After detaining 33-year-old Christian Protestant leader* Farshid Fathi for 16 months without indictment, judicial authorities finally sentenced him to six years in prison in April 2012. Fathi’s indictment is part of a continuing pattern of discrimination and prosecution of Christian converts in Iran.
Authorities allegedly kept him in solitary confinement the vast majority of his detention, and according to one family friend, beat him. Behnam Irani, a Christian pastor whose prison sentence was extended by five years just before his October 2011 release, is reportedly in dire physical condition. Irani and Fathi have both appealed their sentences.
In an interview with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, a source close to Farshid Fathi and his family said that all of Fathi’s alleged “crimes” were simply his work as a pastor: “The Bibles we brought to the country were seen as a crime, having more than one Bible or distributing Bibles were seen as a crime, having Christian literature was part of the crime …”
In a forthcoming report to be released summer 2012 about persecuted Christian converts in Iran, the Campaign documents the arrest and persecution of dozens of Christian converts. According to the Campaign’s findings, Christian pastors often face harsher forms of prosecution, such as longer prison sentences, than other persecuted Christians.
Authorities originally arrested Fathi on 26 December 2010 as part of a crackdown on Christians on Christmas Eve. Christian news agencies claim that approximately sixty Christians were arrested during this time.
Fathi’s trial was held in January 2012 and in April 2012, Judge Abdolghassem Salavati, known as the “Judge of Death” for doling out lengthy prison terms and even executions to dozens of political prisoners, sentenced Fathi to six years on the charges of “actions against national security,” “being in contact with enemy foreign countries,” and “religious propaganda.”
The source told the Campaign that Fathi’s charges were based on his contact with Elam ministries, a U.K.-based Persian ministry.
“During the interrogations they had Farshid’s laptop which contained all sorts of church financial information, so for example, money paid for [a church member] to go on a mission was seen as a crime, money used for a proselytizing project was seen as a crime … our travel abroad to conferences was seen as a crime … these are seen as evidence of acting against national security.”
The source also told the Campaign that Fathi’s lawyer was deprived of full access to his client’s case: “When the lawyer went to court they wouldn’t give him the file … Until … a few days [before the trial] they gave him the file, but not even the full file,” said the source, adding that Fathi is currently in Ward 350 in Evin Prison.
Behnam Irani, a Christian pastor and member of the evangelical group Church of Iran, was arrested in April 2010. The Church of Iran is a Christian congregation based in Rasht, whose members have previously also been targeted by the government.
In October 2011, just three days prior to his scheduled release, he was informed that his original 2008 suspended sentence was going to be re-activated and his prison sentence would be extended by five years. Several Christian news agencies have recently alerted to his deteriorating health condition and alleged abuse by prison guards in prison.
The Campaign’s upcoming report on Protestant Christian converts, based on interviews with about 30 Iranian Christians, highlights the broader trend of Christians in Iran who face threats, arrests, and employment discrimination for their beliefs. Nearly everyone interviewed for the Campaign’s forthcoming report was a Christian convert, particularly evangelical Christians.
Amongst Christian converts currently detained in Iran is Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who is awaiting a final verdict on whether or not his death sentence on the charge of “apostasy” will be upheld. According to Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN), authorities have reportedly also imprisoned Noorollah Qabitzade, who was detained in the December 2010 crackdown and remains in prison in Ahvaz.
A member of FCNN explained to the Campaign the political motives behind the persecution and intimidation of Christians:
“We Iranian Christians have never seen ourselves as a political opposition but the government wants to characterize us as political because they want to tie us to groups outside the country and paint us as supporters of foreigners.”
*While Pastor typically denotes a religious figure with official credentials and authorities, Mr. Fathi is a Protestant leader, not a Pastor.