By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– Iran has jailed dozens of evangelical Christians, many of whom are converts from Muslim backgrounds, according to a new United Nations report seen by BosNewsLife Monday, March 17.
Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, said “at least 49 Christians” remained detained “in Islamic Republic of Iran as at January 2014.”
The report came while Iranian Christians told BosNewsLife that authorities in Central Prison in the city of Karaj had confiscated the Bible and several Christian books of jailed evangelical Pastor Behnam Irani.
Irani, 43, began a one-year prison term in 2011 but was later told he would also have to serve a five-year, previously suspended, sentence for “crimes against national security”.
Christians also expressed concern he may face execution after a court advised such a sentence for alleged “apostasy”, or abandoning Islam.
FAITHFUL TO CHRIST
The pastor of the Church of Iran, one of the largest house church movements, told BosNewsLife recently that he remained faithful to Christ, despite court pressure to return to Islam. “I’ve the joy of the Holy Spirit. I’m very thankful for Christian activists who are fighting alongside with us,” added the pastor at the time.
Irani is among dozens of house church Christians held in prisons across the country, suggested Shaheed.
Last year, “authorities reportedly arrested at least 42 Christians, of whom 35 were convicted for participation in informal “house churches”, the U.N. official said.
Other charges include “association with churches outside…Iran” and “perceived or real evangelical activity, and other standard Christian activities,” Shaheed added in his report.
He said sentences range from one to 10 years of imprisonment.
Most “prosecuted” Christians “appear to be converts from Muslim backgrounds or those that proselytize or minister to Iranian Muslims,” the rapporteur explained.
“Iranian authorities at the highest levels have designated house churches and evangelical Christians as threats to national security.”
While most cases involving Christians are tried in “revolutionary courts for national security crimes”, some believers “face charges in public criminal courts for manifestation of religious beliefs,” he noted.
“For example, a court sentenced four Christians to 80 lashes each for drinking wine during communion in October 2013,” Shaheed said.
The top U.N. investigator also accused Iranian officials of routinely threatening “to prosecute Christian converts for apostasy” which carries the death penalty. “While not found in any Iranian criminal law” Christians have been “prosecuted based on an Islamic law interpretation commonly used by Iranian courts,” he said.
OTHER RELIGIOUS PRISONERS
Besides Christians, other religious minorities have also been targeted in this strict Islamic nation, according to U.N and other rights investigators.
“As at 3 January 2014, at least 307 members of religious minorities were in detention,” Shaheed added, including at least 136 Baha’is, 90 Sunni Muslims, 50 Christians [and] 19 Dervish Muslims as well as four Yarasan, two Zoroastrians and six from other groups.
Additionally at least 50 ethnic rights defenders, 28 civic and cultural activists
and 200 ethnic political activists were reported detained or imprisoned, “many convicted of association with armed opposition groups,” Shaheed explained.
Of the 92 human rights defenders currently reportedly detained, dozens were facing charges ranging from threatening national security and propaganda against the system to “enmity against God”, according to the U.N. report.
“Since 2010, the coordinated mass arrest of human rights defenders has served to effectively dismantle the most important Iranian human right organizations, including the Committee of Human Rights Reporters [and] the Defenders of Human Rights Centre”, founded by Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi.
IRAN DENIES WRONGDOING
Iran’s leadership has consistently denied wrongdoing. Last year, an Iranian official accused the U.N. special rapporteur of taking bribes from the United States.
Mohammad Javad Larijani, secretary general of Iran’s high council for human rights, reportedly said Ahmed Shaheed was only a “parrot [of] U.S. allegations against Iran” in exchange for money.
Iran has not allowed Shaheed to enter the country.
Despite the government opposition, Christianity is spreading among Muslims in Iran where there may be as many as 100,000 evangelical Christians, according to church groups and missionaries.