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Fatemeh Bakhteri begins one-year jail sentence

Fatemeh Bakhteri begins one-year jail sentence

Fatemeh Bakhteri presented herself at Tehran’s Evin Prison today to begin her one-year jail sentence.

Fatemeh, who is known as Ilar, was informed in May that her appeal against her sentence, for “propaganda against the regime”, had failed.

Last month, Article18 reported that for Ilar the prospect of a jail sentence was not as frightening as the two-year ban she has been given from all social activities following her release – meaning she will be unable to attend any group meeting of more than two people, effectively cutting her off from gathering with other Christians.

Ilar was first summoned for interrogation three years ago and threatened that she would be re-arrested if she continued to meet with other converts.

But she carried on attending house-church meetings as she “didn’t see anything illegal in gathering with others to worship”.

When she was next arrested, Ilar was ridiculed for her Christian faith and threatened. Then during her appearance before the court, the presiding judges, Hassan Babaee and Mashallah Ahmadzadeh, spent more time encouraging her to return to Islam than discussing her alleged crime.

She was asked to recant her Christian faith and told that if she did, the charges against her would be dropped.

When she refused, the judges told her to expect their verdict in a few days.

Four months later, on 18 May, she and her co-defendant, Saheb (Zaman) Fadaee, were notified that their sentences had been upheld.

Zaman is already serving a separate ten-year sentence, issued in July 2017, for forming a “house church” and “promoting Zionist Christianity”. He was taken to serve that sentence in Evin Prison in July 2018, alongside his pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani, and two other members of their Rasht church – Mohammad Ali Mossabayeh and Mohammad Reza Omidi, who are also converts to Christianity.

Nine other members of the Rasht “Church of Iran” group have been arrested this year. In March, seven of them were released on bail, but two were held. Last month, five of them had their bail increased tenfold to the equivalent of $130,000, after insisting upon being defended by their own lawyer. Being unable and unprepared to pay such an amount, they were transferred to Evin Prison.

Bookseller jailed for selling Bible

Bookseller jailed for selling Bible

Mostafa Rahimi (Hengaw Organization for Human Rights)

An Iranian bookseller has been sentenced to three months and one day in prison for selling copies of the Bible, according to a Kurdish rights group.

Mostafa Rahimi was reportedly first arrested on 11 June in Bukan, West Azerbaijan Province.

He was then released on bail pending sentencing.

Yesterday, the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights reported that Mostafa was re-arrested in mid-August and that he is now in the central prison of Bukan.

No further details are known at this stage, though Article18 has reached out to the rights group for information.

Woman convert, 65, sentenced to year in prison

Woman convert, 65, sentenced to year in prison

(Middle East Concern)

A 65-year-old woman convert to Christianity has been sentenced to one year in prison for “propaganda against the system”, reports Middle East Concern.

Rokhsareh (Mahrokh) Ghanbari was notified of her sentence today, two days after her appearance at a Revolutionary Court in Karaj.

Middle East Concern reported that the judge was “very rude” and “tried to humiliate Mahrokh after she disagreed with him”. 

Mahrokh was one of five female converts arrested just before Christmas during a raid on her home in Karaj. The names of the other four women have not yet been made public.

The officers confiscated several of Mahrokh’s belongings, including her mobile phone, Bibles and other Christian materials.

Mahrokh was then detained and interrogated from morning until evening for ten days, before being released on a bail of 30 million tomans (around $2,500).

Middle East Concern said her treatment caused “distress to family and friends, who thought she would have been shown greater respect on account of her age”.

In January, Mahrokh was forced to visit an Islamic cleric to receive religious “instruction” and be offered the chance to reconvert to Islam.

Convert refused asylum in Germany arrested on return to Tehran

Convert refused asylum in Germany arrested on return to Tehran

(Bild)

An Iranian convert to Christianity refused asylum in Germany and deported back to Iran was arrested “immediately” upon her arrival in Tehran, according to German newspaper Bild.

Fatemeh Azad, 58, was then reportedly released on bail and is now awaiting trial.

Fatemeh’s asylum claim was rejected in early May, even though her lawyers had protested that she could face the death penalty if she returned to Iran. Technically, Iranian law allows for converts to Christianity to be sentenced to death for apostasy, but there have not been many recent examples of this. It is, however, very common for converts to be charged with “actions against national security” and handed prison sentences of between one and 15 years.

Bild reports that Fatemeh converted to Christianity in 2015, against the will of her husband, along with her three sons, Payam, Peyman and Pouriya, and that all four fled to Germany in the November of that year.

