By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- Three Iranian Christians were due to appear before Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Court Sunday, February 4, to appeal against lengthy prison terms on charges of "conducting evangelism" and carrying out "illegal church activities."
Sunday's hearing came after four United Nations rights experts urged Iran to ensure that Pastor Victor Bet Tamraz, Amin Afshar Naderi, and Hadi Asgari would get a fair hearing.
Last year the Christian men each received a provisional sentence of 10 years in prison for the charges filed against them. The Islamic judges also imposed an additional five-year prison term against Naderi on a charge of blasphemy against Islam, BosNewsLife learned.
Observers said that the Revolutionary Court could end the case, confirm the sentences, or refer the trial to Iran's Supreme Court.
Activists and UN officials have expressed concern about Iran's secretive Revolutionary Court system, which was established after the 1979 Islamic Revolution to try suspected ideological opponents of the country's Islamic rulers.
Iranian Christians complain that it operates without juries, without defense lawyers, and often without evidence except confessions extracted through torture.
MORE CHRISTIANS TARGETED
Christians and others deemed dangerous to Iran's Islamic leaders have often been charged with espionage, threatening the internal and external security of Iran, trying to overthrow Iran's Islamic government, blasphemy, inciting violence, and even drug smuggling.
Shortly before Sunday's hearing began, UN special rapporteurs demanded "a fair and transparent final hearing" for the three Christians.
They also cautioned that this was not an isolated case, amid reports of a broader crackdown on devoted Christians in the strict Islamic nation.
"We are aware of several other reported cases in which members of the Christian minority have received heavy sentences after being charged with 'threatening national security,' either for converting people or for attending house churches," they said in a joint statement.
The officials warned that this "shows a disturbing pattern of individuals being targeted because of their religion or beliefs, in this case, a religious minority in the country." Many of those being targeted have ties to the Church of Iran, one of the leading house church movements in the country, and other evangelical groups and denominations, according to Christians familiar with the situation.
HEALTH CARE CONCERNS
"We are additionally concerned about the lack of health care made available to them while in detention and, in particular, about the current health condition of Mr. Asgari, who remains in prison," the UN experts stressed.
The United States said earlier its 2017 International Religious Freedom Report that Tehran "regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce the prohibition on proselytizing."
UN officials seemed to agree with that assessment. "Members of the Christian minority in Iran, particularly those who have converted to the faith, are facing severe discrimination and religious persecution," they noted.
The UN rapporteurs also urged Iran's government to "immediately and unconditionally release all those who have been arrested and detained for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief."
Despite the apparent difficulties, Christianity continues to spread in Iran. "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," said Elam Ministries, a mission group founded by Iranian church leaders.
HOUSE CHURCHES GROWING
"There are less than 20 operating ‘overground churches’ in Iran, and they are closely monitored by the government. Therefore, believers are forced to meet in house churches, most of which have 8-12 members," the group explained in a statement. "For security reasons, they are forced to multiply once they reach about 12 people. [However] this helps spread the Gospel [of Jesus Christ] even more," Elam Ministries added.
It said that more than one million Scriptures had been distributed to Iranians since 2003. "Believers are involved in regular evangelism, and all report a common experience. Almost all receive the Scriptures with joy."
Christian Television is also playing a role, Elam Ministries noted. "Thousands respond to programs every month. While dishes are banned, it is estimated that 28 million people have access to Satellite TV."
Officially Christians comprise less than 0.3 percent of Iran's mainly Muslim population of more than 82 million people.