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Iran’s Supreme Court rules Christians did not act against national security

Iran’s Supreme Court rules Christians did not act against national security

Clockwise from top-left: Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Mehdi Khatibi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Hossein Kadivar, Mohammad Vafadar, Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad, Behnam Akhlaghi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Kamal Naamanian.

Iran’s Supreme Court has ruled that nine Christian converts serving five-year prison sentences for their involvement in house-churches should not have been charged with “acting against national security”, in what has the potential to become a landmark ruling.

While Iran’s legal system does not allow for a “precedent” to be set, nevertheless the ruling has the potential to influence all current and future cases involving Persian-speaking Christians.

The ruling, handed down on 3 November but only communicated to the Christians’ lawyers yesterday, states explicitly that their involvement in house-churches and even the propagation of what is referred to as the “Evangelical Zionist sect” should not be deemed an against national security. 

This is significant, because in each of the cases involving the more than 20 Christians currently incarcerated in Iran for their involvement in house-churches, the charges amounted to “actions against national security”.

But the Supreme Court’s ruling states that: “Merely preaching Christianity, and promoting the ‘Evangelical Zionist sect’, both of which apparently means propagating Christianity through family gatherings [house-churches] is not a manifestation of gathering and collusion to disrupt the security of the country, whether internally or externally.”

It adds that the “formation of these societies and groups [house-churches] is not [a breach of] Articles 498 and 499 of the Islamic Penal Code [relating to membership or organisation of “anti-state groups”], or other criminal laws.” 

Again, this is significant because Articles 498 and 499 were used in the convictions of each one of Iran’s Christian prisoners of conscience.

The ruling further states: “The promotion of Christianity and the formation of a house-church is not criminalised in law.”

Background

The Supreme Court’s ruling came just one week after two of the nine Christians – and a third Christian serving a separate six-year sentence for leading a house-church – wrote an open letter and recorded video statements, asking for clarification of where they should worship once they are released.

“The churches in our city have been closed down, the doors are shut, so we can’t worship in a church building,” said one of the Christians, Babak Hosseinzadeh, in his video message. 

“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?’”

Article18 subsequently launched a campaign, calling for all Persian-speaking Christians to be given a #Place2Worship, a campaign that has had the backing of  several other Christian organisations and former prisoners of conscience including Farshid Fathi and Mary Mohammadi.

Some of the nine Christians were already eligible for parole, having served over one third of their five-year sentences, but they were reluctant to accept their conditional release without being assured that they will not be rearrested if they continue to meet together to pray and worship.

As Babak said in his video: “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 Supreme Court’s ruling should now pave the way for the release of the nine Christians following a retrial at a Revolutionary Court.

Even more importantly, it will give the nine Christians – and thousands of others across Iran – hope that they may now be able to worship together in their homes without fear of imprisonment. 

Article18’s advocacy director, Mansour Borji, commented: “We welcome this ruling, from the highest court in the land, but continue to call for clarification from the Iranian authorities of where Persian-speaking Christians can worship without fear of arrest and imprisonment.

“We further call for Persian-speaking Christians to be provided with a specific place of worship, as is their right under both Iran’s constitution and the international covenants to which Iran is a signatory, without reservation.”