News

Yousef Nadarkhani ends hunger strike after 21 days

Yousef Nadarkhani ends hunger strike after 21 days

Iranian Christian prisoner Yousef Nadarkhani yesterday brought an end to his 21-day hunger strike.

Yousef, who is serving a ten-year sentence for his Christian activities, was protesting against his 15-year-old son Youeil being barred from school because he refused to take Islamic classes, while his elder son, Danial, 17, was only readmitted to school as a “guest”. 

There has been no change in his children’s circumstances, but Yousef was given reassurances by the prison authorities that the matter would be looked into.

Both of Yousef’s children have been denied certificates showing their completion of the past two academic years – as a result of their refusal to take Islamic classes.

Members of recognised religious minorities – including Christians, as well as Jews and Zoroastrians – are ordinarily exempt from classes in Islamic Studies and the Quran, but children of converts to Christianity, such as Yousef’s, are not afforded this right as they are still considered Muslims.

Yousef and his wife Tina – both converts from Muslim backgrounds – have been fighting for the rights of their boys to identify as Christians for the past decade.

Indeed, it was this very issue that led to Yousef’s first arrest, which resulted in his 2010 death sentence for apostasy.

And although that conviction was quashed in 2012, following international outcry, Yousef still had to serve three years in prison for evangelising and was then re-arrested in 2016 on the new charges for which he is now back in Tehran’s Evin Prison, in the second year of his ten-year sentence for forming a “house church” and “promoting Zionist Christianity”.

Before he was taken back to prison in July 2018, Yousef tried again to ensure his sons were recognised as Christians, but the matter is still to be resolved after local authorities in Gilan Province, where the Nadarkhanis live, appealed against the higher education authority, which had ruled in the family’s favour.

As a result, at the end of the past two academic years, Yousef and Tina’s sons were not provided with certificates to show they completed their studies, because they failed to sit exams in Islamic Studies and the Quran.

Youeil was due to begin 10th grade this year, but he has yet to receive a certificate to show he completed 8th grade, let alone 9th. Meanwhile, Danial, who was due to begin 12th grade, has not received a certificate since completing 9th grade.

Last year, the boys were accepted as “guests” – and also fully paying students – pending the ruling in the family’s case. But this year, although Danial was accepted again as a fully paying “guest”, Youeil was told that, having failed to attain his certificate for the previous academic year, he could not return to school.

Yousef Nadarkhani with his two sons, Danial (right) and Youeil, before his incarceration.

In a letter to the prison authorities, Yousef said his decision to go on hunger strike was “motivated by the necessity to defend my children as members of the Christian minority who are violated by discriminatory measures taken at the initiative of officials of the Ministries of Information and National Education”. 

“This is the cry of a father, unjustly imprisoned,” he said, adding that it was “now 11 years that I have been fighting on legal grounds to assert their rights”. 

Yousef appealed to the Minister of National Education and said he hoped the minister would “heed this appeal and that he will do, in accordance with the law, what is necessary to put an end to the injustices that my family are suffering as Christians”.

Background 

A fatwa by Iran’s Supreme Leader at the time of Yousef’s initial apostasy seemed to pave the way for children of converts to be recognised as Christians. 

It stated: “The [convert] himself may be considered an apostate, but if they married after the apostasy, according to their own new religious principles, their children will not be considered apostates.”

But it is believed that the Ministry of Intelligence is pressurising the higher education authorities not to set such a precedent by ruling in the Nadarkhanis’ favour.

Article18’s Advocacy Director, Mansour Borji, said this highlights the power of the Ministry of Intelligence in Iran – that they would even go so far as to contradict a ruling by the Supreme Leader, their commanding officer.

The local education authorities in Gilan, in their appeal against the ruling of the higher education authorities, said that while Yousef may have been recognised as a Christian, the same cannot be said of his wife, Tina.

