Date set for historic appeal hearing

Date set for historic appeal hearing

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

Eight of the nine converts recently released from prison pending a review of their case have been told their appeal will be heard next month.

The eight men – Shahrooz EslamdoustBehnam Akhlaghi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi KhatibiKhalil Dehghanpour, Hossein KadivarKamal Naamanian and Mohammad Vafadar – were informed yesterday by SMS that their appeal will be heard on 22 February at Branch 34 of Tehran’s appeal court.

The only member of the group not to have been summoned is Abdolreza (Matthias) Ali-Haghnejad, who just two weeks after his release was sent back to prison to serve a separate six-year sentence, of which he had been acquitted seven years previously.

Before their release at the turn of the year, the nine men had been serving five-year sentences for “acting against national security” by “promoting ‘Zionist’ Christianity”. 

But on 3 November Branch 28 of the Supreme Court ruled that “merely preaching Christianity, and promoting the ‘Evangelical Zionist sect’, both of which apparently means propagating Christianity through family gatherings [house-churches] is not a manifestation of gathering and collusion to disrupt the security of the country, whether internally or externally”.

The unexpected ruling sent shockwaves through the Persian-speaking Christian community in Iran, seen as a shaft of light that may one day allow for Persian-speaking Christians to meet together to pray and worship without fearing arrest and imprisonment.

Another shaft of light came later the same month, on 30 November, when a public prosecutor in the western city of Dezful ruled that eight other Christian converts should not be charged, as the men had “merely converted to a different religion” and “didn’t carry out any propaganda against other groups”, while “apostasy has not been criminalised in the laws of Iran”.

However, the sense of optimism has dissipated in recent weeks following two other Supreme Court rulings – firstly rejecting the appeal of a Christian couple facing a combined 10 years in prison, and then in the ruling to re-open the historic case against Matthias.

Optimism has been further dampened in recent weeks by the rash of incidents – most not yet publicly reported – targeting Persian-speaking Christians in Iran. 

Already this year, Article18 has been made aware of 14 incidents – for example a raid on a Christian home or house-church – compared to 38 across the whole of 2021, as shown in our newly released annual report.

The consequence of all these events, taken together, makes for quite the confusing picture, as the Persian-speaking Christian community both inside and outside the country holds its breath at the outcome of this potentially ground-breaking appeal.

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