By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- Iranian Christians have urged prayers for Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who was acquitted of apostasy in 2012 after being sentenced to death by hanging, and three other believers after they were forced to stand trial on charges of “action against national security", activists told BosNewsLife.
The men, who could face up to six years imprisonment, were detained in May as part of a wider government-backed crackdown on Nadarkhani's 'Church of Iran', one of the largest evangelical house church movements in the country, and Christian homes in the city of Rasht, Christians said.
Nadarkhani's fellow Christians, identified as Yaser Mosibzadeh, Saheb Fadayee and Mohammed Reza Omidi, were already were sentenced to 80 lashes each for drinking wine during a communion service. They have appealed against that sentence and a hearing at the 11th Branch of the Appeal Court has been scheduled for February 9, 2017, according to Christians familiar with the situation.
In a reaction rights activists suggested that the ruling was a warning to Muslims not to convert to Christianity. "Drinking alcohol is not illegal for Christians in Iran, but under applicable Islamic law it is prohibited for Muslims," commented advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC). "The charges brought against Christian converts reflect the state view that a Muslim cannot change his [or] her religion."
In published remarks, unidentified Iranian Christians prayers that "the four men will be acquitted of the charges of acting against national security" and that the "appeal in February against the sentence of 80 lashes for consumption of alcohol will be successful."
They also hope that "the Christian faith of the three men will be recognized by the court and that they will be acquitted of these charges that apply to Muslims only."
Iranian Christians also urged their supporters to "pray" that "God will give His peace to the men and their families, and that they will not be anxious [and that] all officials involved (especially the judge) will love mercy, act justly, learn about Jesus and choose to follow Him," MEC said in a statement to BosNewsLife.
The Christians are among several believers being targeted by secret services in Shiraz where temporary leave was denied for the Christmas holidays to Mohammad Roghangir and Massoud Rezaie, who are serving six and five years respectively for "action against national security" and "propaganda against the order of the system", said rights activists.
"The crackdown is not confined to house church networks and their members; some government-recognized denominations face the prospect of having their property seized," added advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
The group said the government’s "intensified campaign of harassment and repression" is even being felt by some who have fled the country, including Fatemeh Torkkajouri, who was sentenced in absentia in 2014 to five years imprisonment for “action against national security”.
Christians said that she is under "severe pressure" to return to Iran to serve the sentence.
She was initially detained in July 2010 and imprisoned for two months during a period when her husband, Behrouz Khandjani, had been incarcerated for the second time, reportedly leaving their young daughter without her parents.
Despite reported persecution, Christianity continues to spread in what is officially known as the Islamic Republic of Iran, according to Elam Ministries, a mission group founded by Iranian church leaders. "Today the most conservative estimate is that there are at least 3 60,000 believers in the nation."
Elam said that Church leaders believe that "millions can be added to the church" in the next few years because "such is the spiritual hunger that exists and the disillusionment with the Islamic regime."