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Youhan Omidi returns home from four years’ prison and exile

Youhan Omidi returns home from four years’ prison and exile

After two years in prison and nearly two more in internal exile over 1,000km from his home and family – not to mention being flogged for drinking Communion wine – Mohammad Reza (Youhan) Omidi is finally free, at least for now.

The 49-year-old, who begun his exile in September 2020, four weeks after concluding a two-year prison sentence for “acting against national security by propagating house-churches and promoting ‘Zionist’ Christianity”, was on 6 June told he could return home for 14 days’ leave, after which his term in exile would be considered complete.

He is now finally back home in Rasht, northern Iran, with his wife Maryam, and daughters Sara and Sandra, after completing his final 15-hour journey from his city of exile in the far south, Borazjan.

Youhan was one of four house-church leaders from the “Church of Iran” denomination to be sentenced to 10 years in prison in July 2017, alongside Yousef Nadarkhani, Zaman (Saheb) Fadaie and Mohammad Ali (Yasser) Mossayebzadeh.

In June 2020, Youhan’s sentence was reduced at a retrial to two years and Saheb and Yousef’s to six. Yasser, who had not applied for a retrial, was granted conditional release in February 2021 on the proviso he engaged in no further Christian activity, and it was understood he was pressured to recant his faith in order to secure an early release.

Youhan was released from Tehran’s Evin Prison just two months after the retrial, but forced to journey into exile – another part of his sentence that had not been reduced – less than a month later.

Then, just one month into his exile, he was called back to Rasht so that a separate sentence of 80 lashes for drinking Communion wine could be carried out.

Saheb was also flogged for the same “offence”, while Yousef, who was once sentenced to death for “apostasy”, must also endure a two-year term in exile following his eventual release from prison, scheduled for 2024.

Left to right: Saheb Fadaie, Yousef Nadarkhani, Yasser Mossayebzadeh, and Youhan Omidi.

The UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled in 2020 that Yousef’s detention at least is illegal on four grounds – lack of legal basis for detention; detention resulting from “legitimate exercise” of freedoms; lack of fair trial and due process; and “discrimination based on religious beliefs”.

And while two of the four men are now free, it has come at huge personal cost to both them and their families, and there is little hope that either will remain free from further prosecution should they again practise the faith for which they were imprisoned.

It is for this reason that Saheb and two other prisoners of conscience, Behnam Akhlaghi and Babak Hosseinzadeh, last year called for clarity on the question of where they could worship once released. 

This action inspired what became the #Place2Worship campaign, calling on all Persian-speaking Christians to be given a place in which they can worship, free from the fear of arrest and imprisonment.

For while on paper Iran affords Christians freedom of religion as one of three recognised religious minorities, in practice such freedom only extends to the ethnic Armenian and Assyrian minorities, and only in so far as they worship in their own ethnic languages and keep this faith to themselves.

Those who break the mould are punished as severely as converts to Christianity, as seen most recently in the 10-year sentences given to two Iranian-Armenian Christians, Joseph Shahbazian and Anooshavan Avedian, who dared to share their faith with others.

So while today we rejoice with Youhan and his family, it remains clear that tomorrow may well bring trouble of its own.

Youhan with his wife Maryam and daughters Sara and Sandra.

Youhan has already been contacted by Ministry of Intelligence agents since his return home and warned against any contact with or attempt to gather with other Christians.

At the same time, he must also now attempt to pick up the threads of a working life so abruptly halted after his arrest six years ago, when he was just an ordinary salesman.

All Youhan’s goods were confiscated that day, and they have not been returned. 

So now Youhan must begin again, with no goods, nor capital, nor any possibility to work in a government-run organisation, and all the while knowing that many employers are actively discouraged from employing converts.

The road ahead continues to look anything but straightforward for the Omidi family and the many others like them.