Christian Pastors and Churchgoers Sentenced to Death and Imprisonment

Religious Practices and Proselytizing Treated as Criminal Acts

From left: Pastor Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad, Zainab Bahremend, and Pastor Behrouz Sadegh-Khanjani

(4 May 2011) Iranian authorities should end the judicial persecution of members of the evangelical protestant Church of Iran and other churches, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said today.

Specifically, the Campaign appeals to Iran’s Judiciary to overturn criminal sentences of church members including a death sentence for Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani and prison term for Pastor Behrouz Sadegh-Khanjani.

“Iranian authorities must stop targeting religious groups and practices they find threatening, acts which violate international and Iranian law,” said Aaron Rhodes, a spokesperson for the Campaign.

“It is deeply hypocritical to criticize European countries for discriminatory policies against Muslims while the Iranian government throws Christians and members of other minority religions into prison and sentences some to death,” Rhodes added.

During the 16th special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, in April 2011, the Iranian government criticized the EU and US for discrimination against religious minorities. On 12 April 2011, Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohammad Hosseini said, “We expect European countries to guarantee the individual and social freedoms of Muslims,” according to the state-controlled PressTV.

Throughout 2010 and 2011, dozens of members of the nationwide protestant group, the Church of Iran, have been criminally prosecuted and punished merely for their religious beliefs and practices. On 1 May 2011, the Revolutionary Court in the northern city of Bandar Anzali tried eleven church members, including Pastor Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad, and Zainab Bahremend, the 62-year-old grandmother of two other defendants, on charges of “acting against national security.”

The Court is scheduled to issue its verdict on 11 May. Authorities have also charged church members in Bandar Anzali with consumption of alcohol and inappropriate hejab (Islamic headscarf). These charges are reportedly based on their participation in church services in private homes, where some attendees drink wine as part of ritual communion, and women do not observe hejab.

Christianity is a recognized religion under the Iranian Constitution and despite some discrimination, the Islamic Republic has afforded Iran’s historic and ethnic Orthodox Christian communities with a modicum of space to practice their faith. However, Protestant leaders have told the Campaign that, especially within the last six years, the Iranian government has increasingly targeted Protestant groups.

Protestant groups in Iran are comprised primarily of converts and often engage in proselytizing. Moreover, Iranian courts and officials have begun to view these groups in political terms, trying Protestant believers and leaders in Revolutionary Courts, which are reserved for political and national security offenses.

On 5 April 2011, the First Branch of the Revolutionary Court in the southern city of Shiraz sentenced Pastor Behrouz Sadegh-Khanjani of the Church of Iran, and five other church members, Parviz Khalaj‪, Amin Afshar Manesh‪, Mehdi Forutan‪, Mohammad Baliad‪, and Nazli Makarian, with a year in prison for “propaganda against the regime.” Authorities, however, acquitted the Christians on the count of “acting against national security.” Sadegh-Khanjani and his fellow Church members have appealed the court’s decision.

Firouz Sadegh-Khanjani, brother of Behrouz and member of the Church of Iran’s National Council, told the Campaign, “So now [authorities] are elevating being Christian to a political crime. Basically they are saying if you’re Christian, then you must be against the regime. This might sound laughable but this is the view they are moving forward with.”

Firouz Sadegh-Khanjani told the Campaign that his church attempted to avoid being seen by authorities as a clandestine political organization. “For ten years our church has been reporting to the Ministry of Intelligence, letting them know about all our activities. So we are not an underground organization. My brother doesn’t even travel from one city to another without letting them know first,” he said.

Authorities also dropped the apostasy charges against Behrouz Sadegh-Khanjani and five other Church members. However, all six Christians still face a charge of “insulting Islamic sanctities” (i.e. blasphemy) in Shiraz’s Criminal Court.

Mohammad Taravatrooy, lawyer for the Christians, told the Campaign, “Neither they, nor I as their lawyer, accept such charges, because they did not commit any actions which could be construed as insulting the sanctities, or could appear as propaganda…. I think that the state mostly intends to use such cases to serve as means to prevent religious proselytizing.”

On 22 September 2010, the 11th Circuit Criminal Court of Appeals for the northern province of Gilan upheld the death sentence and conviction of pastor Youcef Nadarkhani for apostasy. Apostasy, the act of renouncing one’s religion, is not a crime under Iran’s Islamic Penal Code. Instead, the presiding judge in Nadarkhani’s case rested his opinion on texts by Iranian religious scholars.

Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, Nadarkhani ‘s lawyer, explained to the Campaign that there is neither mention of apostasy as a crime in Iran laws, nor any consensus about apostasy in Islamic jurisprudence.

“Many clerics‪ such as Ayatollah Ardabili are skeptical in relation to apostasy being considered a crime‪.” Dadkhah, who is facing charges of having been a founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Center himself, added that, “Regardless… Iran is bound by international norms and accepts the basic principles of human rights law. Article 27 of the Vienna Convention expressly states that no government can, because of its domestic laws, ignore international treaties. So after careful evaluation we conclude that the death sentence of this person or other persons in such a situation is not allowable‪.”

Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party, guarantees a person’s “freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice … to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.” Article 18 also requires that, “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.”

“The Iranian government knows full and well that its international obligations prohibit religious discrimination, and mandates the protection of freedom of religion and conscience,” said Rhodes. “The Judiciary should overturn these recent prison sentences and death sentences and stop persecuting Protestants and all other religious minorities.”