By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- Christians in Iran have appealed for prayers after missionaries, pastors and other devoted Christians received long prison terms and faced lashes as part of a government effort to halt the spread of Christianity in the Islamic nation, trial observers and activists told BosNewsLife.
In one of the latest known cases, Pastor Victor Bet Tamraz, Amin Afshar Naderi, and Hadi Asgari got years-long jail terms for "illegal" Christian activities, but their lawyer reportedly planned to appeal the court's decision this week.
Judge Ahmadpour sentenced Pastor Tamraz to 10 years' imprisonment, Naderi to 15 years and Asgari to a 10-year prison term and a 2-year travel ban, according to a court ruling released Monday, July 3 and Tuesday, July 4.
The judge also raised the amount of bail for Naderi and Asgari to 200 million Tomans (some $60,000) each, trial observers said.
Pastor Tamraz, who is of Assyrian background, was sentenced on charges that included "conducting evangelism," "illegal house church activities" and "Bible printing and distribution," Christians explained.
Naderi, a former Muslim, received his prison term for "acting against national security" and blasphemy as he abandoned Islam. Asgari, also a convert from Islam, was sentenced on similar security charges and "organizing and creating house churches," BosNewsLife learned.
Ramiel Bet Tamraz, the pastor's son, also awaits a hearing for his involvement in what authorities view as controversial Christian activities. And the preacher's wife, Shamiran Issavi, is expecting a court session on charges of "participating in foreign seminars" and "acting against Iranian national security" as a church member, according to Christians familiar with the case. She is apparently free on bail of 100 million Tomans (about $30,000) after one-day detention.
Separately, a judge sentenced four Christians to 10 years imprisonment each for engaging in missionary activities and “conducting activities against national security,” BosNewsLife learned.
Judge Ahmedzadeh jailed Iranian Nasser Navard Goltape as well as Yusif Farhadov, Eldar Gurbanov and Bahram Nasibov from Azerbaijan during a hearing in late May, but the ruling was not communicated to them until June 12, confirmed advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
The men are appealing the sentences, though Christians say they are pessimistic about the outcome, despite the lack of evidence against them, as authorities appear "determined" to make a "punitive statement."
Advocacy director Mansour Borji of Article 18, a group defending "persecuted Christians" in Iran, expressed concern at the sentences. “This recent verdict by Iran’s revolutionary court is particularly alarming as many other Iranian Christians are still awaiting trial for exercising their right to worship as Christians in the privacy of their homes,” he explained in published remarks.
Those awaiting harsh sentenced include four members of the Church of Iran denomination in Rasht, charged with “action against national security”.
Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, Mohammadreza Omidi, Yasser Mossayebzadeh and Saheb Fadaie were summoned last month to the 26th Chamber of the Revolutionary Tribunal where they were told to expect a verdict within 20 days, Christians said.
The presiding judge, Judge Ahmadzadeh, also accused the church of receiving 500,000 pounds ($646,000) per year from the British government, said advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
In "a worrying development," Judge Abolghasem Salavati, known for issuing harsh sentences, entered the court during the proceedings and announced that “Christians make foolish claims,” added CSW which closely follows the case.
"His unexpected intervention may indicate that the presiding judge is under pressure from the Secret Police to pronounce a pre-determined verdict and deliver a harsh sentence."
Activists say the judge is notorious for carrying out "miscarriages of justice" in high-profile trials involving foreign political activists, lawyers, journalists and ethnic and religious minorities. He has reportedly delivered lengthy prison sentences and ordered that defendants be lashed or executed.
A ruling is also due in an appeal filed by Omidi, Mossayebzadeh, and Fadaie against a sentence of eighty lashes each for drinking wine during a Communion service.
Besides praying for detained believers, Iranian Christians said in published remarks that they asked prayers "that those responsible for the persecution of Christians in Iran will love mercy, act justly, learn about Jesus and choose to follow Him."
Despite the reported crackdown, churches continue to grow. "In 1979, there were less than 500 known Christians from a Muslim background in Iran. Today the most conservative estimate is that there are at least 360,000 believers in the nation," added Elam, a mission group founded by senior Iranian church leaders.