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Fatemeh Bakhteri begins one-year jail sentence

Fatemeh Bakhteri begins one-year jail sentence

Fatemeh Bakhteri presented herself at Tehran’s Evin Prison today to begin her one-year jail sentence.

Fatemeh, who is 35 years old and known as Ilar, was informed in May that her appeal against her sentence, for “propaganda against the regime”, had failed.

Last month, Article18 reported that for Ilar the prospect of a jail sentence was not as frightening as the two-year ban she has been given from all social activities following her release – meaning she will be unable to attend any group meeting of more than two people, effectively cutting her off from gathering with other Christians.

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

But she 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.

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. Last month, five of them had their bail increased tenfold to the equivalent of $130,000, after insisting upon being defended by their own lawyer. Being unable and unprepared to pay such an amount, they were transferred to Evin Prison.

Bookseller jailed for selling Bible

Bookseller jailed for selling Bible

Mostafa Rahimi (Hengaw Organization for Human Rights)

An Iranian bookseller has been sentenced to three months and one day in prison for selling copies of the Bible, according to a Kurdish rights group.

Mostafa Rahimi was reportedly first arrested on 11 June in Bukan, West Azerbaijan Province.

He was then released on bail pending sentencing.

Yesterday, the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights reported that Mostafa was re-arrested in mid-August and that he is now in the central prison of Bukan.

No further details are known at this stage, though Article18 has reached out to the rights group for information.

‘They’re pushing my parents to the limit so they leave Iran’ – Dabrina Bet-Tamraz

‘They’re pushing my parents to the limit so they leave Iran’ – Dabrina Bet-Tamraz

Dabrina Bet-Tamraz (Twitter)

The daughter of an Assyrian-Iranian couple facing jail time for their Christian activities has said she believes the authorities are trying to draw out court proceedings for as long as possible in the hope they leave the country.

An appeal hearing for Dabrina Bet-Tamraz’s mother, Shamiram, is set to take place on Tuesday, 3 September, but Dabrina says her family are disappointed her mother’s case has not been connected to her father’s, as was suggested at the previous appeal hearing in February.

Instead, the appeal hearing on Tuesday will only focus on her mother’s case, and there is as yet no further news as to when the appeals of her father, Victor, and brother, Ramiel, will be heard.

“We were really hoping it was all going to be one case,” Dabrina told Article18. “Either they’re just delaying the process, they haven’t found any documents against my parents, or they are just trying to make them tired, not close the case.

“I think they’re really going to just push them to the limit so that they will leave the country. I don’t believe they [will] put them in prison, but to just let them go is not an option either. So I think they’ve stuck themselves in the process, and they don’t know what to do.”

Dabrina has been publicly advocating on behalf of her parents and other Christians in Iran, and added that she hoped her efforts wouldn’t “affect them negatively”.

Just last month, she spoke at the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, DC, and met with US President Donald Trump. And last year, she addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

In May, Dabrina told the Gatestone Institute that her parents’ lives were “on hold” and that they were “trying to survive, not knowing what is going to happen next, not being able to make plans about their future”. 

“They are living with constant anxiety, powerless, not having security and safety even in their own home,” she said. “They are fully aware of the dangers around them but are not able to do anything to protect themselves. They are watched, controlled and wiretapped; it is their everyday life. Every time they get a phone call, they are filled with fear: It might be Iranian intelligence officers calling them for an interrogation session or a court hearing.”

Dabrina’s father and mother are facing ten and five years in prison, respectively.

Pastor Victor was sentenced in July 2017 alongside three converts to Christianity – Hadi Asgari and Kavian Fallah-Mohammadi, who also received ten-year sentences, and Amin Afshar-Naderi, who received an additional five years (so 15 in all) for “insulting the sacred” (blasphemy).

Shamiram was sentenced to five years in prison in January 2018.

Dabrina’s brother, Ramiel, was also sentenced to four months in prison in July 2018, but then released owing to time already served. However, he is still appealing to have the sentence quashed.

