News

Woman convert, 65, sentenced to year in prison

Woman convert, 65, sentenced to year in prison

(Middle East Concern)

A 65-year-old woman convert to Christianity has been sentenced to one year in prison for “propaganda against the system”, reports Middle East Concern.

Rokhsareh (Mahrokh) Ghanbari was notified of her sentence today, two days after her appearance at a Revolutionary Court in Karaj.

Middle East Concern reported that the judge was “very rude” and “tried to humiliate Mahrokh after she disagreed with him”. 

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).

Middle East Concern said her treatment caused “distress to family and friends, who thought she would have been shown greater respect on account of her age”.

In January, Mahrokh was forced to visit an Islamic cleric to receive religious “instruction” and be offered the chance to reconvert to Islam.

‘Judge of Death’ increases converts’ bail tenfold after they insist on choosing lawyer

‘Judge of Death’ increases converts’ bail tenfold after they insist on choosing lawyer

Mohammed Moghisheh has earned the nickname the ‘Judge of Death’ for his harsh treatment of prisoners of conscience. (Photo: Fars/Ali Khara)

Five of the nine Christian converts arrested earlier this year in Rasht had their bail increased tenfold at a court hearing in Tehran on Wednesday, after insisting upon being defended by their own lawyer.

The five men – Abdolreza Ali HaghnejadShahrooz EslamdoostBehnam Akhlaghi, Babak Hosseinzadeh and Mehdi Khatibi – wanted Moshgani Farahani to defend them, but Judge Mohammed Moghisheh, who has earned the nickname the “Judge of Death” for his harsh treatment of prisoners of conscience, rejected their choice and demanded they were defended by a lawyer of the court’s choosing.

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

The other four Christians – Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein KadivarKamal Naamanian and Mohammed Vafada – decided to defend themselves and were therefore released on their pre-existing bail (the equivalent of $13,000 each) until their next hearing on Sunday.

The nine Christians were arrested during raids on their homes and house-churches in January and February. 

Seven of them – all except Abdolreza and Shahrooz – were released on bail in March, after posting the equivalent of $13,000 each. Abdolreza and Shahrooz were detained.

All nine were charged with “acting against national security” and “promoting Zionist Christianity”.

The nine are members of the non-Trinitarian “Church of Iran”, the denomination of the imprisoned pastor Yousef Nadarkhani and his three church members, Saheb (Zaman) Fadaee, Mohammad Ali Mosayebzadeh, and Mohammad Reza Omidi, who are all serving ten-year prison sentences.

Yesterday, the vice-chair of the United States International Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Nadine Maenza, called for Pastor Yousef’s immediate release, saying: “The Iranian government has vilified and deprived the basic rights of Pastor Nadarkhani and of many other Iranians simply for exercising their freedom of belief. This must stop. I call on the government of Iran to live up to its commitments to its citizens under international law.”

It was a year ago this week that plainclothes security forces violently arrested Pastor Yousef and his fellow church members, tasering him and his son, and taking them away to serve sentences also on charges of “acting against national security” and “promoting Zionist Christianity”.

Convert refused asylum in Germany arrested on return to Tehran

Convert refused asylum in Germany arrested on return to Tehran

(Bild)

An Iranian convert to Christianity refused asylum in Germany and deported back to Iran was arrested “immediately” upon her arrival in Tehran, according to German newspaper Bild.

Fatemeh Azad, 58, was then reportedly released on bail and is now awaiting trial.

Fatemeh’s asylum claim was rejected in early May, even though her lawyers had protested that she could face the death penalty if she returned to Iran. Technically, Iranian law allows for converts to Christianity to be sentenced to death for apostasy, but there have not been many recent examples of this. It is, however, very common for converts to be charged with “actions against national security” and handed prison sentences of between one and 15 years.

Bild reports that Fatemeh converted to Christianity in 2015, against the will of her husband, along with her three sons, Payam, Peyman and Pouriya, and that all four fled to Germany in the November of that year.

Two of her children have since been granted asylum, according to Bild, but the third has also been threatened with deportation.

Amnesty International has asked the German government to review its policy on Iranian converts seeking asylum, in light of the threats facing those who return home. 

