Case Studies

Malihe Nazari, Joseph Shahbazian and Mina Khajavi 

Malihe Nazari, Joseph Shahbazian and Mina Khajavi 

Case referenced by

Article18, International Institute for Religious Freedom, Christian Today, Info Chrétienne, HRANA, Church in Chains, International Liberty Association, Asia News, Mohabat News, Middle East Concern, Barnabas Fund

Summary

Iranian-Armenian Christian Joseph Shahbazian, 58, and Christian converts Mina Khajavi, 59, and Malihe Nazari, 48, face a combined total of 22 years in prison solely for practising their Christian faith, including through attending and organising house-churches.

Case in full

Joseph, Mina and Malihe were among at least 35 Christians arrested or interrogated by intelligence agents belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in a coordinated operation over two days and across three cities in the summer of 2020.

The arrests took place on the evening of 30 June and the morning of 1 July in Tehran, its sister city Karaj, and Malayer, 400km southwest of Tehran.

Dozens more Christians were ordered to provide their contact details and told they would soon be summoned for questioning.

The first arrests took place at around 8pm on the evening of 30 June, in western Tehran’s Yaftabad district.

Ten intelligence agents – eight men and two women – raided the home of a recent Christian convert, where around 30 Christians had gathered.

The agents, who were armed and wore masks, were reportedly polite as they filmed the raid and separated men from women, but later turned the cameras off and treated the Christians harshly.

All those present were taken down to the building’s car park, where a van with blacked-out windows awaited, as well as several cars. All cars belonging to local residents seemed to have been moved to make space for the agents’ cars and for the garage to become a quasi interrogation room.

The agents then proceeded to read out a list of names written on an arrest warrant.

The six present whose names were read out – including Joseph and Mina – were handcuffed, blindfolded and taken away, and prevented from contacting their families to tell them where they had been taken.

The others whose names were not read out – many of them recent converts – had their mobile phones confiscated and were ordered to fill out forms providing information of another method by which they could be reached, and told not to follow-up on the confiscation of their phones for at least 72 hours.

They were also ordered to write down that none of their property had been confiscated, even after the confiscation of their mobile phones and despite their protestations.

The agents then drove the six arrested Christians, as well as some of those whose names were not on the list, to their homes in Tehran and Karaj to carry out searches of their properties, looking especially for Bibles, other Christian literature and communications devices.

According to the reports of witnesses, some of the Christians were beaten, as well as some of their non-Christian family members. 

The agents later went to the homes of the three Christian converts whose names were read out but had not been present, and arrested them.

Meanwhile, on the same evening, Malihe was arrested at her home in the Sadeghiyeh district of Tehran.

During the raid, Malihe’s house was searched and several of her personal belongings were confiscated, including her computer, mobile phone and a number of books.

The agents then took her away, and told her family she would be taken to Evin Prison.

When they went to visit her at the prison the next day, they found Malihe’s name on the list of detainees, but weren’t able to see her, although the following day she was able to briefly call home to say that she was OK. 

Also on the evening on 30 June, three Christian converts were called in the city of Malayer and told to report to the Revolutionary Guard intelligence office the next day for questioning.

The three Christians were arrested the next morning, before they had the chance to turn themselves in.

They were then detained, but released the next day after posting bail of 30 million tomans (around $1,500) each.

It was reported that the concurrent raids were coordinated with the help of an informant, who had infiltrated the group within the past few months and gained their trust.

This individual was reported to have accompanied the intelligence agents in their raid on the Tehran house-church, and to have even stood next to the judge as he later read out his bail demands.

Following the arrests, Revolutionary Guard intelligence agents summoned many contacts of the Christians for questioning, including some who had not been in contact with them for years.

On 15 July 2020, Article18 reported that at least 10 of the Christians had been charged with “acting against national security by promoting Zionist Christianity”.

By this stage, eight had been released on bail, four remain detained, one had been released without charge, and another four had been released pending a decision on their case. 

Families of the detained Christians had been anxiously asking for an update about them, but despite some family members going to Evin Prison and the local courts on a daily basis to find out about the whereabouts and wellbeing of their loved ones, they were not even afforded the usual opportunity to have short telephone calls with them.

