By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– Eleven members of one of Iran’s largest evangelical house church movements, who were charged with ‘action against the order of the country’ and drinking alcohol, have been acquitted by an Iranian court, BosNewsLife learned Friday, May 20.
The charges referred to their involvement in a house church meeting and to taking communion wine, Iranian Christians said earlier.
Following their arrests in April, the members of the Church of Iran were brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal in Bandar-Anzali on May 1 “for a rushed hearing where their lawyer, Mr. Seyyed Mohammed-Ali Dadkhah, hastily drafted a statement in their defense,” said Britain-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which closely monitored the case.
In a written verdict issued in mid-May, the court ruled that since the eleven claimed to be conducting a Christian ceremony, their activities were covered by Article 13 of the Iranian Constitution, which allows Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians to “perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education”.
The judge reportedly added that as the case involved a religious ceremony, “there was no evidence to sustain the charge that they had been acting against the national security or the order of the country.”
Prosecutors have 20 days in which to appeal the acquittal of the Christians, who were identified as Pastor Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad and his wife Anahita Khademi, Mahmoud Khosh-Hal and his wife Hava Saadetmend, Fatemah Modir-Nouri, Mehrdad Habibzade, Milad Radef, Behzad Taalipas, Amir Goldoust, his sister Mina Goldoust, and his grandmother Zainab Bahremend.
CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas told BosNewsLife that “In a climate where evangelical Christians are regularly targeted by the regime, this acquittal is a very welcome development.”
However Thomas said, “It is unfortunate that although the Iranian constitution clearly states that Christians are a protected minority, such protection is denied to any who do not belong to Iran’s traditional churches.”
CSW said it remained concerned about six other members of the Church of Iran, based in Shiraz, who are still awaiting the outcome of a consultation on their case.
The six Christians, Behrouz Sadegh-Khandjani, Mehdi Furutan, Mohammad Beliad, Parviz Khalaj, Nazly Beliad and Amin Afsharmanesh are charged with blasphemy, which could carry the death penalty under Iran’s strict interpretation of Islamic law.
After “struggling” to find evidence to convict them, the case was adjourned to allow time for the prosecution to seek the opinion of Iran’s traditional churches concerning the validity of the charge, the Church of Iran confirmed earlier.
Another member of the Church of Iran, Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, is also still awaiting a date for his appeal against a death sentence for ‘apostasy’, or conversion.
“We continue to urge the acquittal of the six in Shiraz, whose charges are baseless, and of Pastor Nadarkhani, whose death sentence is an appalling violation of the right to freedom of religion and belief, which, as a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights (ICCPR), Iran is obliged to uphold,” Thomas said.
Separately, “We also call for the immediate release of house church pastor Vahik Abrahamian, who remains imprisoned in Hamadan despite the release of his three co-accused,” he added.
Pastor Abrahamian was detained along with eight others, including his wife Sonia Keshish Avanessian, during a raid on his home in Hamadan in September 2010. Five of those arrested were soon released but the others, including Vahik and Sonia, were placed in solitary confinement in an unknown location for forty days before being transferred to Hamadan Public Prison, Iranian Christians said.
The group was reportedly held in Hamadan for over eight months without charge as “an exorbitant sum” was demanded for the release of each individual, according to Christians familiar with the case. After it became clear that they were unable to meet these financial demands, the three remaining detainees were released last month, but Vahik remains imprisoned, CSW said.
The reported ongoing pressure on especially evangelical Christians in Iran, including many former Muslims, has been linked by mission groups to concern within Iran’s leadership about uncontrolled spread of Christianity in the Islamic republic at a time of turmoil in the Arab world and calls for freedom and democracy in several countries.