By BosNewsLife Middle East Service
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- A group of 19 influential human rights groups have urged the United Nations and the international community to help protect Christian converts in Iran saying scores of believers were detained for leaving Islam. In a statement to BosNewsLife the activists said that the "Islamic Republic of Iran" has been "homing in on converts from a Muslim background".
Between May and August 2016 security forces forces arrested at least 79 Christians, according to activists, family members and friends.
"The majority of those arrested were interrogated and detained for periods ranging from a few days to months." the groups said.
"At the time of writing some of these 79 Christians remain in detention and have still not been formally charged."
Rights groups say "the true number of Christians apprehended by the authorities could be notably higher" as "many" arrests would have gone unreported.
In 2012, Iran's government began to bar converts from Muslim backgrounds from attending services in official churches. Instead Christian converts "are forced" to gather in informal groups known as "house churches", the activists said. "These gatherings are considered illegal by authorities and are often raided. In August 2016 alone security agents allegedly raided at least four house churches and the house church members were arrested and interrogated."
The individuals responsible for the house church often face charges of "acting against national security through the establishment of house churches", BosNewsLife and activists established.
In one incident, a group of four converts from the coastal city of Rasht were arrested in May 2016 and charged with acting against national security.
A verdict is still pending from their October 15 hearing, according to trial observers. Three of those men also faced charges of drinking communion wine and are appealing against their sentence of 80 lashes each. However, "Many others of those recently arrested are still waiting to know what
charges will be brought against them," the rights groups explained.
Iranian authorities have pressured Christian leaders to emigrate, either through direct threats or through intentional harassment, according
to Christian activists familiar with the situation.
Some church leaders were reportedly told during interrogation that they would face 5 to 10 years imprisonment unless they leave the country.
In other instances Christians said that harassment meant "daily summons to security offices for questioning, confiscation of documents such as identity cards" to prevent the victim from buying or selling property or cars, "or forcing the Christians out of their jobs."
The rights groups said the treatment of Iranian Christian converts and other believers "violates Iran's constitutional and international legal obligations".
They cited Article 14 of Iran's constitution as providing provisions upholding "basic religious rights for some non-Muslims including Christians,
Jews, and Zoroastrians."
In addition "Article 19 also enshrines the principle of non-discrimination and article 23 prohibits authorities from investigating
a person's belief or taking action against someone solely on account of his or her beliefs."
The organizations stressed that as "a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights the Islamic Republic of Iran is obligated to ensure non-discrimination...and freedom of thought, conscience and religion." Article 18 of the agreement "specifically protects the right
of a person to change their religion," the rights activists added.
Activists are concerned that since the lifting of international sanctions, governments worldwide want to improve diplomatic and business relations with Iran, without regard for persecuted Christians and minorities.
The groups noted that in June this year, the European Parliament published an analysis of EU-Iran relations following a nuclear agreement titled
"an EU strategy for relations with Iran after the nuclear deal". Yet, "the strategy disappointingly includes very little mention of human rights".
They suggested that governments "should factor human rights, including the rights of religious minorities, into all bilateral dealings with the Islamic
Republic." Governmental agencies, the activists said, "should explore avenues beyond dialogue alone to ensure human rights violators are held accountable and that trade and diplomatic relations do not contribute to further abuses."
The rights groups also said that the "Secretary General and newly appointed Special Rapporteurs on freedom of religion and human rights in Iran should monitor and report extensively on violations of freedom of religion of people in Iran, in accordance with their mandates before the United Nations".
They stressed that Iran "must ensure that the values enshrined in the Iranian Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are upheld." Iran should respect "the right to freedom of religion and belief, including the right of conversion and of non-belief...for all its citizens and residents of the country," they added in a statement.
The signatories of the statement included rights groups: Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, All Human Rights for All in Iran, Arseh Sevom, Article 18, Association for Human Rights of Azerbaijani People in Iran, Association of Human Rights in Kurdistan of Iran - Geneva, Baloch Activist Campaign, Center for Supporters of Human Rights, Ensemble contre la peine de mort (ECPM), European Ahwazi Human Rights Organisation, Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRAI), Impact Iran, International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Iran Human Rights, Justice for Iran, Middle East Concern, Siamak Pourzand Foundation, Small Media and United for Iran.
Iranian officials did not comment, but have expressed concern in the past about the spread of Christianity in the strict Islamic nation.