Fatemeh’s lawyer, Christopher Lingau, told Bild that her application was denied “on the grounds that in her interview she was unable to substantiate her commitment to the Christian faith”.

But her pastor in Germany, Frank Sattler, said she “regularly attended church services” and that her verbal expression of faith and baptism were sufficient proof of the sincerity of her faith.

In an interview with German news site domradio.de, politician Volker Kauder, a member of the governing CDU, said he was “worried that Christians are being sent back to countries where they are persecuted” and added that Germany is not allowed to deport asylum seekers to countries where they could face the death penalty, whether or not their asylum claim is genuine.

Church ban ‘worse than prison’ for woman convert who lost appeal

Church ban ‘worse than prison’ for woman convert who lost appeal

Two months after two converts to Christianity were told they had lost their appeals against jail sentences for “spreading propaganda against the regime”, it has emerged that one of them has also been banned from all social activities for two years after her release.

Fatemeh Bakhteri, who is known as Ilar, will be unable to attend any group meeting of more than two people, effectively cutting her off from gathering with other Christians.

A local contact of Article18 said this prospect was harder for Ilar than her one-year jail sentence.

Ilar was first summoned for interrogation three years ago and threatened that she would be re-arrested if she continued to meet with other converts.

But Ilar carried on attending house-church meetings as she “didn’t see anything illegal in gathering with others to worship”.

When she was next arrested, Ilar was ridiculed for her Christian faith and threatened. Then during her appearance before the court, the presiding judges, Hassan Babaee and Mashallah Ahmadzadeh, spent more time encouraging her to return to Islam than discussing her alleged crime.

She was asked to recant her Christian faith and told that if she did, the charges against her would be dropped.

When she refused, the judges told her to expect their verdict in a few days.

Four months later, on 18 May, she and her co-defendant, Saheb (Zaman) Fadaee, were notified that their sentences had been upheld.

Since then, Ilar has been living with the knowledge that she may be summoned to begin her sentence at any moment. In some instances, this process drags on for years and until that summons, Ilar will live with the prospect of prison hanging over her like a cloud.

Zaman 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 also converts to Christianity.

Nine other members of the Rasht “Church of Iran” group have been arrested this year. In March, seven of them were released on bail, but two were held.

‘Now I know even innocents can be jailed’ – Sevada Aghasar after his conditional release

‘Now I know even innocents can be jailed’ – Sevada Aghasar after his conditional release

Iranian-Armenian Christian Sevada Aghasar has been granted “conditional release” from prison after serving half of his five-year sentence for “acting against national security through house-church activities”.

Sevada was released from Tehran’s Evin Prison yesterday lunchtime and will not have to return providing he upholds the conditions of his release, which will likely mean a prohibition from evangelism.

Today, on his Instagram page, Sevada wrote:

When I was child, I thought that only criminals and malefactors would be prisoned. 

Then I got younger and knew that debtors and mistakers would be prisoned too.

Now I know that even innocents could be prisoned!! Thank God, I’m free now.

The 30-year-old was sentenced to five years in prison in April 2015 at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court of Karaj, a city near Tehran.

After failing with his appeal, he began serving his sentence on 4 July 2017. He had also spent six months in detention following his initial arrest, which counted towards his time served.

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.

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.

Sevada was granted temporary release from prison twice during his time in prison, the second of which came at Easter 2019, when he 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 was also granted one week’s leave in May 2018.

Bushehr Christians bailed but could face long jail sentences

Bushehr Christians bailed but could face long jail sentences

Left to right: Pooriya Peyma, Fatemeh Talebi, Maryam Falahi, Sam Khosravi, Khatoon Fatolahzadeh, Sasan Khosravi, Marjan Falahi, and Habib Heydari.

Eight converts to Christianity arrested in the southwestern city of Bushehr earlier this month have been released on bail but could face lengthy jail sentences.

The Christians – including five members of one family – have been charged with “actions against national security”, “gathering and collusion against the state”, and “membership of an illegal organisation” (house church), the maximum sentences for which would be 15 years in prison.

They were released on 16 and 17 July after each posting bail of 300 million tomans (around $30,000).

