By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– Iran has ordered three evangelical house church pastors to report to prison within a month and serve lengthy jail terms on charges linked to their Christian activities, a well-informed source told BosNewsLife late Tuesday, November 29.
Pastors Parviz Khalaj, Mohammed “William” Belyad and Behrouz Sadegh Khandjani, of the Church of Iran movement, are due to start serving their sentences in the southwestern city of Shiraz in “30 days” said Jason DeMars, director of advocacy group Present Truth Ministries, which has close contacts with Iranian Christians.
“Parviz has two convictions for crimes against the order and is to serve two years. William Belyad was previously convicted of crimes against the order and sentenced to five years in prison. He will [receive an additional one year] to serve a total of 6 years. Behrouz is expected to serve one year in prison,” on related charges he added.
He said his group had urged its supporters to pray as “each of these brothers has a family that will need our prayers.” Khalaj he added, “is married to Elahe” with 10-yea- old son Samuel. Belyad leaves behind his wife Nazly and their one-month-old son Ariel, while Khandjani will have his wife Miriam and their 7-year old daughter Esperance waiting for him, De Mars explained.
DeMars stressed that he has learned that their attorney is still “working to find a solution” for them. “There is still a chance that they would not be required to serve their sentences.” DeMars did not elaborate.
He said he wasn’t surprised that the order came as Christians prepare for Christmas. “Based upon past experience, Christmas is a time of increased persecution in Iran.”
Tuesday’s reported order came shortly after the European Union urged Iran to release House of Iran Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani who is facing the death penalty for refusing to recant his faith in Christ and return to Islam.
Nadarkhani, one of hundreds of believers detained in Iran, “already spent two years behind bars and was sentenced to death because he became a Christian and tried to register his house church,” said Peter van Dalen of Dutch party ChristenUnie, or ChristianUnion (CU), in the EU’s European Parliament.
The 34-year-old Nadarkhani, who is married with two children, was detained in his home city of Rasht in October 2009 while trying to register his 400-member house church.
Nadarkhani was eventually found guilty of “apostasy”, or abandoning Islam, in September 2010 and sentenced to death by the court in his home city of Rasht. In June this year Iran’s Supreme Court upheld the death sentence in principal saying he grew up in a Muslim family and did not “repent” for his Christian conversion.
Yet, it also asked the lower court in Rasht to “re-examine” the case.
With international pressure mounting, the Rasht court decided last month to ask Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to rule whether Nadarkhani should be executed. That opinion is still being awaited.
Iranian officials have denied wrongdoing saying their legal system is aimed at defending Islamic values in the strict Islamic nation. Rights groups say there is a growing government crackdown on especially house churches and Christian converts, most of whom are former Muslims.
There may be as many as 100,000 devoted Christians in heavily Islamic Iran, according to conservative church group estimates, although other churches say there may be hundreds of thousands of Christians in the country.