In February 2019, a judge postponed an appeal hearing for Shamiram, ruling that her appeal should be heard alongside that of her husband’s.

But now, more than six months later, it seems that decision has come to nothing, as only Shamiram’s lawyers were informed of the appeal hearing on Tuesday, not her husband’s.

Pastor Victor’s case has received widespread international coverage and was the subject of a petition by Amnesty International in August last year.

Earlier this month, the US Vice-President, Mike Pence, specifically singled out his case, and that of 65-year-old convert Mahrokh Ghanbari, in calling persecution against Christians in Iran “an affront to religious freedom”.

Iranian Christian refugees’ families targeted by intelligence agency

Iranian Christian refugees’ families targeted by intelligence agency

Vahid Roufegarbashi, known as Nathan, with his wife Mahsa and their three-year-old son Benjamin (Photo: Article18)

An Iranian Christian couple now living as refugees in America are concerned for their families back home after both were targeted by the intelligence service.

Vahid Roufegarbashi, who is known as Nathan, and his wife Mahsa, both of whom are 31 years old, resettled in the US in March 2017.

Six years earlier, in July 2011, Nathan was arrested for handing out Christian literature in a village in north-western Iran, near his home city of Tabriz. He was released 38 days later on a bail equivalent to $18,000 and fled the country just ten days later, having been informed that the Tehran branch of the Ministry of Intelligence wanted to interrogate him at the city’s notorious Evin Prison about his Internet ministry to other Christians in Iran.

Ever since, with Nathan first living in Turkey and now the US, the intelligence agency has turned its attention towards his family, and also Mahsa’s.

Just five days ago, on 19 August, Nathan’s family received the latest of several “visits” from intelligence agents. 

When the agents realised no-one was home, they called Nathan’s parents from a neighbour’s phone, with the message that they were looking for Nathan and that they wanted him to come back to prison.

The agents added that they had been given permission to come to Nathan’s family home at any time, to search it, and even to break down the door if nobody was home.

Nathan says his parents, both of whom were questioned by border officials after visiting him while he was living in Turkey, are being targeted because of his and Mahsa’s continued role as pastors ministering to Christians in Iran via the Internet.

Speaking to Article18 today, he said: “They’re trying to break my parents’ reputation in the neighbourhood because they come to my parents’ house and all neighbours are watching them – how many times they came.”

He called on Christians around the world to pray for his family, and Mahsa’s.

Mahsa’s father, Ismaeil Maghrebinejad, was arrested in January at his home in Shiraz, as Article18 reported.  

He was released on bail six days later after posting bail equivalent to $800. The authorities initially demanded five times more but agreed to the smaller sum after he protested.

Ismaeil was charged with “propaganda against the state and insulting the sacred Iranian establishment”.

“I ask the Christian world to pray for my family,” Nathan said. “Because nothing can prevent me from serving the Lord.”

When asked whether the pressure on his family had caused him to question his ongoing ministry, Nathan said: “No, because Jesus said, ‘Anyone who wants to follow me needs to take up their cross and follow me,’ and I know this is my cross.” 

Mahsa added that she and her husband are extremely grateful for the love their families have shown to them, in spite of the ensuing difficulties.

“They just try to be strong, and even sometimes they didn’t tell us about things the intelligence service did to them because they don’t want to bother us,” she said.

Article18 has noted an escalation in the number of reports of harassment against the family members of active Christians by Iran’s security institutions. This worrying trend will be the subject of an upcoming report by Article18.

Nathan Roufegarbashi

Nathan Roufegarbashi

Article18 spoke with Nathan via Skype, with his wife Mahsa translating. The couple have been living in Dallas, Texas since March 2017. They met while Nathan was living as a refugee in Turkey, having fled Iran following his arrest in July 2011.

Nathan, Mahsa and their three-year-old son Benjamin

Please can you tell me when you became a Christian and the pressures you faced as a result?