The arrests took place at around 9am on Monday 1 July, as officers introducing themselves as agents from the Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) stormed the Christians’ homes in a coordinated operation, confiscating Bibles, Christian literature, wooden crosses and pictures carrying Christian symbols, along with laptops, phones, all forms of identity cards, bank cards and other personal belongings.

The agents also searched the work offices of at least two Christians and confiscated computer hard drives and security-camera recordings. 

The officers treated the Christians harshly, even though small children were present during the arrests.

The eight Christians are Sam Khosravi, 36, and his wife Maryam Falahi, 35; Sam’s brother Sasan, 35, and his wife Marjan Falahi, 33; Sam and Sasan’s mother, Khatoon Fatolahzadeh, 61; Pooriya Peyma, 27, and his wife Fatemeh Talebi, 27; and Habib Heydari, 38.

Khatoon Fatolahzadeh was released on the day of her arrest, due to her age. Her arrest came after six cars carrying security officials turned up outside her home. 

The Christians were held in solitary confinement in the MOIS office in Bushehr and denied access to lawyers. They were also coerced to confess to their “crimes” on camera.

Some associates of the Christians were later summoned for interrogation, then released. It is not yet known whether they also face charges.

Woman convert, 65, due in court next week

Woman convert, 65, due in court next week

(Middle East Concern)

A 65-year-old woman convert to Christianity arrested shortly before Christmas is due to appear in court next week, reports Middle East Concern.

Rokhsareh (Mahrokh) Ghanbari has been summoned to appear at the Revolutionary Court in Karaj next Saturday, 27 July, where she will face charges of “propaganda against the system”. 

In January, Mahrokh was forced to visit an Islamic cleric to receive religious “instruction” and be offered the chance to reconvert to Islam.

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).

Middle East Concern said her treatment caused “distress to family and friends, who thought she would have been shown greater respect on account of her age”.

‘Terrorists, Zionists, spies: this is how Christians are referred to in Iran’ – Dabrina Bet-Tamraz

‘Terrorists, Zionists, spies: this is how Christians are referred to in Iran’ – Dabrina Bet-Tamraz

Dabrina Bet-Tamraz (right) spoke yesterday at the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, DC. (Photo: Twitter @DemandForAction)

The daughter of an Iranian couple facing long prison sentences for their Christian activities has spoken out against Iran’s ‘mistreatment of religious minorities’.

“Terrorists, Zionists, spies, a threat to national security: this is how Evangelical Christians are referred to in my native country, Iran,” said Dabrina Bet-Tamraz, at the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, DC.

“Many Christians have received lengthy prison sentences for false charges related to the practice of their faith, and their sentences have been upheld by the Court of Appeals. Most of these cases involved converts from Islam, but there are also several instances where members of recognised Armenian and Assyrian Christian minorities were imprisoned or sentenced to prison due to their religious activities. My parents, my only brother, and myself included.”

As part of a panel discussion on religious-freedom challenges in the Middle East, Dabrina said her family had been “a target of continuous harassment from Iranian authorities for as long as I can remember”.

She recalled the raid on her family home during a Christmas celebration in 2014, when “plain-clothed security officers … arrested all attendees. They separated men from women and conducted strip-searches, seizing all Bibles, confiscating personal items such as cellphones, laptops, and identification documents. All attendees were interrogated on camera and were forced to sign forms committing to never gather together again”.

Her father, Victor, was then taken away, beaten, and had his head shaved “as a way to humiliate him”, Dabrina said.

“They treated him as though he was a criminal—a terrorist,” she said. “He was kept in solitary confinement for 65 days; at times without any human interaction for over ten days.” 

Pastor Victor was later charged with “conducting evangelism” and “illegal house-church activities”, and other charges amounting to “acting against national security”, and sentenced to ten years in prison.

Dabrina’s mother, Shamiram Issavi, was later interrogated and charged with “membership of a group with the purpose of disrupting national security” and “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security”, and sentenced to five years in prison.

Both are appealing their sentences.

Dabrina’s brother, Rameil, was then among a group of five Christians arrested during a picnic gathering in Tehran in August 2016. Rameil was later sentenced to four months in prison for “acting against national security” and “organising and establishing house churches”, then released owing to time already served.

