Seven Iranian Christians sentenced to total of 32 years in prison

Seven Iranian Christians sentenced to total of 32 years in prison

Malihe Nazari (left), Joseph Shahbazian and Mina Khajavi face a combined 22 years in prison.

An Iranian-Armenian pastor has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and two Christian women converts to six years for their leadership roles within house-churches.

The Iranian-Armenian, Joseph Shahbazian, also faces a two-year term in exile in a remote province in the southeast of Iran following his incarceration, and a two-year ban on travelling abroad or membership of any social or political group.

Joseph must also report to the offices of Iran’s intelligence service for two years after his release on an unspecified “seasonal basis”.

The four other Christian converts in the case – Salar Eshraghi Moghadam, Farhad KhazaeeSomayeh (Sonya) Sadegh and her mother Masoumeh Ghasemi – were sentenced to between one and four years’ imprisonment for membership of house-churches, but permitted to pay fines (equivalent to between $800-$1,250 each) instead of going to prison.

However, there was no such clemency for Joseph, who is 58 years old, nor for the two other converts, Mina Khajavi, who is 59, and Malihe Nazari, 49, who could not attend the court hearing on 29 May because she was visiting her son, who has leukaemia, in hospital.

Judge Iman Afshari, head of the 26th Branch of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran, who is fast building a reputation for harsh sentences against Christians, was particularly scathing towards Joseph in his verdict yesterday, stating: “The papers of this case file indicate that this person, who considers himself an Armenian [an ethnic group recognised as Christian in Iran] and has travelled abroad several times and attended a gathering in Turkey, having established a group to attract Muslims, and under the cover of religious programmes for prayer, has propagated Evangelical Christianity, and with illegal activities and unfounded claims has abused people’s inner weaknesses and attracted some of them to the membership of his group.”

A growing reputation

Judge Afshari also recently handed down a 10-year sentence to another Iranian-Armenian Christian, Anooshavan Avedian, while he was also responsible for jailing another Christian woman convert, Fariba Dalir, who is now serving a two-year sentence.

Iran is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which enshrines religious freedom, including the freedom to change and to propagate one’s faith. 

However, as exemplified in Judge Afshari’s latest verdict, the propagation of Evangelical Christianity is often construed as “propaganda” against the Islamic Republic, and therefore an “action against national security”.

Indeed, Joseph, Mina and Malihe now face prison for this very reason: that, according to the judgment, by organising and establishing house-churches they acted with “the intention of disturbing national security”.

At the same time, the judgment even acknowledged the Christians’ charitable activities “to both Christians and non-Christians” – such as handing out food parcels during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic – but this did not save them.

Pressured to point the finger

The court hearing on 29 May lasted more than four hours, and Article18 understands the defendants were pressured by Judge Afshari to blame Joseph for their conversions, with the promise of lighter sentences should they comply.

When they refused, the judge reportedly threatened to increase their sentences.

Article18 also understands that Judge Afshari used harsh and sarcastic language against the Christians to humiliate them and denigrate their beliefs, and that when their lawyer objected, the judge replied that he was “only joking”.

Another Article18 source reported that the judge not only failed to act impartially, but even spoke in defence of the charges and failed to ask the prosecutor’s representative even one question about the legality of the case against the defendants and their activities, despite the repeated objections of the Christians’ lawyer to this effect.