By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- Iran on Monday, January 7, released Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was jailed on Christmas Day to serve the remainder of a sentence for evangelism among Muslims, his evangelical house church movement confirmed.
"His wife was among those awaiting him outside Lakan prison near [the northern city of] of Rasht," said Firouz Khandjani, a council member of the pastor's Church of Iran, in an interview with BosNewsLife.
In September, a court acquitted Pastor Nadarkhani of the death-sentence carrying charge of "apostasy", or abandoning Islam, but sentenced him to three years for "evangelizing Muslims."
Since he had already spent nearly three years in Lakan Prison, the pastor was released after posting bail.
He was unexpectedly detained again on what would have been his first Christmas with family in years, Khandjani said.
NOT FULL SENTENCE?
"Iranian authorities told him he had not completed his full sentence. We were expecting him to be free within four days, but in the end they kept him two weeks longer," Khandjani added. "It could have been worse, perhaps even 30 days more. You never know in Iran," he said.
Prison authorities reportedly claimed he had been released too early due to the insistence of his lawyer, Mohammed Ali Dadkhah. Dadkhah, a prominent human rights lawyer, was subsequently jailed for ten years and disbarred in September 2012 for "actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime" and keeping banned books in his home, Christian rights activists said.
He was also banned from practising or teaching law for ten years. Dadkhah is currently held in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison and activists have expressed concern over reports that he is suffering from memory loss and is under pressure to make a televised confession of guilt.
An Iranian Christian, who did not want to be identified, told BosNewsLife that these developments and Nadarkhani's latest detention on Christmas Day was aimed at "giving a message to the Christian minority" that authorities follow them also during the festive season.
Following Nadarkhani's detention, two more Iranian Church of Iran members, Behzad Taalipasand and Mohammadreza (Johann) Omidi, were jailed December 31, in Rasht for their Christian activities, BosNewsLife learned.
TRANSFER TO PRISON
Christians said the two were currently in a Ministry of Intelligence and Security detention facility and expected to be transferred to Lakan prison shortly.
Both face charges of action against national security, while Behzad is also accused of "insulting Islamic feelings." Behzad is single; Mohammad-Reza has a wife and two daughters.
Several other Iranian Christians also remain jailed, including Church of Iran Pastor Behnam Irani.
He spent Christmas behind bars and may not survive the remaining five years of his prison term, Khandjani and other Christians have warned.
Iranian Christians have told BosNewsLife that he was previously beaten by fellow inmates and guards of the Ghezel Hesar Prison in Karaj city, one of the toughest jails in the country, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of the nation's capital Tehran.
HOUSE CHURCHES TARGETED
The Church of Iran consists of several house churches that have been targeted by authorities, along with other denominations.
Despite the reported crackdown there may be as many as 100,000 evangelical Christians in Iran, according to missionaries.
Iran's government has defended its policies, saying house churches are "foreign funded sects" who threaten the security of the strict Islamic nation.
Rights activists say Iran is especially concerned about the growing number of Muslims turning to Christianity.
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