Dabrina highlighted the “unprecedented” wave of raids on house-church gatherings at the end of 2018, the arrest of 171 converts across the year – and at least 37 more so far in 2019.

“These people are not religious leaders or pastors,” she noted. “They are not politicians or activists of some sort. They are simply believers attending prayer and worship gatherings and meetings. But to the Iranian authorities, any non-Islamic religious gathering is considered a threat to the regime.”

Dabrina also noted how there are today less than a quarter of the number of Assyrian Christians living in Iran as before the revolution.

She highlighted the recent forced closure of an Assyrian church in Tabriz, which only yesterday was claimed as only a false rumour by a pro-government Iranian news agency – something Article18’s advocacy director, Mansour Borji, called an attempt at “damage control” after the “despicable act” of forcibly closing the church and taking down the cross. 

“The Iranian Christian community, along with other religious minorities in the country, continue to be denied their right to freedom of religion or belief,” Dabrina said. “These human-rights violations threaten the safety of these communities.”

She called for the “immediate and unconditional release of all Christians detained on spurious charges related to the practice of the their faith and religious activities”, and implored the US and wider international community to hold Iran “accountable for its mistreatment of religious minorities” and to ensure Iran’s obligation to uphold religious freedom is at the heart of all negotiations “with, or concerning, Iran”.

US President Donald Trump later promised to look into the case of the Bet-Tamraz family.

Speaking with Dabrina at the White House after the panel discussion, Mr. Trump promised: “I’m going to get the information [about their cases]. I will.”

Dabrina was part of a delegation of survivors of religious persecution who visited the president. She told him: “Mr. President, I’m part of a Christian minority from Iran; my family [is] being persecuted in Iran… We would appreciate it if you would mention my family but also Christian persecution in Iran in negotiations with or about Iran.”

‘Tabriz church was never closed, cross fell down’ – pro-government agency

‘Tabriz church was never closed, cross fell down’ – pro-government agency

The cross on top of the Assyrian Presbyterian Evangelical Church in Tabriz was replaced last week, two months to the day since it was taken down.

A pro-government news agency in Iran has claimed the Assyrian church in Tabriz was never forcibly closed, as Article18 reported, and that its cross fell down, rather than being torn down, and was replaced after being repaired.

Yonathan Betkolia’s letter, dated 25 May.

Fars News Agency interviewed two senior Armenian Orthodox church leaders from the East Azerbaijan Province where Tabriz is located, who said the news reports were only “false rumours” and “lies” and that Christians in Iran had always been well treated.

The report further claimed that services at the church had never been halted.

Just last week, Article18 reported that the cross had been put back on top of the church, two months to the day since it was removed.

This came after an international outcry at the church’s forcible closure on 9 May at the hands of agents from the Ministry of Intelligence and EIKO, an organisation under the direct control of the Supreme Leader.

Following the church’s closure, the Assyrian representative to the Iranian Parliament, Yonathan Betkolia, openly criticised the move in an open letter to the president, Hassan Rouhani, and called for the cross to be put back. 

Then last month a senior legal adviser to the president publicly questioned the legality of the church’s closure.

A screenshot of the statement by Rouhani’s legal adviser, questioning the legality of the closure. 

Article18’s Advocacy Director, Mansour Borji, pointed to these statements – by senior figures within both the Iranian parliament and government – as evidence that the church had indeed been closed, as was reported.

He also asked: “Why has Fars not spoken with Assyrian church leaders and Synod members who are forced to exile, and instead has interviewed members of the Armenian Orthodox Church, who have little or nothing to do with the ownership of the building?”

Borji said Fars’ report was an effort at “damage control” after the “despicable act” of forcibly closing the church and taking down the cross.

The report by Fars claims that the “rumours” of the church’s closure were part of an elaborate plan by “enemies” of Iran to take advantage of the difficult political, economic and military environment in which Iran finds itself.

It specifically criticised “Zionist evangelical media”, with one of the interviewees calling the evangelical movement a “danger not only to the Christian community but also to the entire human race”.

