By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– Christians in Iran have urged prayers for fellow believers Saheb Fadaei and Fatemeh Bakhteri after an appeal court upheld their prison terms of 18 and 12 months respectively on charges of “spreading propaganda against the regime,” activists told BosNewsLife.
Both believers are among several detained members of the Church of Iran denomination, one of the most significant evangelical house church movements in the strict Islamic nation.
They were detained in the northern city of Rasht during a house church meeting in late May 2017, Christians said. Later that year the two Christians “were informed of the verdict through their lawyer,” recalled advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC), which closely follows the case.
Fadaei also received two years’ internal exile, MEC added in a statement to BosNewsLife.
An appeal hearing on January 2019 upheld the lengthy prison sentences, but the court ruling was only published now, according to Christians familiar with the situation.
The verdict added to concerns about the plight of Saheb Fadaei, who was already serving another sentence related to his Christian activities in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison in Tehran, the capital.
It also came as a setback for Fatemeh Bakhteri. She was detained along with pastor Yousef Nadarkhani and church members Mohammadreza Omidi and Yaser Mosibzadeh. They were each given 10-year prison sentences for propagating house churches and promoting “Zionist Christianity” in June 2017 by a Tehran court.
Bakherti, 38, was harassed by Iranian security agents for more than a year and interrogated at least once before her sentencing, according to Christians familiar with the case.
Pastor Nadarkhani has been in and out of prison for activities linked to his faith. Amid international pressure, Iranian courts acquitted Nadarkhani in 2012 of “apostasy” in a retrial and rescinded the death penalty, allowing him to leave prison.
While the court found him guilty of “evangelizing Muslims,” it credited him with the years he spent in prison and released him on bail. But he was soon detained again as he declined to halt his Christian activities.
Born to Muslim parents in Rasht, he converted to Christianity at age 19 and is currently both a member of the evangelical Church of Iran and pastor of its affiliated 400-member house church.
Christians have expressed concern that U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal could lead to more pressure on the country’s embattled Christian minority. Additionally, the United States designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, prompting Iran to do the same for American forces in the Middle East
Amid the turmoil, Iranian Christians requested prayer that the “Lord will encourage and strengthen” Saheb Fadaei and Fatemeh Bakhter, “despite the injustices they face,” MEC said. The group, which has been in contact with Christians from the region, also stressed that believers “ask that the Lord will also encourage and strengthen Saheb’s family and Fatemeh’s husband.”
Additionally, they requested prayers that “the Lord will bless and use” all detained believers and that “the Iranian regime will stop targeting Christian converts and other minorities on account of their religious beliefs and related peaceful activities.”
Iranian authorities have consistently denied wrongdoing saying they are defending “Islamic values.” Christian leaders report an increase in attacks against minority Christians as they include many former Muslims.
Despite the reported persecution, church growth continues, according to well-informed Christian groups. “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,” explained mission group Elam Ministries, which was founded by Iranian church leaders.
“Church leaders believe that millions can be added to the church in the next few years-such is the spiritual hunger that exists and the disillusionment with the Islamic regime,” Elam added.
The group said it helped to distribute more than one million Bibles among Iranians since 2003.
“Almost all receive the Scriptures with joy,” Elam noted, adding that believers are also “involved in regular evangelism.”