On 20 July 2020, Mina was released on bail after 20 days’ detention. Mina had been blindfolded throughout her detention, so that she didn’t know where she was being held. When she was finally released, she was put in a car and dropped off on an unknown Tehran street, without either phone or money, so that she had to borrow a phone from a passerby to contact her family and ask them to find her and bring her home.

On 23 July 2020, Article18 reported that Joseph’s family had been told they must deposit 3 billion tomans (around $150,000) for his bail – twice the previous highest amount demanded to secure the release of a Christian prisoner of conscience.

Joseph’s family were initially told the figure was ten times lower – 300 million tomans – and that, unusually, they must pay in cash.

Not possessing such an amount, they asked whether they could instead submit a property deed as a guarantee, as is common practice, but this request was denied.

Then, having managed to cobble together the originally stated amount, they deposited it at the court, only to be called later and told the required amount was actually ten times higher.

The family later returned to the court with two property deeds – one for the Shahbazian family home and the other belonging to Joseph’s elderly mother, who lives in the apartment below them.

However, the total value of both properties, combined with the 300 million tomans they deposited in cash, was still some way short of the required bail.

Malihe’s bail was also set at 3 billion tomans after she was transferred to the notorious Qarchak women’s prison, where there were fears for her health as a result of a Covid-19 outbreak in the prison.

On 18 August 2020, Joseph’s wife and son were finally able to visit him for the first time, seven weeks into his detention.

It remained unclear where he was being held, as he was driven, blindfolded, to the courthouse where they met and had been blindfolded every time he had been let out of his cell.

On 22 August 2020, Joseph was finally released on bail after nearly two months in detention, after his family submitted property deeds to cover a reduced bail amount of 2 billion tomans (around $100,000), as they were not able to raise the initially demanded 3 billion tomans.

Malihe was released two weeks later, on 5 September, also on reduced bail.

A year later, on 16 October 2021, Joseph, Mina and Malihe, and two other Christians, were summoned to give their final defence before a Tehran prosecutor.

Their lawyer, Iman Soleimani, said the charges read out to them at the prosecutor’s office included: “weakening the foundation of the family”, “attracting Muslims to house-churches”, “being members of hostile groups to the Islamic Republic in order to damage national security”, “weakening the belief in Muslim clerics”, “propagating Christian Zionism”, and “establishing and organising corrupt meetings”. 

They denied all the charges. 

Mina told the prosecutor the interrogators had thrown away her actual testimony and said to her: “You must write what we want you to write!”

Her lawyer said the accusations against all the Christians were based only on the allegations of the Revolutionary Guard intelligence agents, and not on any evidence.

Mr Soleimani added that Mina was asked by the prosecutor about the history of Protestantism and how it is connected with Zionism, to which she responded that she had no knowledge about such things.

She was also accused of converting her husband and child to Christianity. 

She responded that she had not forced anybody to convert, but that her family members had decided to convert after seeing the profound change her new faith had made to her life.

Mina was then told that another member of her house-church had brought charges against her.

In December 2021, Mr Soleimani complained that the property of his clients remained confiscated more than a year after their arrest, despite the law stipulating they should be returned at the “earliest possible opportunity”.

Mr Soleimani said that he went to the court again on 18 December 2021 to once more request the return of the items, but was not even permitted to enter the building and was told the judge was “too busy”.

The lawyer added that the judge had previously sent two letters asking Ministry of Intelligence officials to return the belongings, but that these had had no effect.

Mr Soleimani said some of the confiscated items did not even belong to the Christians but to their family members.

On 29 May 2022, Joseph, Mina, Malihe and four other Christians were tried at Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran, on charges of “acting against national security by promoting Zionist Christianity” through either leadership or membership of a house-church.

During the four-hour hearing the defendants and their lawyers were threatened, intimidated and ridiculed by the judge, Iman Afshari, and pressured to recant their faith as an incentive for a reduction in their sentences.

Judge Afshari also attempted to persuade the other defendants to blame Joseph for their conversions, with the promise of lighter sentences should they comply.

When they refused, the judge threatened to increase their sentences.

Judge Afshari also used harsh and sarcastic language against the Christians to humiliate them and denigrate their beliefs, and when their lawyer objected, the judge replied that he was “only joking”.

The judge not only failed to act impartially, but even spoke in defence of the charges and failed to ask the prosecutor’s representative even one question about the legality of the case against the defendants and their activities, despite the repeated objections of the Christians’ lawyer to this effect.

