By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)— A member of one of Iran’s largest evangelical house church movements has been released from prison, 14 months earlier than expected, but many other believers remain behind bars, Iranian and other activists told BosNewsLife.
Suroush Saraie, a member of the Church of Iran denomination, was released November 11 from Adel Abad Prison in the southwestern city of Shiraz where he had been held on charges of “action against the national security” and “propaganda against the order of the system.”
The Christian received a two-and-a-half year sentence on July 16, 2013, following a raid by Iranian security services on the home of a Church of Iran pastor, Christians said. The sentence was upheld on appeal.
Saraie was initially arrested on 12 October 2012 along with six other Christians during a raid on a prayer meeting.
Advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) called his early release a “welcome development” in an “otherwise bleak human rights situation” for minority Christians and others since President Hassan Rouhani took power in 2013.
“While we welcome Suroush Saraie’s early release, we note that he should never have been detained and charged with security crimes for simply exercising his right to freedom of religion or belief by gathering peacefully with fellow Christians,” added CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas.
CSW also noted that in recent weeks 14 other Christians were detained in the city of Varamin, south east of Tehran, the capital. Additionally, several prominent journalists have been detained on charges of being “agents of US infiltration”, reports said
“Political opponents, journalists, activists and members of religious minorities continue to be imprisoned, with converts to Christianity and members of the Baha’i faith particularly targeted, “ CSW explained.
Sufi Dervishes and members of the Sunni community also suffer harassment and imprisonment, according to rights activists.
And, CSW complained about “a spike in executions under Rouhani” with Iran executing more people per capita, including women, political activists and religious minorities, than any other country.
In a report presented to the General Assembly in October, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, called for a moratorium on the death penalty for all crimes not considered serious under international law.
Shaheed expressed concerns about the ”deterioration in the freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, access to information, religion or belief for minorities and women’s rights.”
Iranian President Rouhani had been due to visit Italy from 14-15 November, where he would also be meeting with Pope Francis who has expressed concerns about the plight of Christians in countries such as Iran, but his European visit was postponed following the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday, November 13.
Ahead of the trip leaders of recognized Christian communities and other permitted religious communities, including Jews and Zoroastrians reportedly met with Iranian legislators who defended the Iran’s policies.
Armenian parliamentarian Karen Khanlari reportedly said the meeting, held at the St George Armenian Church in Tehran on November 10, was convened in response to foreign media and nations presenting “a distorted vision regarding the condition of religious minorities in Iran”.
He said these forces were “taking advantage of religious minorities as an argument to put pressure on Iran” and added that “religious minorities enjoy full civil rights” as their needs are respected by political authorities through official channels that are always open.
Ciamak Morsadegh, who represents the Jewish community in what is known as the National Consultative Assembly, insisted that Iranian law “guarantees the rights of all”. And the Bishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Sebuh Sarkisian, said the plight of Christians in Iran was better than that of Christians elsewhere in the Middle East.
Religious minorities, he said, must “find the best way to address and solve problems related to their condition in Iran”.
CSW’s Thomas disagreed. “Contrary to the views expressed at the meeting at St George’s in Tehran, the Special Rapporteur’s findings, which confirm CSW’s research, indicate a worrying deterioration in the human rights situation in Iran,” he said.
“We therefore urge the Iranian authorities to release the many other prisoners of conscience who are unjustly detained and to ensure that constitutional guarantees for religious freedom become a reality for all of Iran’s religious communities.”
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