Two of her children have since been granted asylum, according to Bild, but the third has also been threatened with deportation.

Amnesty International has asked the German government to review its policy on Iranian converts seeking asylum, in light of the threats facing those who return home. 

Fatemeh’s lawyer, Christopher Lingau, told Bild that her application was denied “on the grounds that in her interview she was unable to substantiate her commitment to the Christian faith”.

But her pastor in Germany, Frank Sattler, said she “regularly attended church services” and that her verbal expression of faith and baptism were sufficient proof of the sincerity of her faith.

In an interview with German news site domradio.de, politician Volker Kauder, a member of the governing CDU, said he was “worried that Christians are being sent back to countries where they are persecuted” and added that Germany is not allowed to deport asylum seekers to countries where they could face the death penalty, whether or not their asylum claim is genuine.

Church ban ‘worse than prison’ for woman convert who lost appeal

Church ban ‘worse than prison’ for woman convert who lost appeal

Two months after two converts to Christianity were told they had lost their appeals against jail sentences for “spreading propaganda against the regime”, it has emerged that one of them has also been banned from all social activities for two years after her release.

Fatemeh Bakhteri, who is known as Ilar, will be unable to attend any group meeting of more than two people, effectively cutting her off from gathering with other Christians.

A local contact of Article18 said this prospect was harder for Ilar than her one-year jail sentence.

Ilar was first summoned for interrogation three years ago and threatened that she would be re-arrested if she continued to meet with other converts.

But Ilar carried on attending house-church meetings as she “didn’t see anything illegal in gathering with others to worship”.

When she was next arrested, Ilar was ridiculed for her Christian faith and threatened. Then during her appearance before the court, the presiding judges, Hassan Babaee and Mashallah Ahmadzadeh, spent more time encouraging her to return to Islam than discussing her alleged crime.

She was asked to recant her Christian faith and told that if she did, the charges against her would be dropped.

When she refused, the judges told her to expect their verdict in a few days.

Four months later, on 18 May, she and her co-defendant, Saheb (Zaman) Fadaee, were notified that their sentences had been upheld.

Since then, Ilar has been living with the knowledge that she may be summoned to begin her sentence at any moment. In some instances, this process drags on for years and until that summons, Ilar will live with the prospect of prison hanging over her like a cloud.

Zaman is already serving a separate ten-year sentence, issued in July 2017, for forming a “house church” and “promoting Zionist Christianity”. He was taken to serve that sentence in Evin Prison in July 2018, alongside his pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani, and two other members of their Rasht church – Mohammad Ali Mossabayeh and Mohammad Reza Omidi, who are also converts to Christianity.

Nine other members of the Rasht “Church of Iran” group have been arrested this year. In March, seven of them were released on bail, but two were held.

‘Now I know even innocents can be jailed’ – Sevada Aghasar after his conditional release

‘Now I know even innocents can be jailed’ – Sevada Aghasar after his conditional release

Iranian-Armenian Christian Sevada Aghasar has been granted “conditional release” from prison after serving half of his five-year sentence for “acting against national security through house-church activities”.

Sevada was released from Tehran’s Evin Prison yesterday lunchtime and will not have to return providing he upholds the conditions of his release, which will likely mean a prohibition from evangelism.

Today, on his Instagram page, Sevada wrote:

When I was child, I thought that only criminals and malefactors would be prisoned. 

Then I got younger and knew that debtors and mistakers would be prisoned too.

Now I know that even innocents could be prisoned!! Thank God, I’m free now.

The 30-year-old was sentenced to five years in prison in April 2015 at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court of Karaj, a city near Tehran.

After failing with his appeal, he began serving his sentence on 4 July 2017. He had also spent six months in detention following his initial arrest, which counted towards his time served.

Sevada was first arrested in August 2013 alongside two Christian friends, Ebrahim Firouzi, with whom he was later sentenced, and Masoud Mirzaei, who was also arrested but later released.

Ebrahim, a convert to Christianity, remains in Karaj’s Rajaee Shahr Prison. Late last year his mother, who had been battling ill health for some years, passed away without the opportunity to see her son one last time. In July 2016, Kobra Kamrani, who was 56 when she died, had pleaded with the authorities to release her son to help take care of her, as she had lost her eyesight and also had cancer. But her request was rejected and in December 2018 she died and was buried without her son being able to see her or attend her funeral.

Sevada was granted temporary release from prison twice during his time in prison, the second of which came at Easter 2019, when he sang with his church choir on Easter Sunday, as was his custom before his imprisonment, and also celebrated his 30th birthday while on leave.

