The rash of harsh sentences handed down to Christians in Iran in recent weeks shows the authorities' fear at the growth of Christianity, according to a Christian human rights activist.

World Watch Monitor quotes Mansour Borji, of Christian human-rights advocacy Article 18, saying that the recent sentences "could be interpreted as a sign that they want to send a message to the Iranian Christians inside the country, and perhaps also to the wider world".

“The charges are out of fear, the sentences are harsh and out of fear, and the whole way the court hearings have been conducted – and how people are threatened and intimidated not to go public with their stories – tells us about how the Iranian Government is fearful of the growth of Christianity inside Iran," he said.

Mr Borji said it was “worrying” that despite the re-election of the “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani and his majority-reformist government, “we still see the same treatment of Christians: intolerance and unprecedented sentencing on unfounded charges”.

In the latest case, a pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, and three other men - Yasser Mossayebzadeh, Saheb Fadaie, and Mohammad Reza Omidi - were each sentenced to 10 years in prison for "acting against national security" in a verdict handed down on 6th July, according to a report from religious freedom advocacy Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The pastor and Mr Omidi were also given an additional two years to be served in southern Iran, away from their families. 

Only a few days before, another pastor, Victor Bet-Tamraz, and two Christian converts - Hadi Asgari and Kaviyan Fallah-Mohammadi - were also sentenced to 10 years in prison each while another convert, Amin Afshar-Naderi was given a 15-year sentence.

And, in yet another case, three Azerbaijanis - Eldar Gurbanov, Yusif Farhadov and Bahram Nasibov - and an Iranian Christian - Naser Navard Gol-Tapeh - were found guilty of “missionary activities” and “actions against national security” and also sentenced to 10 years in prison. The three Azerbaijanis had already left Iran and are thought unlikely to serve the sentences but that wasn't the situation in the case of the Iranian.

Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of the UK-based CSW, has also raised concerns about what he called "an intensified campaign of judicial harassment aimed at intimidating members of minority faiths”.

“The national security charges levelled in all of these cases amount to the criminalisation of the Christian community for exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief, and that this is occurring despite the fact that the Iranian constitution recognises Christianity,” he said.

“We urge members of the international community to extend the sanctions still in place against Iranian individuals to include members of the judiciary who are implicated in ongoing and severe harassment and persecution of religious minority communities.”