I started to believe in Jesus Christ in 2007, when I was 19 years old. 

In 2008, I started an Internet church, and I started an Internet ministry through it.

On 15 July 2011, my friend and I are were distributing some New Testaments in one of the cities of Iran and the security police arrested us.

We had some pamphlets and we had 700 New Testaments that we were giving as presents to people who were interested. It was in Kaleybar village, in East Azerbaijan province, north Iran. 

We saw the security police car coming to us, so we tried to escape, but our motorcycle flipped over and through that accident my head was bumped on the ground and also one of my friend’s legs was broken.

So the security police could arrest us and, at the moment they found us at that accident, they started beating us.

They beat us so bad that the people who were living in that village were telling each other, “They are both dead”, because they beat us very terribly.

So they transported us to the security police office station of Ettela’at [the intelligence agency]. So we were in Ettela’at until 31 July for interrogations, and then they sent us to Ahar Prison.

And on 19 July, as I was in the security office, they sent some officers to my parents’ house [in Tabriz]. I was living in my parents’ house, as everyone does in Iran. 

During the time I was in Ettela’at, I was in a cell alone, with no restroom or any other facilities in that cell, and in a very scheduled time I could go out and use a restroom or take a bath. And I always had a blindfold on my eyes when I wanted to leave the room. Even during the interrogations, I always had a blindfold.

So in interrogations I was sitting in front of a wall and I had a blindfold; someone was behind me doing the interrogation; and I just could see from down below my blindfold, and there was paper and a pen. I needed to write even with a blindfold what I was telling them.

When they sent me to prison on 31 July, they sent me to a part of the prison which was for murderers and traffickers – the criminal part, not for political prisoners.

And as the prison was full and there was no space for me, the only place I had to sleep was on the ground.

On 31 August, I could get released from prison by putting a bail of 20 million tomans, which was more than $16,000 at that time.

After I got released, Ettela’at was calling me sometimes.

After a while Ettela’at called me and said, “You need to come back for more interrogations, to talk about other ministries you have in other cities of Iran.” Because, they said, “You are not just charged for giving as presents the New Testaments to people; now we know you were serving also.”

So they called me and said, “You need to come for one interrogation and talk about your ministry that you have, and we need some more information. If you do not come and talk about it, Tehran Ettela’at also wants you to be in Evin Prison for more interrogations.”

That last call from Ettela’at was on 8 September. So on 9 September, the day after, I left my house, and on 12 September I fled Iran by walking over the mountains.

So I lived in Turkey for five and a half years, and now I’m living here in America.

During the time I was living in Turkey, many times they threatened my family in Iran and tried to persecute them. 

So during the time I was living in Turkey, they called my family and said, “We know where is Nathan living right now and we took many pictures of him, and just tell him not to serve anymore, tell him not to do any Christian activities.”

So they persecuted my family by by bothering them, calling them lots, and threatening them about what they are going to do. 

They were anyway suffering because their son had to leave their

country, and be far from them, and live outside – and just because I converted to another religion I had to become a refugee.

In January 2014, Ettela’at called my father and my brother, inviting them for interrogation. 

Then on 31 January 2017, when my mother was coming back from Turkey, because she came to visit us, while she was at the airport they took her passport.

And they didn’t give it back to her till 15 March. 

But then she came after that, on 29 March, to visit me in Turkey, but when she was coming back from Turkey, at the Bazargan border, they asked her questions again.

There was also another time when my father was coming back from Turkey to Iran and they asked him questions at the border.

In the summer of 2018, they came to my parents’ house, they searched the house and they were looking for me, and they wanted to arrest my brother instead of me, because they said, “No, you are Nathan.”

I just want to mention here also that my name is Vahid Roufegarbashi, but with the name Nathan I’m serving as a pastor of the Internet church.

In May 2019 they again came to my parents’ house, searching for me to arrest me.

One of the reasons they still want to persecute my family is I’m still serving as a pastor of the Internet church.

