By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– Iran has sentenced nearly 20 people, including a well-known evangelical pastor, to more than 24 years in jail for converting to Christianity, evangelism and other Christian activities, several sources told BosNewsLife.
”We regret to share that Iranian Christian prisoner [Pastor] Farshid Fathi has been sentenced to a further year in prison. This additional time will commence immediately following the six year sentence that he is currently serving for his Christian faith,” said David Yeghnazar, executive director of mission group Elam Ministries.
”This means he is now due to be released in December 2017, rather than December 2016,” added Yeghnazar, whose group was founded by Iranian church leaders to support needy Christians.
Yeghnazar said the latest development apparently ”stems from the April 2014 violent raid on prisoners of ward 350 of Evin prison” in Tehran. ”Several prisoners were injured including Farshid, prompting a public outcry. In August 2014 many of the prisoners, including Farshid, were moved from Evin to other prisons. A few days after his arrival at Rajai Shahr prison, Farshid was falsely accused of possessing alcohol in Evin prison.” This was the first time the charge was made, he said.
CALLED TO COURT
The pastor was finally called to court on December 29, 2014, and the one year sentence was issued, though confirmation of the ruling in what is often a highly secretive court system was just received, Elam Ministries said.
”Since December 2010, Farshid has been imprisoned because of his ministry, which the Iranian judiciary construes as a threat to national security,” Yeghnazar said, amid a wider reported crackdown on devoted Christians, including many former Muslims, in the strict Islamic country. Besides the evangelical pastor, Iran’s revolutionary court imposed harsh prison sentences last week on 18 Christian converts for charges including evangelism, propaganda against the regime, and creating house churches to practice their faith, according to sources familiar with the case.
The sentences totaled just shy of 24 years and Christians have complained that the lack of transparency in Iran’s tightly censored and controlled judicial system did not allow for a breakdown of individual sentences. Defendants were reportedly also barred from organizing church home meetings and given a two-year ban from leaving Iran.
The group of eighteen, all Christan converts, were sentenced on charges that reportedly included “evangelism”, “creating house churches” and “spreading propaganda” against the Islamic regime.
CONTROVERSIAL PENAL CODE
Iranian activists say the Iranian court sentenced the Christians for violating Article 500 of the Islamic Penal Code which they claim has been used to prosecute anyone opposing the government. .
“Anyone who engages in any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or in support of opposition groups and associations, shall be sentenced to three months to one year of imprisonment,” the Penal code says.
Iranian officials have repeatedly expressed concern over the spread of Christianity in the country with churches sources saying there may be at least hundreds of thousands of believers in Christ in the nation.
Despite judicial setbacks, Pastor Fathi, said he had been “comforted by Immanuel”, the Hebrew word for ‘God is with us’.
Last year he wrote a letter in which he said that “The beauty of Christmas or the signs of Christmas can not be found in [this] prison, but with the ears of faith I can hear the everlasting and beautiful truth that: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
MANY CHRISTIANS DETAINED
The United State Commission on International Religious Freedom says that since 2010, Iran has arbitrarily arrested and detained more than 500 Christians throughout the country.
As of February 2015, some 90 Christians were either in prison, detained, or awaiting
trial because of their religious beliefs and activities, according to the Commission, which also claims that the most persecuted of those have been evangelical Christian converts.
Americans are also being held, including Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born pastor, and Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter. Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent, went missing in mysterious circumstances while in Iran and his fate is uncertain.
Activists have expressed concern about the prisoners fate amid reports that earlier last month Iran secretly executed 59 “activists” in the largely Shia-Muslim populated nation.
Law makers and family members have pressured President Barrack Obama to push for their release at a time of ongoing negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.