On 7 June 2022, Joseph was sentenced to 10 years in prison and Mina and Malihe to six years each.

Joseph was also sentenced to a two-year term in exile in a remote province in the southeast of Iran following his incarceration, and a two-year ban on travelling abroad or membership of any social or political group.

Joseph must also report to the offices of Iran’s intelligence service for two years after his release on an unspecified “seasonal basis”.

The four other Christian converts in the case – Salar Eshraghi Moghadam, Farhad KhazaeeSomayeh (Sonya) Sadegh and her mother Masoumeh Ghasemi – were sentenced to between one and four years’ imprisonment for membership of house-churches, but permitted to pay fines (equivalent to between $800-$1,250 each) instead of going to prison.

However, there was no such clemency for Joseph, nor for Mina or Malihe, who could not attend the court hearing on 29 May because she was visiting her son, who has leukaemia, in hospital.

Judge Afshari, who is fast building a reputation for harsh sentences against Christians, was particularly scathing towards Joseph in his verdict, stating: “The papers of this case file indicate that this person, who considers himself an Armenian [an ethnic group recognised as Christian in Iran] and has travelled abroad several times and attended a gathering in Turkey, having established a group to attract Muslims, and under the cover of religious programmes for prayer, has propagated Evangelical Christianity, and with illegal activities and unfounded claims has abused people’s inner weaknesses and attracted some of them to the membership of his group.”

The judgment even acknowledged the Christians’ charitable activities “to both Christians and non-Christians” – such as handing out food parcels during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic – but this did not save them.

Their appeals were rejected on 17 August 2022.

Judges Abasali Hozavan and Khosrow Khalili Mehdiyarji of the 36th Branch of the Appeal Court of Tehran said the defence had failed to meet the necessary criteria for the appeal to be considered.

But their lawyer, Mr Soleimani, told Article18 the judgment had been reached “without an actual hearing, and with a complete disregard of the extensive and well-reasoned defence offered”.

The court proceedings showed a “disregard of absolute legal and juridical principles, such as the principles of equal opportunity [to dispute accusations], legality of crimes and punishments, and right to a defence”, he said, adding that the copy of the verdict he had received came without any letterhead. 

Article18’s advocacy director, Mansour Borji, explained: “This is a common practice in cases of prisoners of conscience, where the Islamic Republic does not want to officially own the unlawful decisions they have taken, for fear of social and political backlash.”

The judgment also made a passing reference to “the extent of the activities” of the accused, without giving any explanation.

“Neither in the court, nor now in the appeal, has there ever been any mention of what ‘extensive’ activities they’re talking about,” said Mr Borji, “so it’s a claim without any substantiation.”

He added: “It fits the pattern of complete disregard to the law, and clearly shows that they’ve not engaged even in the slightest way with the extensive legal reasoning the defence lawyer has provided. 

“None of this has even been considered in the verdict, nor responded to. This clearly displays Iran’s sense of impunity, as the international community continues to stand by and watch Iran’s blatant disregard of human rights.”

On 30 August 2022, Joseph began serving his 10-year sentence, having the day before been given 24 hours to hand himself in to the authorities at Tehran’s Evin Prison.

Malihe is also now serving her six-year sentence in Evin Prison, while Mina also received the summons but after presenting herself at the prison was told she could return home until she has recovered from a recently broken leg.

Masoumeh and Sonya were also summoned to pay their fines within 24 hours.

Recommendations

Article18 requests that the international community and Christians worldwide: 

  • Call for the convictions to be immediately overturned.
  • Call for the swift application of due process in the cases of all who are detained and/or awaiting charges, trials, sentences or appeal hearings on account of their Christian faith and activities in Iran. 
  • Encourage Western countries to prioritise human rights in negotiations with Iran, especially freedom of religion or belief, and urge the government of Iran to recognise all minority-faith adherents, including converts to Christianity, as full citizens before the law, enjoying their full human rights.
  • Call the international community to hold the Iranian government accountable for failing to uphold its international and constitutional commitments to protect the freedom of Christians in its territories. Closing churches, appropriating church property, arresting church leaders and threatening churchgoers are violations of freedom of religion or belief, as prescribed in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a signatory, without reservation, and therefore legally bound to uphold. Meanwhile, Article 13 of Iran’s Constitution states that Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians are recognised religious minorities, who are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies. And Article 23 says “investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no-one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief”.