Yousef and his wife object to this view, saying that Tina was never a practising Muslim and is willing to testify to this in court, and also to provide a copy of Youeil’s birth certificate, which shows that he was registered as a Christian.

They also object to being regularly referred to as kafirs (infidels) in the appeal launched by Gilan’s education authority, saying that they ought to instead be considered, like other Christians, as “people of the book” (the Bible).

Article18 calls for Iran to provide Danial and Youeil, and all children of converts, the opportunity to be educated as Christians, as is their right under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran has ratified and which provides parents with the right to pass on their own religious teachings to their children, and denies authorities the right to intervene.

Mr. Borji used the Nadarkhani family’s story in his testimony to the recent review of the persecution of Christians worldwide, commissioned by the UK government.

‘I was arrested for the crime of believing in Jesus’ – Rokhsareh Ghanbari

‘I was arrested for the crime of believing in Jesus’ – Rokhsareh Ghanbari

Sixty-one-year-old Christian convert Rokhsareh Ghanbari presented herself at Shahid Kachooei Prison in her home city of Karaj yesterday to begin a one-year jail sentence. 

Rokhsareh, who prefers to be known as Mahrokh, recorded a short video message before going to prison, in which she said she had been arrested by agents from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence “for the crime of believing in Jesus Christ”.

She added: “I hope the persecution and imprisonment I endure glorify the name of Jesus Christ.”

Mahrokh was sentenced in July at a Revolutionary Court in Karaj, on charges of “propaganda against the system”.

Her case gained international attention when the US Vice President, Mike Pence, named her in a series of tweets about Iran’s failure to provide religious freedom to its citizens.

Mr. Pence said he was “appalled” that Mahrokh was to be jailed “for exercising her freedom to worship”.

He added that the “persecution” of people like Mahrokh and Assyrian-Iranian pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, who is facing ten years in jail, were “an affront to religious freedom”.

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

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 been made public.

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

She 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 mistreatment had 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 revert to Islam.

Amin Khaki remains in prison as friends go home

Amin Khaki remains in prison as friends go home

Left to right: Yaghoob Nateghi, Milad Goodarzi, Amin Khaki, Alireza Nourmohammadi and Shahebedin Shahi.

Four Christian converts have completed their jail sentences and returned home. A fifth member of the group remains in prison.

Milad Goodarzi, Yaghoob Nateghi, Shahebedin Shahi and Alireza Nourmohammadi left the central detention centre in Karaj on Tuesday after completing their four-month sentences, including time in detention following arrest.

But their friend and fellow convert, Amin Khaki, still has nearly a year left to go of his longer sentence.

The five men – all members of the non-Trinitarian “Church of Iran” – were arrested during raids on their homes and workplaces in December 2017.

They were released in early 2018 after each posting bail of 30 million tomans (around $7,000).

In March this year, Milad, Yaghoob, Shahebedin and Alireza were sentenced to four months in prison; Amin, who had already spent a year in prison for his religious activities, was given an additional ten months – so 14 months in total – because of his prior conviction, which also means he is unlikely to be offered early release.

The charges against the five men were the same: “propaganda against the state”.

After failing with their appeals in June, the men submitted themselves to the central detention centre in Karaj on 6 July. Manoto News broadcast footage of the Christians – four of whom have young children – waving goodbye to their loved ones as they went to prison.

Now, three months on, four have returned home, but the waiting goes on for Amin.

Yousef Nadarkhani goes on hunger strike as son barred from school

Yousef Nadarkhani goes on hunger strike as son barred from school

Yousef Nadarkhani with his two sons, Danial (right) and Youeil, before his incarceration.

Christian prisoner Yousef Nadarkhani has gone on hunger strike to protest against his son being barred from school because he refused to take Islamic classes.

Youeil, 15, was due to recommence studies on Monday, but told he could not return to school as he had not yet been certified to have completed the previous grade – because he did not complete his Islamic education. Youeil’s older brother, Danial, 17, was accepted as a “guest” to his school, but has not received a certificate showing his completion of an academic year since leaving 9th grade.

