By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- Iranian pastor Behnam Irani has been released from prison after serving some six years behind bars for charges linked to his Christian activities, friends with close knowledge about the situation told BosNewsLife Tuesday, October 18.
"Irani has been released from prison and is now free," confirmed advocacy group Present Truth Ministries (PTM), which closely followed the case. "We thank you all for your prayers. The Lord has preserved him in a mighty way!", added PTM in a statement.
The 43-year-old Irani of Karaj city 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".
Those years behind bars followed earlier detentions on similar charges. "The first time he was arrested in December 2006" before being released a month later in January 2007, PTM recalled. "On February 23, 2008, the Branch 30 of the Appellate Court in Tehran gave him a five year suspended sentence. Since it was a suspended sentence he was not required to go to prison, but was free on a five-year probation."
However Irani continued his activities as an effective evangelical pastor of a 300-strong house church congregation of the evangelical Church of Iran movement, raising anger among authorities in this strict Islamic nation.
In April, 2010, security forces reportedly raided a house church service, assaulted him and took him into custody. Security officials also interrogated those attending the service and confiscated Bibles, Christian literature and DVD’s, Christians said.
"Brother Behnam was in prison for two months then he was released on bail in June 2010. In January 2011 he was tried for and convicted of crimes against national security," PTM
said. "Basically, in this instance, crimes against national security is holding house church services and leading Muslims to Christ," the group added.
Yet during his years in prison, Pastor Behnam Irani made clear he remained faithful to Christ, despite court pressure to return to Islam.
In a rare interview with BosNewsLife from prison, through a mediator, he said: "I've the joy of the Holy Spirit. I'm very thankful for Christian activists who are fighting alongside with us."
He had been 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.
The pastor confirmed at the time that 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.
Irani was expected to see his family. He is married to Kristina, an Armenian Christian, and has a daughter, Rebecca, 11 and a son Adriel, 5. "He came to know Jesus Christ in 1992 and has been a pastor since 2002," said PTM.
With Irani now free, concerns remain over several other Christians who remain behind bars on what their supporters call trumped-up charges linked to their faith.