The Assyrian Presbyterian Evangelical Church in Tabriz was first issued with a confiscation order back in 2011, a copy of which Article18 will soon publish as part of a report detailing similar illegal confiscations of Christian properties and the closure of churches by Iranian authorities.

Meanwhile, the photograph below shows an EIKO document, dated May 2012, claiming ownership of the building.

Highlighted are the EIKO letterhead (top right) and its claim of ownership (underlined).
Christian activist arrested while filing complaint about assault

Christian activist arrested while filing complaint about assault

A young female Christian convert and activist who spent six months in prison for her membership of a Tehran “house church” was arrested on Tuesday for “improper hijab”, HRANA reports.

Fatemeh Mohammadi, 19, who completed her jail sentence in the spring of last year, initially went to the police to complain she had been assaulted by a woman wearing a chador, who had taken issue with her improper wearing of her headscarf on a bus.

But when Fatemeh complained to police, the chador-wearing woman was released and Fatemeh was detained – until 3am on Wednesday morning, when she was released with a warning.

Fatemeh is a rare activist among Christians in Iran, and especially converts. She writes on a variety of social issues and has also run a campaign called “Kahma”, which petitions for all Christians, including converts, to be given the right to worship in a church.

She has fearlessly campaigned, despite the knowledge that her activism will likely land her in prison again.

Earlier this year, Fatemeh wrote an open letter to Iran’s Minister of Intelligence, accusing him of violating the constitution by targeting Christians.

This came after Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi publicly admitted to “inviting” Christian families for questioning to ask them why they had converted.

In her letter, Fatemeh accused him of violating Article 23 of the constitution, which states that “no-one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief”. 

She added that intelligence officials were wrong to search the properties of the converts because the Christians had committed no crime, and said they were “summoned”, not invited, to “inspect their opinion and attempt to remove them from their beliefs”.

Fatemeh was arrested at a house-church meeting in November 2017 and sentenced to six months in prison in April 2018; she was then released, owing to time already served in the women’s ward of the notorious Evin Prison. 

Her letter, which was published by HRANA, referenced Mr. Alavi’s acknowledgment that the Christians who were questioned were “ordinary people”, who had jobs “such as selling sandwiches”. As Article18 reported, this statement marked a huge shift away from Iran’s usual rhetoric that converts are agents of the West who have undergone significant training to undermine national security. 

Fatemeh’s letter queried whether the members of her house church were not also “ordinary”, saying it comprised “several housewives, a salesperson, guard, agricultural engineer, taxi driver, student and others with similar professions … aged between 19 and 60”.

“Were we not ‘ordinary people’ who were threatened by plainclothes agents who searched the house and ransacked everything, without hesitating?” she asked.

Fatemeh also questioned why Christians are prevented from “talking about their beliefs with their peers”, while Muslims can freely engage in “propaganda” at schools, universities, mosques and shrines.

She added that those who had been interrogated would no doubt have seen all these advertisements about Islam, yet, “for whatever reason, they have decided to believe in Christianity, while they are not allowed to go to church, will not hear church bells … not see Christian TV and not have the experts available to them to add to their information”.

She called for “open, free and secure spaces” where people can discuss their ideas with “peace of mind” and said “identifying Christians in an attempt to harass them and inquire into their beliefs is a flagrant violation of the constitution and other domestic and international laws”.

Fatemeh also called on human rights groups to do more to highlight the “oppression” of Persian-speaking Christians in Iran, whom she said are an overlooked minority, recognised and researched only by the international community.

She said Iranian officials should devote their energies to compiling statistics on the numbers of converts in order to “learn the well-founded roots of their problems in this country and society as Christians, not identifying them just for the purpose of inspecting their opinions”.

Fatemeh published another letter in June last year, in which she accused her interrogators of sexual harassment.

Fatemeh was arrested alongside Majidreza Souzanchi, 35, who is still in Evin Prison, serving a five-year sentence – for his membership of the house church and “conducting evangelism” – that in January was reduced to two years

Both of their cases were highlighted in Article18’s annual report in January, which documented rights violations against Christians in 2018. Majidreza was one of at least 14 Christians still in prison in Iran at the start of 2019. Article18 is aware of the arrests of at least a further 37 Christians so far this year.