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Converts charged with ‘deviant propaganda’ under amended Article 500

Converts charged with ‘deviant propaganda’ under amended Article 500

Left to right: Ahmad Sarparast, Morteza Mashoodkari, and Ayoob Poor-Rezazadeh.

Three Christian converts from the northern city of Rasht are the latest to be charged under last year’s controversial amendments to Article 500 of the penal code, and could now face up to 10 years in prison.

Ayoob Poor-Rezazadeh, Ahmad Sarparast, and Morteza Mashoodkari were officially charged last Tuesday, 25 January, with “engaging in propaganda and educational activities for deviant beliefs contrary to the holy Sharia”, and “connections with foreign leaders”.

The charges are lifted directly from the amended Article 500, which was expanded last year to include the vaguely-defined “deviant educational activities contrary to Islam”, which has already been used against several other Christians, including three converts from Karaj now serving three-year prison sentences.

Article 500 has long been used in the prosecution of Christian converts, but since last year’s amendments the terms under which charges can be brought are now much looser, and the maximum punishment has also increased from one to five years, or even 10 years in cases where the defendants are found to have received “financial or organisational help from abroad”.

And the fear now is that Ayoob, Ahmad and Morteza may face the stiffest possible punishment, given that the court document from the 4th Branch of the Civil and Revolutionary Court of Rasht makes explicit reference to their alleged ties with leaders abroad.

The document, signed by prosecutor Hassan Rajabi, also specifically references the trio’s membership of the non-Trinitarian “Church of Iran”, and goes on to label them “Satan-worshippers who believe in the end of the world, the divisions between sects and races, the return of the Jews to their promised land, and the superiority of this race [Jews] to others, which proves the claim that they are working for foreign elements”.

And while this denomination has non-traditional views regarding the Trinity, much of the rest of its teachings are entirely in keeping with the wider Church, making allegations of “Satan worship” seem an obvious attempt to vilify the group and lessen public sympathy for them.

Article18’s advocacy director Mansour Borji commented: “This kind of labelling of a religious group, whatever their belief, in an official court document, shows a clear disregard by the Iranian authorities to their responsibilities as signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the rights to freedom of belief for all citizens, whatever those beliefs are.

“Even the wording of Article 500 is at odds with Iran’s responsibilities in this regard, as it is clearly not the state’s job to decide whether an individual’s beliefs are ‘normal’ or not, let alone to prosecute them for these beliefs.”

Ayoob, Ahmad and Morteza now await their next court hearing, during which they will give their final defence, and then await the verdict.