By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– An evangelical Iranian pastor serving a six years prison term for his Christian activities is facing 18 new charges, including “spreading corruption on Earth”, which carries the death penalty, Christian rights activists say.
Behnam Irani, who led the 300-member Church of Iran congregation in Karaj city, 20 kilometres (12 miles) west of capital Tehran, is already being held in solitary confinement, despite health problems that reportedly included severe bleeding due to stomach ulcers and colon complications.
The “Mofsed-e-filarz” or “spreading corruption on Earth” allegation against him is similar to the charge “Moharabeh”, or “warring against Allah” that was levelled against another Christian, Pastor Matthias Haghnejad, can also entail capital punishment, said advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
Rights activists say the fresh charges appear part of a surge in repression under the presidency of Hassan Rouhani targeting Christians and other religious or ethnic minorities. Iranian officials are known to be concerned about the spread of Christianity among the majority Muslims.
Seperately, at least five Christians were detained this week in the central city of Isfahan, according to Christian investigators.
Bibles, computers and mobile phones belonging to Mohammad Taslimi, Hamidreza Borhani and his wife Zainab Akbari, Moluk Ruhani and her sister, identified only as Sepideh, were reportedly confiscated during their arrest.
It was unclear Thursday, September 4, whether they would face similar charges as Pastor Irani, who was initially detained in December 2006, and sentenced in 2011 to six years imprisonment for “action against the state” and “action against the order.”
In June, Pastor Irani was removed from prison and temporarily held in solitary confinement in an Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (VEVAK) detention centre, where he was interrogated on five occasions for four hours each time, Christians said.
He was allegedly warned that if he did not obey VEVAK orders, he would receive a further sentence and remain in prison for a longer time.
CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas told BosNewsLife in a statement that his group is “deeply concerned by the new charges against Pastor Irani” especially the charge of spreading corruption on Earth, “which bears unsettling similarities to the one faced by Pastor Matthias.”
The charges levelled against Pastor Irani and other Christians are “tantamount to an indictment of Christianity itself and mark a renewed escalation in Iran’s campaign against Persian Christians under the Rouhani presidency,” Thomas said.
CSW also said it was concerned about Assemblies of God leader Farshid Fathi, who was transferred unexpectedly on August 19 from Evin Prison in Tehran, the capital, to Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj city. Christians claim he is in a ward with murderers and drug addicts where narcotics are used openly and fighting between inmates occurs regularly.
“It is deplorable that a prisoner of conscience like Farshid Fathi is currently held with hardened criminals,” Thomas said. “We urge the Iranian government to transfer him to an appropriate ward as a matter of urgency and put it on notice that it will be held accountable for his safety.”
His group demands the government to drop “the unwarranted charges” and release Christians and others who it claims have been unjustly detained for their faith in Christ, in violation of international agreements signed by the strict Islamic state. Iranian government officials have denied wrongdoing saying they defend Islamic values and the security of the state.