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By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife

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Pastor Behnam Irani and his wife and children.



KARAJ, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- An evangelical pastor who has been jailed in Iran for his Christian activities says he has been told by a court to remain behind bars because he "did not change".

Speaking to BosNewsLife through an interpreter, Pastor Behnam Irani made clear he remained faithful to Christ, despite court pressure to return to Islam.

"I've the joy of the Holy Spirit. I'm very thankful for Christian activists who are fighting alongside with us," added the pastor.

Irani, 43, began a one-year prison term in 2011 but was later told he would also have to serve a five-year, previously suspended, sentence for "crimes against national security".

There has also been concern he may face execution after a court advised such a sentence for alleged "apostasy", or abandoning Islam.

CHRISTIAN ACTIVITIES

Christians have linked the sentence to Irani's Christian activities as an effective evangelical pastor of a 300-strong house church congregation of the evangelical Church of Iran movement.

The pastor is held at 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.

He confirmed that the mistreatment and poor hygiene in the prison left him in poor health, including reported intestinal problems and rheumatism, but said he is "is fighting".

Despite the difficulties, he told BosNewsLife he was "doing fine" as his Christian faith keeps him strong.

On Monday, September 23, Irani said, he had been able to meet his wife and two young children.

PARDON URGED

His family has been trying to ask a local court "to pardon" him and allow the pastor to be released from prison.

"However a judge said he could not do so because I did not change my way", Irani said.

A local court reportedly made clear he could be pardoned and released from prison only if he repented and returned to Islam. The pastor said he has refused and remains faithful to Christ.

Yet his friend Firouz Khandjani, a council member of the 'Church of Iran', is hopeful that the pastor may be released soon as Iran's recently elected President Hassan Rouhani already freed several political prisoners.

"The president has to reconcile all society. Christians are Iranian citizens as others," Khandjani told BosNewsLife.

NATIONAL RECONCILIATION?

"We hope that the president will take necessary step for an inclusive national reconciliation and he will end three decades of persecution and discrimination against Christians and minorities," he added.

Khandjani said his church "will be praying for the pastor's freedom and the president's success despite the difficult situation" in the heavily Islamic country.

Several Christian rights activists have urged Christians around the world to write to there parliamentarians and Iranian embassies to ask for his release.

Besides Irani, several other Christians remain behind bars on what their supporters call trumped-up charges linked to their faith.

Among them is also Iranian-American Pastor Saeed Abedini, who has written a letter to the Iranian president appealing for him to consider his case and to call for his release.

Saeed was sentenced to eight years imprisonment on charges linked to his Christian faith and work. Thursday, September 26, marks his first anniversary in prison.

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