Iranian-Armenian pastor begins 10-year prison sentence

Iranian-Armenian pastor begins 10-year prison sentence

An Iranian-Armenian pastor has today begun serving a 10-year prison sentence for holding church services in his home.

Joseph Shahbazian, who is 58 years old, was yesterday given 24 hours to hand himself in to the authorities at Tehran’s Evin Prison, and did so today at around midday, Iranian time.

Meanwhile, a Christian convert sentenced to six years in prison for her involvement in Joseph’s “house-church” was given a stay of execution, because she is still recovering from a broken leg.

Mina Khajavi, who is 59 years old, also received a summons to prison yesterday, but was today told by the prison authorities that she could return home until she has recovered.

Mina’s leg was broken in three places as a result of a recent car accident, and she was only released from her cast two days ago. The authorities at Evin told her that a government-certified doctor must now review her medical records and confirm her condition, upon which she may be given up to six weeks’ recovery time before being required to serve her sentence.

Two other Christian converts, mother and daughter Masoumeh Ghasemi and Somayeh (Sonya) Sadegh, were also summoned yesterday to pay within 24 hours fines of 24 million ($950) and 40 million ($1,275) tomans, respectively.

Masoumeh and Sonya had also been handed prison sentences of one year and four years, respectively, but were permitted by the judge to pay fines instead.

The same was true for two other converts in the case, Farhad Khazaee and Salar Eshraghi Moghadam, who again were sentenced to one year and four years, respectively, but permitted to pay fines instead.

Article18 understands that the seventh Christian in the case, 49-year-old convert Malihe Nazari, is also now in Evin Prison, serving her six-year prison sentence.


Left to right: Malihe Nazari, Mina Khajavi, Joseph Shahbazian, Sonya Sadegh, and Masoumeh Ghasemi.

The seven Christians in the case were among at least 35 Christians arrested or interrogated by intelligence agents belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in a coordinated operation over two days and across three cities in the summer of 2020.

They were eventually sentenced in June this year, and their appeals were rejected just two weeks ago.

Another Iranian-Armenian pastor, 60-year-old Anooshavan Avedian, is also awaiting a summons in a separate case to serve a 10-year sentence on similar charges.

Meanwhile, an elderly man with Parkinson’s disease, Homayoun Zhaveh, and his wife, Sara Ahmadi, recently began serving their own prison sentences, of two and eight years, respectively, also as a result of charges relating to their involvement in a house-church.

In Iran, while Christians are one of three officially recognised religious minorities, converts are not recognised as Christians and are not permitted to attend the churches of the “recognised” Christians of Armenian and Assyrian descent – Christians like Joseph and Anooshavan, who themselves are not permitted to proselytise.

At the same time, Iran is a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which enshrines freedom of religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion and to share it with others.

However, in reality, there is no such freedom, as seen clearly in the above-mentioned cases, which all relate to Christians worshipping together in their homes because Persian-speaking Christians have no place to worship, as highlighted in the Place2Worship campaign.

Last week, eight UN experts called on the Iranian authorities to stop “persecuting and harassing” members of religious minorities, including Christian converts.

On the same day, the British Ambassador to Iran, Simon Shercliff, tweeted a message in the Persian language promoting religious freedom, including freedom to share one’s faith with others and to change one’s belief.

“Everyone should be free to choose any religion/belief, practise it freely, share their religion … and also freely change their religion/belief,” he wrote.

Also that same day, 22 August, which is the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, the Secretary-General of the Spanish Evangelical Alliance, Emilio Carmona, wrote to the Iranian embassy in Spain about the cases of Joseph, Anooshavan, Mina and Malihe.

“These people were simply exercising their freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as their freedom of expression, as defined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ratified by their country,” he wrote.

“This case leads me to ask you: if Christians cannot meet in their homes, where should they meet to worship? I know there are many Christians in Iran, so they should be able to meet somewhere. Can Christian believers be safe when they go to a church to worship together?”

Earlier this month, Article18 joined partner organisations CSW, Open Doors, Middle East Concern and the World Evangelical Alliance in sending a joint report to the UN’s Human Rights Committee on the situation of Christians in Iran, in which we asked the committee to demand that Iran answers that very question:

“Please clarify how Persian speakers in Iran, whatever their ethnicity, may freely gather to worship, as envisaged by Article 18 of the [International] Covenant [on Civil and Political Rights],” we wrote.

We continue to await an answer.

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