Sixteen converts to Christianity in the southwestern city of Bushehr are facing time in prison after their convictions were upheld at an appeal hearing last month.
Twelve have been sentenced to a year in prison; the sentences of the other four were reduced to five months at a hearing on 5 March at the 4th Branch of Bushehr’s Appeal Court, the verdict of which was communicated to them last week. A seventeenth member of the group was acquitted after protesting that he was not a Christian and never had been.
Article18 has seen a copy of the appeal-court verdict, but the case against the converts is complex and the majority of them have requested to remain anonymous, which further complicates the reporting of their case.
In June 2018, Article18 reported that 12 Christians had been sentenced to a year’s imprisonment for “propaganda activities against the regime through the formation of house churches”. They were sentenced under Article 500 of Iran’s Penal Code, which provides for up to a year’s imprisonment for those found guilty of “any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or support of opposition groups and associations”.
At the time of their sentencing, only 12 Christians were named in the court documents. But the appeal-court verdict names a further five, including the one acquitted.
The converts have been on bail since their sentencing, awaiting the result of their appeal, but could now be summoned to serve their sentences at any moment.
The case against them actually dates back to April 2015, when they were arrested following extensive operations by intelligence agents in Bushehr.
Plainclothes agents raided their homes and confiscated materials including books, pamphlets, family photographs, and paintings and carpets imprinted with the image of Christ or other Christian symbols. These items were described in court as “evidence” of their crimes.
One of the Christians willing to be identified, Payam Kharaman, told Article18:
“The charges against us are based on their interpretation of our religious activities. They put me under immense personal and financial pressure, and did not even give me back the family photos they confiscated, despite promising to return them.
“For up to three months they interrogated me with the same questions, writing several thousands of pages.
“And they put a lot of pressure on us not to publish or broadcast the case in the media.”
Most of those sentenced are official members of the Assemblies of God denomination. Some of them have been members since as far back as the 1990s, when the authorities asked their church to provide details of all its members.
“We were official members of the Assemblies of God church, but after the closure of the church in 2013, we came under increasing pressure until eventually we were arrested in 2015,” explained another of the Christians, Shapoor Jozi, whose wife, Parastou Zariftash, is also facing jail time.
“My wife and I rejected all the allegations, and emphasised that we are only Christian believers, with no ties to any overseas organisations, and have not been involved in any evangelism, but [the authorities] insisted on connecting us with overseas groups,” Shapoor added.
“Due to the high pressure we were under, we at first refused to report our case to human rights groups or media organisations. But contrary to the claims of the Iranian authorities, our silence over the past three years did not affect the final outcome of our case.”
During their trial, the converts were threatened with torture or even death if they refused to deny their Christian faith and return to Islam, as Article18 highlighted in its inaugural annual report in January.
According to Iran’s law on “Respecting Citizens’ Rights”, passed in 2004 in the Islamic Consultative Assembly, “The use of any kind of torture in order to obtain a confession, by force, is illegal and has no legal or judicial validity.”
Article18’s Advocacy Director, Mansour Borji, says the case against the Christians is “another example of Iran violating the freedom or religion or belief of its citizens”.
“Security agencies, following an ineffective policy in recent years, have tried to eliminate Farsi-speaking Christianity through unlawful pressures and false accusations in Revolutionary Courts, using pseudo legal language that fool onlookers into thinking they have acted within the law – when in reality they are violating the religious freedom guaranteed by Iran’s own constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a signatory.”
The converts’ case has also been reported on several international news sites, including Fox News.