He was also granted one week’s leave in May 2018.

Bushehr Christians bailed but could face long jail sentences

Bushehr Christians bailed but could face long jail sentences

Left to right: Pooriya Peyma, Fatemeh Talebi, Maryam Falahi, Sam Khosravi, Khatoon Fatolahzadeh, Sasan Khosravi, Marjan Falahi, and Habib Heydari.

Eight converts to Christianity arrested in the southwestern city of Bushehr earlier this month have been released on bail but could face lengthy jail sentences.

The Christians – including five members of one family – have been charged with “actions against national security”, “gathering and collusion against the state”, and “membership of an illegal organisation” (house church), the maximum sentences for which would be 15 years in prison.

They were released on 16 and 17 July after each posting bail of 300 million tomans (around $30,000).

The arrests took place at around 9am on Monday 1 July, as officers introducing themselves as agents from the Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) stormed the Christians’ homes in a coordinated operation, confiscating Bibles, Christian literature, wooden crosses and pictures carrying Christian symbols, along with laptops, phones, all forms of identity cards, bank cards and other personal belongings.

The agents also searched the work offices of at least two Christians and confiscated computer hard drives and security-camera recordings. 

The officers treated the Christians harshly, even though small children were present during the arrests.

The eight Christians are Sam Khosravi, 36, and his wife Maryam Falahi, 35; Sam’s brother Sasan, 35, and his wife Marjan Falahi, 33; Sam and Sasan’s mother, Khatoon Fatolahzadeh, 61; Pooriya Peyma, 27, and his wife Fatemeh Talebi, 27; and Habib Heydari, 38.

Khatoon Fatolahzadeh was released on the day of her arrest, due to her age. Her arrest came after six cars carrying security officials turned up outside her home. 

The Christians were held in solitary confinement in the MOIS office in Bushehr and denied access to lawyers. They were also coerced to confess to their “crimes” on camera.

Some associates of the Christians were later summoned for interrogation, then released. It is not yet known whether they also face charges.

Woman convert, 65, due in court next week

Woman convert, 65, due in court next week

(Middle East Concern)

A 65-year-old woman convert to Christianity arrested shortly before Christmas is due to appear in court next week, reports Middle East Concern.

Rokhsareh (Mahrokh) Ghanbari has been summoned to appear at the Revolutionary Court in Karaj next Saturday, 27 July, where she will face charges of “propaganda against the system”. 

In January, Mahrokh was forced to visit an Islamic cleric to receive religious “instruction” and be offered the chance to reconvert to Islam.

Mahrokh was one of five female converts arrested just before Christmas during a raid on her home in Karaj. The names of the other four women have not yet been made public.

The officers confiscated several of Mahrokh’s belongings, including her mobile phone, Bibles and other Christian materials.

Mahrokh was then detained and interrogated from morning until evening for ten days, before being released on a bail of 30 million tomans (around $2,500).

Middle East Concern said her treatment caused “distress to family and friends, who thought she would have been shown greater respect on account of her age”.

Christian activist arrested while filing complaint about assault

Christian activist arrested while filing complaint about assault

A young female Christian convert and activist who spent six months in prison for her membership of a Tehran “house church” was arrested on Tuesday for “improper hijab”, HRANA reports.

Fatemeh Mohammadi, 19, who completed her jail sentence in the spring of last year, initially went to the police to complain she had been assaulted by a woman wearing a chador, who had taken issue with her improper wearing of her headscarf on a bus.

But when Fatemeh complained to police, the chador-wearing woman was released and Fatemeh was detained – until 3am on Wednesday morning, when she was released with a warning.

Fatemeh is a rare activist among Christians in Iran, and especially converts. She writes on a variety of social issues and has also run a campaign called “Kahma”, which petitions for all Christians, including converts, to be given the right to worship in a church.

She has fearlessly campaigned, despite the knowledge that her activism will likely land her in prison again.

Earlier this year, Fatemeh wrote an open letter to Iran’s Minister of Intelligence, accusing him of violating the constitution by targeting Christians.

This came after Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi publicly admitted to “inviting” Christian families for questioning to ask them why they had converted.

In her letter, Fatemeh accused him of violating Article 23 of the constitution, which states that “no-one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief”. 

She added that intelligence officials were wrong to search the properties of the converts because the Christians had committed no crime, and said they were “summoned”, not invited, to “inspect their opinion and attempt to remove them from their beliefs”.

Fatemeh was arrested at a house-church meeting in November 2017 and sentenced to six months in prison in April 2018; she was then released, owing to time already served in the women’s ward of the notorious Evin Prison. 

