By BosNewsLife Middle East Service
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– An Iranian court has once again adjourned a trial of Christians of a large evangelical “house” church movement who potentially face the death penalty for “blasphemy” against Islam, trial observers said Wednesday, April 13.
Pastor Behrouz Sadegh-Khandjani, Mehdi Furutan, Parviz Khalaj, Mohammed Beliad and his wife Nazly Makarian Beliad of the Church of Iran were reportedly told they must wait till prosecutors have “consulted” Iran’s traditional churches in determining their guilt.
“They are trying to humiliate Protestants by claiming that only Catholic and Orthodox churches have true leaders,” said church representative Firouz Khanjani after Tuesday’s procedure in the southern city of Shiraz.
The court said “We have to refer to your doctors and priests,” he told BosNewsLife. “The trial was adjourned on Tuesday [April 12]. We are waiting for a new date,” Khanjani added.
Another Christian who also faced a blasphemy trial, Iman Farzadmenesh, has left Iran, he said, without elaborating amid security concerns.
A prominent religious rights group, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), said there has been an increase in official rhetoric against especially evangelical Christians in Iran.
Unlike several religious churches, evangelicals stress a more personal relationship with Jesus Christ and are often eager to express their faith outside the church walls in Iran, church observers say.
On January 4, Tehran Governor Morteza Tamadon reportedly called the evangelical movement however “a false, deviant and corrupt sect… placing themselves within the religion of Islam like a parasite and under the cover of Christianity.”
The five evangelical Christians now being investigated already received a one-year prison sentence for “crimes against the Islamic Order”, a charge that rights activists have linked to their Christian activities.
Their lawyer has appealed the sentence, and a decision is pending, trial observers said.
Iranian Christians have also expressed concerns about jailed Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who was sentenced to death on charges of apostasy.
Local church leaders say the trial comes at a time of concern within Iran’s leadership about the reported spread of Christianity among Muslims. Church groups say there may be as many as 100,000 Christian converts in heavily Islamic Iran, up from just about 500 in 1979.
Iran’s government has strongly denied religious rights abuses, saying it defends Islamic values.
Yet, CSW’s Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston said it was “time for the Iranian authorities to end their stalling tactics and acquit” Christians “who are clearly innocent”. ”
He said CSW has also urged the more traditional churches of Iran to support the jailed Christians.
“Any unbiased examination of the doctrines of the Church of Iran would show that they are not a sect or cult, despite not belonging to traditionally recognized or older denominations.
Iran’s government must ensure that members of the Church of Iran, and especially Pastor Nadarkhani who still faces a death sentence for apostasy, receive due process, and are acquitted of all charges that have no legal bearing under the law.” (With reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos).