By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- Iran has apparently dropped death-sentence carrying charges against two evangelical pastors and another believer, though the three men remain detained for their Christian activities, BosNewsLife learned Thursday, October 2.
Pastor Matthias Haghnejad, Pastor Behnam Irani and Deacon Silas Rabbani from the Church of Iran house church movement were instead tried for other alleged offences at the 1st Branch of the Revolutionary Tribunal in Karaj city last week, trial observers said.
Additionally Christians Moluk Ruhani, Zainab Akbari and Hamidreza Borhani, who were among six believers detained in Isfahan early September, have been released, said advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
However Mohammed Taslimi and Parsa Dadkhah remain incarcerated while the whereabouts of Moluk Ruhani’s sister, Sepideh Morshedi, remained unknown Thursday, October 2, Christians said.
Pastor Haghnejad, Pastor Irani and Deacon Rabbani, who are being held separately in Ghezal Hesar Prison, had recently been charged with 'Mofsed-e-filarz', or 'spreading corruption on earth', which carries a death sentence.
The two pastors had also been charged with Moharebeh, or 'warring against Allah', which experts say can also carry the death penalty. Behnam Irani, who is serving already a long prison term, had received 15 other charges, CSW told BosNewsLife.
Iranian Christians said that the Moharebeh and Mofsed-e-filarz charges "appear to have been dropped" and that all three were tried for “action against national security” and “creating a network to overthrow the System”.
It was unclear whether international pressure prompted authorities to drop more serious charges. The men now await a verdict from Judge Asel Al-Hosseyn, who tried their cases, Christians said.
CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas told BosNewsLife he has mixed feelings about the outcome. “While we applaud the dropping of the capital charges levelled against Pastors Haghnejad and Irani, and Deacon Rabbani, it is completely unacceptable that they have faced trial once again on unwarranted charges and that their unjust prison terms may be extended even further."
Additionally, "It is difficult to conceive of how imprisoned men from a severely repressed community could pose a danger to such a powerful system," Thomas said.
The dropping of the capital charges against the three Christians comes a week after a 37 year-old Muslim man, Mohsen Amir-Aslani, was reportedly executed for 'Mofsed-e-filarz' and 'heresy' after describing the biblical story of Jonah as an allegory.
Head of the Judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, disregarded a Supreme Court decision to release him after the trial judge appealed for the death penalty to be carried out.
"While a high-ranking judge has claimed Mr Amir-Aslani was executed for rape, the authorities have yet to produce substantive evidence to support this allegation," CSW commented in a statement.
"We also express our deepest condolences to the family of Mr Amir-Aslani, whose execution is emblematic of the arbitrary nature of the Iranian judicial system and the flagrant disregard of the nation’s highest judicial authority for the rule of law and justice," added Thomas.
The official said the plight of detainees makes it difficult to normalize relations with Iran. "Some in the West are calling for renewed relations with Iran in the face of the threat posed in Iraq and Syria by [Islamic State] ISIL [militants]. However, it is worth noting that Mr Amir-Aslani was one of six people executed on the same day that the [the] British Prime Minister met with [Iranian] President Rouhani at the United Nations,"Thomas said.
"It is highly debatable whether a country that severely represses its own religious and ethnic minorities and conducts an average of two executions a day can contribute meaningfully towards resolving a conflict that is itself fuelled by religious sectarianism and an intolerance of indigenous minority communities.”