Her letter, which was published by HRANA, referenced Mr. Alavi’s acknowledgment that the Christians who were questioned were “ordinary people”, who had jobs “such as selling sandwiches”. As Article18 reported, this statement marked a huge shift away from Iran’s usual rhetoric that converts are agents of the West who have undergone significant training to undermine national security. 

Fatemeh’s letter queried whether the members of her house church were not also “ordinary”, saying it comprised “several housewives, a salesperson, guard, agricultural engineer, taxi driver, student and others with similar professions … aged between 19 and 60”.

“Were we not ‘ordinary people’ who were threatened by plainclothes agents who searched the house and ransacked everything, without hesitating?” she asked.

Fatemeh also questioned why Christians are prevented from “talking about their beliefs with their peers”, while Muslims can freely engage in “propaganda” at schools, universities, mosques and shrines.

She added that those who had been interrogated would no doubt have seen all these advertisements about Islam, yet, “for whatever reason, they have decided to believe in Christianity, while they are not allowed to go to church, will not hear church bells … not see Christian TV and not have the experts available to them to add to their information”.

She called for “open, free and secure spaces” where people can discuss their ideas with “peace of mind” and said “identifying Christians in an attempt to harass them and inquire into their beliefs is a flagrant violation of the constitution and other domestic and international laws”.

Fatemeh also called on human rights groups to do more to highlight the “oppression” of Persian-speaking Christians in Iran, whom she said are an overlooked minority, recognised and researched only by the international community.

She said Iranian officials should devote their energies to compiling statistics on the numbers of converts in order to “learn the well-founded roots of their problems in this country and society as Christians, not identifying them just for the purpose of inspecting their opinions”.

Fatemeh published another letter in June last year, in which she accused her interrogators of sexual harassment.

Fatemeh was arrested alongside Majidreza Souzanchi, 35, who is still in Evin Prison, serving a five-year sentence – for his membership of the house church and “conducting evangelism” – that in January was reduced to two years

Both of their cases were highlighted in Article18’s annual report in January, which documented rights violations against Christians in 2018. Majidreza was one of at least 14 Christians still in prison in Iran at the start of 2019. Article18 is aware of the arrests of at least a further 37 Christians so far this year.

Cross put back on top of Tabriz church after outcry

Cross put back on top of Tabriz church after outcry

The cross has been replaced on top of the forcibly closed Assyrian church in Tabriz following a global outcry.

In the 9 July photo Article18 has been able to obtain, some men can be seen placing the cross back on the tower.

It was torn down on 9 May as agents from the Ministry of Intelligence and EIKO, an organisation under the direct control of the Supreme Leader, stormed the church, changed all the locks and ordered the church warden to leave.

Ten days after the closure and just two days after Article18 broke the news, the Assyrian representative to the Iranian Parliament, Yonathan Betkolia, openly criticised the move in an open letter to the president, Hassan Rouhani, and called for the cross to be restored.

Then last month a senior legal adviser to the president publicly questioned the legality of the closure and also the recent banning of religious-minority teachers from nursery schools.

Aliakbar Gorji Azandaryani asked the governor of East Azerbaijan Province to look into why the church had been closed, saying he had “serious doubts about the legality”, referring to Articles 9, 19, 20, 26, 36 and particularly 13 of Iran’s constitution, which states that religious minorities are recognised and free to perform their religious ceremonies.

He added that the move also went against several of the provisions of Iran’s Charter of Citizens’ Rights, which President Rouhani launched in 2016, and called upon the governor of East Azerbaijan Province to “do all he can to find out about the details of this case, including the background reasons for the seizure of the church and the authority that issued the order” – in this case EIKO.

Article18’s advocacy director, Mansour Borji, welcomed the news that the cross has been restored to the top of the Tabriz church and called for a retraction of the court order and clarification that the church has also now been restored to its rightful owners – the Assyrian Evangelical Christian community.

“We welcome this move and believe it to be a good first step after elements within both the Iranian parliament and government recognised the illegality of the church’s seizure and confiscation,” he said. “We hope the confiscation order, which was first issued in 2011 and finally enacted two months ago yesterday, will now be officially revoked.

“We will continue our advocacy efforts until we see the rights of the Christians in Tabriz to use this property fully restored, and hope that no such illegal and repressive actions are repeated in the future – for this or any other church.”

A former church leader with the Assyrian Evangelical Church thanked Article 18 and the other organisations that have led advocacy efforts, including the World Council of Churches, World Council of Reformed Churches, and World Evangelical Alliance.