Pastor arrested at Christmas gathering during leave from prison

Pastor arrested at Christmas gathering during leave from prison

A “Church of Iran” pastor who had been on leave from prison since last summer was rearrested at a Christmas gathering in Bandar Anzali, north Iran, on 26 December. 

Two church members were also arrested that evening and, a week later, so was the pastor’s wife.

The pastor, Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad, known as Matthias, is already serving a six-year prison sentence for his religious activities; however, he had been on leave from prison since July.

But on 26 December, Matthias and two church members, named Amir and Masoud, were arrested and taken to Lakan Prison in nearby Rasht.

Before his transfer to prison, Matthias was taken to his home, where it was searched and his personal items, including laptops and everything to do with Christianity, were confiscated.

A week later, his wife, Anahita, was summoned for questioning at the intelligence offices in Bandar Anzali, where she was also arrested and transferred to Lakan.

Matthias, who is 49 years old, has been arrested on numerous occasions, dating back to 2006.

In 2021, he was one of nine converts acquitted by the Supreme Court of a five-year prison sentence for “propagating Christianity”, in what was seen as a potentially landscape-shifting verdict. However, just two weeks after his release on bail, Matthias was rearrested and ordered to serve a previous six-year sentence on the same charge, even though that sentence had been successfully overturned on appeal back in 2014.

Anahita has also been arrested before and was among 11 converts charged more than a decade ago with “apostasy”, before their acquittal following two fatwas by leading ayatollahs Safi Golpaygani and Yousef Saanei.

The reason for the latest arrests is not known, nor is it known whether any of the four have faced any official, or unofficial, charges. Amir was released on bail earlier today, but Matthias, Anahita and Masoud remain in detention.

What is the ‘Church of Iran’?

Many members of the “Church of Iran” denomination, which follows the teaching of William Branham, have been imprisoned in recent years, the most famous being Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who was once sentenced to death for “apostasy” and whose current detention was ruled as “arbitrary” by a UN working group in 2021.

The denomination’s views on the Trinity are unorthodox, leading some sections of the wider Church to disassociate themselves from the group. 

The controversy surrounding them has also been used by the Iranian regime as a way of presenting its members as “deviant”. For example, in the case of three church members sentenced last year to five years in prison for “spreading deviant beliefs contrary to Islam”, the prosecutor called them “Satan-worshippers”.

Article18’s director, Mansour Borji, commented at the time: “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.”

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