We need to go back a little bit… So in the summer of 2012, one year after I was released from prison on bail, the court decided to take all my bail. So I had to sell all I had in Iran to pay that money to the court.

Were you still in Iran at that point? 

No, I was outside Iran, but I had a car and other things, and whatever I had I had to sell to pay the money to the court. 

And what would happen if you didn’t pay?

My family submitted the title deeds of our house to the court to get my release. So if I didn’t pay, the court would sell the house, take the money they wanted, and then give the rest of the money to my family.

On 19 August 2019, some officers came to my parents’ house and no-one was home, so they asked their neighbour. The neighbour called my father and said, “Some officers are looking for you.” And so my father talked to the police officers through the neighbour’s phone and asked “What’s going on?” And they said, “We are looking for Nathan and he needs come to prison and introduce himself here. And we have permission from the court to come to your house and search it, and also we have permission to break the lock of the door if you’re not home. And we can come anytime and break the lock of the door. This is the permission we have from the court.”

So the day after, my father went to the court and asked, “What’s the problem?”

They again said, “We have permission from the court and your son has to come to the court.”

My father has heart disease and he had heart surgery, a bypass, and angiography. And he’s sick, but the police come to my parents’ house, and it’s not good for the neighbours and for the situation for our family, because the neighbours are like, “Oh, the police have come again!” 

So it’s not good, they’re trying to disturb my parents’ reputation between the neighbours and in the neighbourhood because they come a lot to my parents’ house and all the neighbours are watching them, how many times they came, and they call a lot and try to persecute them, and it causes stress for my parents, and it’s not good.

And as police know that I was a pastor in a local church in Turkey, and I still am the pastor of the Internet church even in America, and I’m serving through the Internet, they try to stop me by making pressure on my family.

So from 2011 until now, they are still persecuted.

In one aspect they are persecuted because their son is thousands of miles away and can’t come back to Iran. Also the police officers inside Iran, by calling them and interrogating them, they persecute my family.

So I ask the Christian world to pray for my family, because nothing can prevent me from serving the Lord.

And also, my father-in-law was arrested in February. And this is another way of persecuting us, because Mahsa’s father is a Christian. And now he is out on bail.

Have you ever reconsidered your ministry because of the threats to your family?

No.

Jesus says, “Anyone who wants to follow me needs to take his cross and follow me”, and I know this is my cross also.

Have you felt any pressure from your family because of the problems that they’re facing?

Mahsa

What I saw is that they are always patient with us. And it’s like they know it’s our decision to serve or not to serve. I myself never saw them try to stop Nathan. But you know, when they are under hard pressure, I guess they sometimes wish we don’t serve, but they never tried to mention it or force us, “Don’t do it.” They just try to be strong. And even sometimes they didn’t even want to scare us by telling us what [the police] did to them.

Have they been able to visit you in America?

Nathan

No.

So when did you last see them?

March 2017, when we moved to America.

And when do you think you might next be able to see them?

We must go back to a neighbouring country to visit. I don’t know when. 

But it’s a persecution for us [not to be able to see them]. 

Is it not possible for them to visit you in America?

It’s impossible. They can’t come to America to visit us.

When did you marry?

2013.

Did you meet in Iran or in Turkey?

In Istanbul. 

And my wife also can’t go back to Iran because she is a servant of the Internet church and was a servant of the local church in Turkey. And because of her marriage to me.


A few days after this interview, Mahsa gave birth to twin baby boys, Joshua and Josiah.

‘End criminalisation of peaceful expression of faith,’ UN rapporteur tells Iran

‘End criminalisation of peaceful expression of faith,’ UN rapporteur tells Iran

Javaid Rehman (UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré/Flickr) 

Iran’s failure to uphold freedom of religion or belief is a central concern of the latest report by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran.

Javaid Rehman notes that, as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran is obliged to provide its citizens with “freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of their choice, or not to have or adopt a religion, and the freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching”.

