The festive season in Iran can often be a time of anxiety and caution for many of the country’s Christians, and especially for Christian converts. In recent years, the government has conducted annual raids, described ironically as a “Christmas present”, and has used the period as an opportunity to arrest, imprison or sentence Christians during a time of celebration.

It was therefore an unexpected but welcome development when news emerged at the start of the month that the authorities had released Pastor Matthias (Abdulreza Ali) Haghnejad and eight other members of the Church of Iran who had been in prison for nearly three years pending a review of their sentences.

Iran Matthias Haghnejad

Pastor Matthias (Abdulreza Ali) Haghnejad is one of those who has been released in Iran. PICTURE: Supplied.

 

"While the release of these nine men is a welcome development, the charges against them remain in effect and must be dismissed entirely before there is full cause to celebrate. It is also important to remember that the situation for many Christians and other religious or belief minorities in Iran remains highly concerning."

The pastor was initially arrested by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard after a church service on 10th February, 2019, while the eight other men were detained in a series of arrests in the city of Rasht over the following month. They were all sentenced to five years in prison in a short trial on 23rd September, 2019, following a legal process plagued with delays and presided over by a judge who is notorious for miscarriages of justice.

In February, 2020, the pastor’s sentence was upheld without a hearing after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei reportedly permitted the judge to bypass court procedures. In November, 2021, the Supreme Court in Tehran announced that it would be reviewing the sentences delivered to Pastor Haghnejad and the others convicted with him.

While the release of these nine men is a welcome development, the charges against them remain in effect and must be dismissed entirely before there is full cause to celebrate. It is also important to remember that the situation for many Christians and other religious or belief minorities in Iran remains highly concerning.

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Recent years have witnessed an intense crackdown on the majority of Persian-language churches, with forced closures leaving just four small churches in the country, which are kept under tight surveillance by the authorities and prohibited from accepting visitors or taking on new members.

In addition, many other Christians remain in prison on unfounded charges. For example, on 10th November, 2021, Pastor Amin Khaki of the Church of Iran denomination in Karaj was summoned to begin serving a five-year prison sentence. He was convicted of “engaging in propaganda against the Islamic regime” alongside Iranian Christians Milad Goudarzi and Alireza Nourmohammadi in June, 2021, after they were initially charged with “sectarian activities” under a new amendment to the Iranian penal code.

CSW’s sources are highly concerned by the new amendment, which they report targets groups labelled by the authorities as “wrong cults” - a term is often used by the regime to undermine and persecute groups and movements that have deviated or separated from Twelver Shiism, the official school of thought in Iran. This allows the authorities to impose a range of punishments, including prison sentences of between two and five years; deprivation of civil rights, such as voting, for up to 15 years, and heavy monetary fines.



Also imprisoned is Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani - one of four Christians initially arrested in Rasht on 13th May, 2016, during a series of raids by security agents on Christian homes. He is currently serving a six-year sentence, and in February, 2021, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention published an opinion that his continued detention is arbitrary.

As well as Christians, Baha’is, Sufi Dervishes and Sunni Muslims face a host of violations, including torture, imprisonment, harassment and even judicial and extra-judicial execution. Hate speech towards minorities is rife, and many face a raft of discriminatory policies in relation to education, employment and burial rights.

Cases and issues like these highlight that the overall situation of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Iran remains highly concerning. However, the release of Pastor Haghnejad and his fellow members of the Church of Iran provides an important reminder that positive steps can take place even in the most unlikely of circumstances.

As we hope and pray for the full acquittal of these nine men and others, we draw encouragement from this small yet welcome development. We look to similar situations in countries around the world, and believe that our prayers and advocacy can have an impact, that God will break through, and that His justice will prevail. 

Ellis Heasley is public affairs officer at UK-based religious freedom advocacy CSW