By BosNewsLife Middle East Service
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- Eight members of Iran's largest evangelical house church movement have been sentenced to years imprisonment on charges that include "action against the national security" and "propaganda against the order of the system," Christian rights activists confirmed late Thursday, July 18.
Mohammad Roghangir was sentenced to six years, Massoud Rezaie to five years, Mehdi Ameruni and Bijan Farokhpour Haghighi to three years, Shahin Lahooti and Suroush Saraie to two and half years each, while Eskandar Rezaie and Roxana Forughi were both sentenced to one year in prison, said advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
The Christians were expected to appeal their July 16 convictions.
The ruling came months after seven of them were detained October 12 last year during an evening raid by security forces on a house in Shiraz where a prayer service led by Roghangir was underway, Christians said.
Massoud Rezaie was reportedly detained six days later.
They were all subsequently released on bail after paying "substantial amounts", Christians said. The ruling means they will have to start serving their sentences.
In a statement, the National Council of the Church of Iran denied wrongdoing. "In accordance with the Gospel, the Church is apolitical. While individual Christians are entitled to hold political opinions, the Church does not," the Council said. "These charges are entirely without foundation. However, as loyal citizens we will continue to pray for our leaders and for peace and reconciliation in our nation."
CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas told BosNewsLife that "It is both disappointing and deplorable that the Iranian regime persists in detaining religious minorities on political charges, as has occurred once again in this case."
He said the detained Christians "in no way constitute a threat to the state."
Iranian officials have defended their perceived harsh policies towards especially evangelical house churches and Christian converts, who include many former Muslims, saying they defend the Islamic values of the strict Islamic nation.
Thomas said CSW has called however "for their unconditional release and urge the government to end the practice of characterizing legitimate religious activities as national security crimes."
Rights activists have also urged Iran to uphold the right of all religious minorities to freedom of religion and belief, as contained in Article 18 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is signatory.
"We also call on the incoming presidency [following the recent elections] to bring an end the harassment of religious minorities and to ensure that every Iranian citizen is able to enjoy the rights and freedoms to which they are entitled under national and international law, including the right to freedom of religion or belief," Thomas said.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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