control and remaining in power.

Did the conclusion of the nuclear deal with western powers (under Obama) – the easing of economic sanctions in return for Iran giving up parts of nuclear programme – make life any easier for Christians in Iran?

No, it has not made any difference – it wasn’t part of the deal – this was a huge loss. Iranian authorities made it clear they are not interested in discussion beyond the nuclear issue and human rights particularly is not for discussion.

Do the Government ever offer “Good gestures for victims?”

Public advocacy does work in most cases because the Iranian Government don’t like negative publicity. In the case of Yousef Nadarkhani – the FCO made a plea for his release and as a result of mounting international pressure he was released. However, in 2016 he was re-arrested and sentenced to 10 years for actions against national security and he is in his 1st year of his prison sentence. His children are banned from school unless they accept the status of a Muslim. Local education authorities overruled the superior education authority ruling to give them access to education. He tried to register them as Christians before he went into prison. Saeed Abedini was released after US pressure and Government led advocacy – this shows that advocacy from the international community can be effective. Saeed Abedini was released as part of the nuclear negotiations.

In Khamenei’s 2010 speech, the content was philosophical about people and their religious beliefs. He identified the trust of people in their government and their religious beliefs as the main pillars that the state stands on. He specifically named the house-church movement as a Western conspiracy to undermine the regime and weaken those pillars.