By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- A pastor of a major house church movement in Iran has begun serving a five years prison sentence, for "crimes against the order", while a colleague has been detained amid drug addicts, a well-informed human rights official told BosNewsLife Wednesday, February 1.
Pastor Behnam Irani began his five year imprisonment in the Ghezel Hesar detention center in the city of Karaj on trumped up charges, said Jason DeMars, director of advocacy group Present Truth Ministries (PTM), who assists him.
"His 'crimes' were being a pastor and possessing Christian materials," he explained. "In the recent past we received reports that he was being beaten by fellow prisoners with the approval of prison authorities."
The treatment has impacted the pastor's health, he added. "While he was in prison his hair turned fully grey," said DeMars, adding that he has urged his group's supporters to "pray that God keeps him healthy and strong in faith."
This is not the first time Pastor Irani has been incarcerated, said advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). "In April 2010 he was conducting a house church service, when he was assaulted and arrested" and soon sentenced to one year imprisonment, the group explained.
However days before he was due to be released, the pastor was informed on in October last year that he would remain in prison to serve a suspended five year sentence for “action against the order”, CSW and other trial observers said.
CSW has also expressed concerns over a possible death sentence, as the verdict reportedly included the text describing Pastor Irani as "an apostate" adding that apostates “can be killed”.
DeMars said he was also worried over reports about the plight of Mehdi Foroutan, also known as Petros Foroutoa, a pastor "serving a one year sentence for crimes against the order."
He was "Previously held in solitary confinement and in the area where the drug abusers were kept," DeMars said. "He is now in the regular area of the prison."
The developments has also added to concerns over detained Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who faces possible execution for refusing to abandon his Christian faith and return to Islam, according to court documents seen by BosNewsLife.
He isn't alone. "Several other pastors and ministers are under intense pressure as a result of the Iranian government’s policy against Christians. Several have fled the country to go through [the United Nations agency] UNHCR’s refugee process," DeMars explained.
Iranian authorities have denied wrongdoing. In a statement Iranian officials have described pastor Nadarkhani as "a criminal".
Recently Press TV, viewed as a mouthpiece of the government, said Iran "has firmly refuted Western allegations of violating human rights" insisting that "Nadarkhani has a history of committing violent crimes and that he has never received a death penalty for his religious preference."
The United States and the European Union have demanded the immediate release of Nadarkhani and other Christians who they say are detained for their Christian faith in the strict Islamic nation.