Converts face second trial on identical charges

Converts face second trial on identical charges

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

Three house-church members already facing five years in prison for “engaging in propaganda and education of deviant beliefs contrary to the holy Sharia” have today been informed they must return to court next week to face a second trial on identical charges.

Ahmad Sarparast, Morteza Mashoodkari, and Ayoob Poor-Rezazadeh, who were only sentenced in April, were re-arrested in May, before their appeals in their initial case had even been rejected, and they remain in detention in Lakan Prison in Rasht, northern Iran.

Now they have been told their second trial will take place next Tuesday, 19 July, at the same court that sentenced them the first time, the 2nd Branch of the Revolutionary Court of Rasht. 

Ahmad, Morteza and Ayoob, all members of the controversial “Church of Iran” denomination, gave their final defence last week via video link from prison.

During that hearing, on 5 July, the three men presented an almost identical argument to their previous final defence in February, when they stated they were “just Christians worshipping according to the Bible” and “have not engaged in any propaganda against the regime or any action against national security”. 

This time, in their second “final defence”, Ahmad, Morteza and Ayoob said they wanted to be “dealt with according to the constitution”, under which Christianity is a recognised minority faith.

“We are Christians,” they said, “and we reserve the right to have a place for prayer and collective worship.”

They again denied engaging in “any activities contrary to the country’s laws”.

But despite these protestations, today they were informed they must again prepare to be tried for allegedly continuing to engage in “propaganda and education of deviant beliefs contrary to the holy Sharia”.

This wording is lifted directly from the new Article 500 of the penal code, which was amended last year amid concerns it may be used to target minority-faith adherents. 

Four others acquitted

Behnam Akhlaghi (left) and Babak Hosseinzadeh.

The new case against Ahmad, Morteza and Ayoob initially included four others, two of whom – Behnam Akhlaghi and Babak Hosseinzadeh – were only released from separate five-year sentences in January.

However, Behnam, Babak and the other two men were informed today they will not have to face trial in this case.

Behnam and Babak were among nine “Church of Iran” members acquitted by the Supreme Court in November, with the judge concluding their involvement in house-churches or even the propagation of what was pejoratively referred to as the “Evangelical Zionist sect” could not be deemed an “action against national security”. 

But just six weeks after their release, Behnam and Babak were re-arrested and told they faced new charges of “propaganda against the state”, in a case that remains open.

They were arrested again in May, alongside Ahmad, Morteza and Ayoob, and the ongoing legal proceedings against all five men shows there is still a desperate need for the Iranian authorities to provide clarity on the question of where converts can worship.

This question, voiced so eloquently by Behnam and Babak and another imprisoned convert, Saheb Fadaie, back in October, has become the focus of a campaign, titled “Place2Worship“.

The question these converts are asking is simple: where can they worship while not fearing arrest and imprisonment?

For although Christianity is a recognised religion in Iran, converts are not recognised as Christians and are prohibited from attending the churches of the recognised Christians of Armenian and Assyrian descent, who are themselves only permitted to preach in their own ethnic languages and not in the national language of Persian.

So, as Behnam asked in his October video: “If attending a house-church is considered a crime, and churches are closed off – or even if a church is open then it is limited to special individuals who can anyway only participate with restrictions – then as a Christian who is told, ‘We respect you, your faith, and the path you have chosen,’ my question is: in view of this respect, how and where should I perform my religious rites?”

Or as Babak put it: “When I am released, will you put me back in prison again because I continue to believe in Christ? Will I be separated from my family again? Will I still be threatened with exile? The churches in our city have been closed down, the doors are shut, so we can’t worship in a church building. The churches that remain open are accessible for only certain people – those born into Christian families – and not to us [converts]. Because of this, and the closure of the other churches, we have no church building in which to worship. So I want you to answer my question: ‘Where am I to worship after these five years [in prison]?’”

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