He points out that, while Christians are a recognised religious minority, alongside Jews and Zoroastrians, such recognition is not afforded to Muslims who convert to Christianity.

“Even for the recognised religious minorities, there is no provision under the legal system of the Islamic Republic of Iran permitting conversions from Islam, which is considered apostasy,” he writes. “This puts Christian converts from Islam at risk of persecution. Apostasy is not codified as an Islamic Penal Code offence, but conversion from Islam is punishable by death.”

While in reality it is rare for converts to Christianity to be sentenced to death, Mr. Rehman notes that the possibility remains and has precedent in the case of pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who was sentenced to death in 2010. 

Meanwhile, as converts are “not granted access to officially recognised Christian churches,” Mr. Rehman says this “forces them to gather clandestinely in informal ‘house churches’”, attendance of which can lead to “arrests, detention and repeated interrogations about their faith”.

“Most Christian converts who have been arrested and detained have been charged with ‘propaganda against the system’, ‘propagation of Zionist evangelical Christianity’ or ‘administering and managing the home churches’,” Mr. Rehman adds.

He cites the recent example of Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad, one of nine Christians arrested in Rasht in early 2019, and also the case of pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, who is facing a ten-year prison sentence, and his wife and son, who were also given prison sentences because of their Christian activities.

Mr. Rehman adds that converts have been “subjected to sexual abuse and ill treatment” during detention. 

“One young woman had reportedly been repeatedly subjected to sexual assault by a policeman, leaving her traumatized and requiring treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in a psychiatric hospital,” he writes. “In a separate case, a young male Christian convert detained in Tehran was allegedly hit with wooden sticks and his head banged against a wall.”

Mr. Rehman’s very first recommendation to the Supreme Leader is an amendment to Article 13 of Iran’s Constitution, such that “all religious minorities and those who do not hold any religious beliefs are recognized and able to fully enjoy the right to freedom of religion or belief”.

He calls for amendments to “all articles in the Islamic Penal Code that discriminate on the basis of religious or belief”, and for due process and fair-trial guarantees, “including access to a lawyer of their choosing” to be afforded to all persons accused of a crime. (Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad and four of his co-defendants recently had their bail amounts increased tenfold after insisting on being allowed to choose their own lawyer.)

Mr. Rehman also calls on Iran’s government to “refrain from targeting members of recognized and non-recognized religious minorities with national security-related charges”, to “refrain from persecuting peaceful religious gatherings in private homes and other premises, refrain from convicting religious leaders and cease the monitoring of citizens on account of their religious identity”,  and to “end the criminalisation of the peaceful expression of faith”.

He also wants places of worship for all religious minorities to be opened, including “new churches throughout the country”.

Mr. Rehman had pledged last month to look into the treatment of Christian converts in Iran “very seriously”, saying he was “personally very concerned” about the issue.

US Vice President ‘appalled’ at sentencing of 61-year-old woman convert

US Vice President ‘appalled’ at sentencing of 61-year-old woman convert

(Twitter @VP)

US Vice President Mike Pence says he is “appalled” by the one-year jail sentence given to a 61-year-old woman convert to Christianity.

Rokhsareh (Mahrokh) Ghanbari was notified of her sentence on Monday, two days after her appearance at a Revolutionary Court in Karaj. She was convicted of “propaganda against the system”.

Mr. Pence said Mahrokh had been punished “for exercising her freedom to worship”.

He added that the “persecution” of people like Mahrokh and pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, who is facing a ten-year prison sentence, were “an affront to religious freedom”.

Mahrokh was arrested just before Christmas 2018 during a raid on her home in Karaj. She 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).

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

Victor Bet-Tamraz was arrested during a raid on his home while celebrating Christmas in 2014. He 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.

Victor’s wife, 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.

Their son, Ramiel, was then among a group of five Christians arrested during a picnic gathering in Tehran in August 2016. He 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.