By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- An Iranian pastor who was nearly executed for abandoning Islam and three other believers have received 10 years imprisonment each for “acting against national security” as part of a government crackdown on Christian converts in Iran, their supporters told BosNewsLife.
Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani and fellow Christians Mohammadreza Omidi, Yasser Mossayebzadeh and Saheb Fadaie officially
obtained the verdict July 6, Iranian Christians and activists confirmed.
The pastor and Omidi were also given additional two years sentences in the south of the country, which activists say has an exceedingly hot and harsh environment. They were expected to appeal the ruling.
Nadarkhani became a symbol of reported persecution of Christians in Iran when he faced the death penalty before being released in 2012 amid international pressure after more than 1,000 days behind bars.
In a reaction, advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) condemned the latest sentences aimed at members
of Nadarkhani's thriving Church of Iran house church movement and other Christians.
“We are deeply disappointed by these excessive sentences, which are based on spurious charges and are clearly part of an intensified campaign of judicial harassment aimed at intimidating members of minority faiths,” said CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas.
The troubles began when the four men were summoned to the 26th Chamber of the Revolutionary Tribunal where presiding
Judge Ahmadzadeh reportedly accused their church of receiving 500,000 pounds ($650,000 ) per year from the British government.
During the hearing Judge Abolghasem Salavati, who is notorious for issuing harsh sentences, also entered the court room saying “Christians make foolish claims,” trial observers said.
Nadarkhani and the others were detained in May, during raids by security service (VEVAK) agents on Christian homes in the coastal city of Rasht. A ruling on their case was due before the Iranian New Year on March 21, but a decision to refer the case to judicial authorities in Tehran delayed the sentencing, activists said.
Separately, a ruling was expected on an appeal by Omidi, Mossayebzadeh and Fadaie against a sentence of 80 lashes each for drinking wine during a Communion service.
The verdicts are the latest in a series of what critics view as excessive sentences passed by Judge Ahmadzadeh against Iranian Christians. Earlier this month Judge Ahmadzadeh sentenced Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, Hadi Asgari and Kaviyan Fallah-Mohammadi to ten years in prison each, while Amin Afshar-Naderi got a 15-year sentence, and all were banned from traveling for two years.
Rights activists said Afshar-Naderi and Fallah-Mohammadi were among several Christians detained on December 26, 2014, at a Christmas celebration in the pastor’s home in Tehran. They were both charged with “acting against national security by organizing and conducting house-churches”, while Afshar-Naderi was also accused of blasphemy against Islam.
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 to BosNewsLife. Earlier in May, Judge Ahmadzadeh sentenced four Christians to 10 years imprisonment each for engaging in missionary activities and “conducting activities against national security,” BosNewsLife established.
They were identified as Iranian Nasser Navard Goltape as well as Yusif Farhadov, Eldar Gurbanov and Bahram Nasibov
from Azerbaijan. 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."
The reported crackdown has been linked to concern among Iranian officials about the spread of Christianity in the Islamic nation. Church groups say that the number of Christians has grown from 500 known believers in 1979 to at least 360,000 now.