Yousef and his wife Tina – both converts to Christianity – have been fighting for the rights of their boys to identify as Christians for the past decade, and therefore to be exempt from Islamic classes.

Indeed, it was this very issue that led to Yousef’s first arrest, which resulted in his 2010 death sentence for apostasy.

And although that conviction was quashed in 2012 following international outcry, Yousef still had to serve three years in prison for evangelising and was then re-arrested in 2016 on the new charges for which he is now back in Tehran’s Evin Prison, in the second year of a ten-year sentence for forming a “house church” and “promoting Zionist Christianity”.

Before he was taken back to prison in July 2018, Yousef tried again to ensure his sons were recognised as Christians, but the matter is still to be resolved after local authorities in Gilan Province, where the Nadarkhanis live, appealed against the higher education authority, which had ruled in the family’s favour.

As a result, at the end of the past two academic years, Yousef and Tina’s sons were not provided with certificates to show they completed their studies, because they failed to sit exams in Islamic Studies and the Quran.

Youeil was due to begin 10th grade this year, but he has yet to receive a certificate to show he completed 8th grade, let alone 9th. Meanwhile, Danial, who was due to begin 12th grade, has not received a certificate since completing 9th grade.

Last year, the boys were accepted as “guests” – and also fully paying students – pending the ruling in the family’s case. But this year, although Danial was accepted again as a fully paying “guest”, Youeil was told that, having failed to attain his certificate for the previous academic year, he could not return to school.

Members of recognised religious minorities – including Christians, as well as Jews and Zoroastrians – are ordinarily exempt from classes in Islamic Studies and the Quran, but children of converts to Christianity, such as Yousef’s, are still considered Muslims.

This is despite a fatwa by Iran’s Supreme Leader at the time of Yousef’s initial apostasy case, which stated: “The [convert] himself may be considered an apostate, but if they married after the apostasy, according to their own new religious principles, their children will not be considered apostates.”

But the local education authorities in Gilan, in their appeal against the ruling of the higher education authorities, said that while Yousef may have been recognised as a Christian, the same cannot be said of his wife, Tina.

Yousef and his wife object to this view, saying that Tina was never a practising Muslim and is willing to testify to this in court, and also to provide a copy of Youeil’s birth certificate, which shows that he was registered as a Christian.

They also object to being regularly referred to as kafirs (infidels) in the appeal launched by Gilan’s education authority, saying that they ought to instead be considered, like other Christians, as “people of the book” (the Bible).

And despite the ruling of the Supreme Leader seeming to open the way for the children of Christian converts to be recognised as Christians, it is believed that the Ministry of Intelligence is pressurising the higher education authorities not to set such a precedent by ruling in the Nadarkhanis’ favour.

Article18’s Advocacy Director, Mansour Borji, says this shows the power of the Ministry of Intelligence in Iran – that they would even go so far as to contradict a ruling by the Supreme Leader, their commanding officer.

Mr. Borji used the Nadarkhani family’s story in his testimony to the recent review of the persecution of Christians worldwide, commissioned by the UK government.

Article18 calls for Iran to provide Danial and Youeil, and all children of converts, the opportunity to be educated as Christians, as is their right under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran has ratified and which provides parents with the right to pass on their own religious teachings to their children, and denies authorities the right to intervene.

Yousef’s letter

Yousef wrote this letter to the prison authorities, explaining the reasoning behind his decision to embark upon a hunger strike:

“I, Yousef Nadarkhani, an official member of the Christian community, was sentenced by the Revolutionary Court to 10 years in prison and two years of internal exile in defiance of all justice. I am currently serving my sentence in the eighth ward [of Evin Prison], where I have decided to start a hunger strike. 

“My decision is motivated by the necessity to defend my children as members of the Christian minority who are violated by discriminatory measures taken at the initiative of officials of the Ministries of Information and National Education. The National Education Ministry has decided to ban the registration of my children as Christians. As part of its measures, they were not provided with the school report card that would allow them to pursue higher education. 

