By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– Iranian Christians want prayers for a former Muslim who has been jailed for embracing Christianity; his supporters told BosNewsLife. Ismaeil Maghrebinejad, 64, received a three-year prison term on charges of “insulting Islamic sacred beliefs,” said advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC).
The Christian convert was sentenced a year after being detained in the southwestern city of Shiraz. He was charged initially with “propaganda against the state and insulting the sacred Iranian establishment,” MEC confirmed to BosNewsLife. However, “at a hearing on October 22, the judge further accused Ismaeil of ‘apostasy'”, or abandoning Islam, MEC explained. And the court increased bail demands from 10 million to 100 million tomans (US$9000), according to trial observers. Friends reportedly provided pledges to cover the bail demands.
“There were further hearings in November when the apostasy charge was dropped as well as in December and January,” MEC noted.
“At the most recent hearing on January 8 at Branch 105 of the Civil Court in Shiraz, a new judge repeated many of the questions that had been asked previously. The judge focused on the charge of ‘insulting Islamic sacred beliefs in cyberspace’. That charge was because of Ismaeil forwarding a message sent to his phone that was deemed to be insulting to the ruling Iranian clerics,” MEC added.
Found guilty, Maghrebinejad was sentenced to three years in prison under Article 513 of the Islamic Penal Code, Christians said. The legislation allows for a punishment of between one and five years in prison.
In a reaction, Mansour Borji of religious rights group Article 18 reportedly called the sentence “a disproportionate reaction to something so ordinary.” Borji said the charges are related to his conversion to Christianity. “This may reveal the real reason why he’s been charged with something that most ordinary Iranians do daily.”
MEC said that Maghrebinejad is appealing the sentence. However, the efforts are complicated as he also faces two other charges, including “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and “membership of a group hostile to the regime,” MEC explained.
Iranian Christians have expressed disappointment at what they view as the “harshness” of a sentence that they claim is directed against Maghrebinejad‘s Christian faith. They also request prayer that “God will strengthen and encourage Ismaeil Maghrebinejad during the judicial proceedings,” said MEC, which is closely monitoring the case.
Other prayer requests include the ability of the “his lawyer to make a strong defence” so that “the three-year prison sentence will be successfully appealed.”
Iranian Christians also pray that charges of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and “membership of a group hostile to the regime” will be dropped. They hope that “Iranian authorities will uphold the rights of religious minorities and that Christian converts will not be persecuted,” MEC said.
News of the prison sentence faced by Maghrebinejad comes after the disappearance of a Christian rights activist who converted from Islam to Christianity and publicly expressed anger about her country’s Islamic leadership.
Mary Fatemeh Mohammadi, 21, was reportedly detained in Tehran and transported to a secret location. It happened near the capital’s Azadi Square here crowds rallied against Iran’s authorities accidentally shooting down a Ukrainian passenger plane earlier this month.
Advocacy groups see the arrests of Christians as part of broader efforts by the Islamic leadership to crack down on groups seen as undermining its powerbase and Islam.
Despite the reported crackdown on Christianity, mission groups suggest there are at least some 360,000 devoted Christians in the strict Islamic republic.