(ADDS MORE DETENTIONS, BACKGROUND)
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– Five members of Iran’s largest house church movement face a feared court after nearly five months behind bars, a representative told BosNewsLife Thursday, March 7.
Mohammad Roghangir, Surush Saraie, Eskandar Rezaie, Shahin Lahooti and Massoud Rezaie were arrested on October 12 last year on charges that included “evangelism”, “disturbing public order” and “actions against national security.”
They were also accused of Internet activities aimed at undermining Iran’s Islamic system, Christians said.
“I can confirm that they will face the Revolutionary Court in the city of Shiraz in Fars Province on [Sunday] March 10,” said Firouz Khandjani, a Church of Iran council member.
He told BosNewsLife that the Christians were detained as part of a wider government crackdown on the Church of Iran and other groups.
The five men were among seven people detained on October 12 during an evening raid by security forces on a house in Shiraz where a prayer service was underway, according to Iranian Christians.
They were initially held in Plaque 100, the Intelligence Ministry’s notorious detention center, before being transferred to Adel-Abad Prison, where they were detained separately from other prisoners.
Additionally the trial of four fellow house church Christians is underway in Branch 3 of the Revolutionary Court in Shiraz, Iranian Christians said.
They were reportedly detained in February on charges of “participating in house-church services”, “evangelizing and promoting Christianity”, having contact with “foreign Christian ministries”, “distributing propaganda against the regime” and “disturbing” national security.
The Christians, identified as Mojtaba Seyyed-Alaedin Hossein, Mohammad-Reza Partoei, Vahid Hakkani, and Homayoun Shokouhi, were reportedly detained at a house church gathering and detained in Adel-Abad Prison.
They were seen being brought in chains to several court appearances including on December 28 when the presiding judge announced that he would issue a verdict following Iranian, Persian New Year celebrations, perhaps as early as this month, according Christians familiar with the case.
Khandjani told BosNewsLife that they are not alone. In recent months, “As many as hundreds of Christians were briefly detained and told not to visit church services anymore,” he said.
He said he was also concerned about two other Church or Iran Christians, evangelist Alireza Seyyedian and Mohammadereza Hosseini as well as Farshid Fathi, the leader of another evangelical congregation. “They are all held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison,” he said.
Seyyedian was sentenced to 6 years, Mohammadeza Hosseini to 2 years and Fathi to six years imprisonment on charges linked to their open expression of their Christian faith.
“It’s important they they are not forgotten,” Khandjani stressed.
He and other Christians also asked prayers for the health situation of jailed Pastor Behnam Irani, who previously led a Church of Iran congregation in the city of Karaj in Alborz Province.
Iranian Christians have told BosNewsLife that the 41-year-old is unable to walk and was previously beaten by fellow inmates and guards of the Ghezel Hesar Prison in Karaj city, also among the toughest jails in the country, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of the nation’s capital Tehran.
Christians say he may not survive the remaining five years of his prison term on what they call trumped-up charges” of “crimes against national security”.
Additionally Iran has been targeting Americans, including Pastor Saeed Abedini, who is held in one of Iran’s most notorious prisons on charges linked to his Christian faith.
Abedini, who was born in Iran, said last month that authorities use physical and psychological torture to pressure him to deny his faith in Jesus Christ.
“My eyes get blurry, my body does not have the strength to walk, and my steps become very weak and shaky,” he wrote in a letter smuggled out of Evin Prison in Tehran and seen by BosNewsLife.
“They are only waiting for one thing…for me to deny Christ,” he added, referring to alleged death threats and mistreatment. “But they will never get this [abandoning of Christ] from me,” Abedini wrote his wife and supporters.
He was detained after returning to Iran to meet family and believers. Last month the 32-year-old married father of two was sentenced in Tehran by Judge Pir-Abassi to eight years imprisonment for “threatening the national security of Iran” through his leadership in Christian house churches.
Western rights groups have warned the detentions are part of an apparent renewed crackdown on Christians in Iran.
“Once again Iranian Christians face charges couched in political terms that in reality stem from their choice of faith and desire to exercise the right to worship in community with others,” said Andrew Johnston, the advocacy director of Britain-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
Johnston noted that Iran had signed article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which guarantees these religious and other rights.
“Furthermore, the men from the Church of Iran face an additional accusation of allegedly indulging in subversive internet activity, despite having been arrested at a prayer gathering,” he said.
“Bearing in mind that the shackling of prisoners is illegal under Iranian law, and that Iran is a signatory of the ICCPR, CSW urges the Iranian authorities to uphold the rule of law and to respect the right to freedom of religion or belief in its entirety, including the right of all of its citizens to manifest their belief in community with others.”
Iran has denied wrongdoing and its leadership claims it upholds Islamic values in the strict Islamic nation. Officials have expressed concern about the spread of Christianity, where mission groups claim there may be at least an estimated 100,000 devoted Christians.
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