“This is the cry of a father, unjustly imprisoned. Also it is now 11 years that I have been fighting on legal grounds to assert their rights. From tomorrow I will start a hunger strike. I appeal to the Minister of National Education with this act. I hope that the minister will heed this appeal and that he will do, in accordance with the law, what is necessary to put an end to the injustices that my family are suffering as Christians.”

Three converts given six-month sentences for ‘promoting Zionist Christianity’

Three converts given six-month sentences for ‘promoting Zionist Christianity’

Asghar Salehi (left) and Mohammed Reza Rezaei.

Three converts to Christianity have been sentenced to six months in prison for “propaganda against the system through promoting Zionist Christianity”, reports Middle East Concern.

Asghar Salehi, 43, Mohammad Reza Rezaei, 35, and another convert who has not been named were informed of the sentences on Sunday, 22 September, following a hearing at Branch 101 of the criminal court in Eqlid, Fars Province, on 16 September.

Asghar and Mohammed Reza filed their appeals yesterday. 

They were arrested, alongside four others, during raids on their homes in September last year.

Asghar was reportedly interrogated for three days, during which he was kept blindfolded for most of the time, then taken to Eqlid Prison for a further eight days. He was then released on bail after providing his business license as a guarantee.

Asghar, Mohammed Reza and the third convert were then brought before Branch 101 of Eqlid Criminal Court in April 2019 and charged under Article 500 of the penal code, which provides for up to a year’s imprisonment for anyone found guilty of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or support of opposition groups and associations”.

Middle East Concern reports that Asghar was refused permission to speak, warned that he was being monitored and told not to engage in any further Christian activities.

Asghar is reportedly suffering from “potentially serious” health issues.

Tehran withdraws tax exemption from churches, synagogues

Tehran withdraws tax exemption from churches, synagogues

Embed from Getty Images

Churches and synagogues in Tehran are no longer tax exempt, according to a report from Iranian Christian news agency Mohabat News.

The Assyrian representative to the Iranian parliament, Yonathan Betkolia, criticised the move, saying churches and synagogues should be afforded the same rights as mosques, including subsidies for water, gas and electricity.

Currently the development only affects churches and synagogues under the jurisdiction of Tehran City Council, but it is believed highly likely that it will be rolled out across the rest of the country in due course.

The news comes as the state-backed Press TV highlighted the restoration of an Armenian church in Tehran. However, Article18’s Advocacy Director, Mansour Borji, noted that the report failed to mention that “more churches have been demolished, confiscated or rendered ‘non-operational’ since the Islamic revolution than have been ‘restored’”.

Earlier this year, Article18 reported on the forced closure of an Assyrian church in Tabriz, northwestern Iran.

That church had itself been previously “confiscated” by Revolutionary Court order in 2011, as Mr. Borji explained at the time:

“Many churches owned by Protestants have been confiscated in Iran. In most cases the government has been unable to repurpose them, especially if they were listed. So they typically remain as empty buildings, often neglected, and turn into ruins before being demolished, as was the case with the church in Kerman.”

Christians from Iran’s historic Assyrian and Armenian communities are a recognised minority, who are usually able to freely practise their faith, providing they don’t open their doors to Muslim-born Iranians by holding services in Persian. 

But if they are perceived to have stepped out of line, these Christians can face criminal charges, as happened with the Assyrian pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his leadership of an underground “house church”.

Such “house churches” have mushroomed in Iran over the past few decades, as more and more Iranians have converted to Christianity. There are believed to be well in excess of 500,000 Christian converts in Iran, worshipping in these secret churches. But when they are discovered, converts face charges of “acting against national security” and prison sentences of up to 10 years.

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 35 years old and 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 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, 61, sentenced to year in prison

Woman convert, 61, sentenced to year in prison

(Middle East Concern)

A 61-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.