Supreme Court agrees to retrial of Iranian-Armenian pastor serving 10-year sentence

Supreme Court agrees to retrial of Iranian-Armenian pastor serving 10-year sentence

Iran’s Supreme Court has agreed that an ethnic Armenian pastor serving a 10-year prison sentence for holding church services in his home should be afforded a retrial.

The ruling by the ninth branch of the Supreme Court, dated 25 February, was communicated to Joseph Shahbazian’s lawyer on Monday, 13 March.

In their short explanation, the judges, Ghasem Mezyani and Majid Hosseini-Nik, say that having considered his case, the maximum sentence of 10 years was “not appropriate” as both the Revolutionary and appeal courts failed to “offer any evidence” to prove he was the leader of the group.

Joseph, who has been in Tehran’s Evin Prison since last August, was sentenced under Article 498 of the penal code, which provides for up to 10 years’ imprisonment for those who “establish groups that aim to disrupt national security”. Under Article 499, the maximum sentence for membership – as opposed to leadership – of such a group is five years.

Although Christianity is recognised as a minority religion in Iran’s constitution, in practice this recognition is only given to churches that offer services in the ethnic minority languages of Armenian and Assyrian (both historically Christian groups) and not to Persian-speaking churches – whether these are run by Christian converts or Armenians or Assyrians – and in recent years almost all such churches have been forcibly closed down and many of their leaders arrested and imprisoned.

As a result, hundreds of secret house-churches have cropped up all over Iran, as Iranians who wish to practise the Christian faith in the national language of Persian have no authorised place to worship.

But even though the activities of these house-churches are no different from churches all around the world, they have been labelled “enemy groups” by the regime, and therefore considered to fall within the parameters of the description given in Article 498 regarding “groups that aim to disrupt national security”.

At least a dozen Iranian Christians, including Joseph, are currently serving sentences of imprisonment or exile as a result of their membership or leadership of house-churches.

No date has yet been set for when Joseph’s retrial will be heard by an appeal court.

The two women converts sentenced to six years’ imprisonment in the same case, Mina Khajavi and Malihe Nazari, were not part of the retrial bid.

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